LIVING DEATH CAMPS
Reconciling the dark past and living present of former concentration camps in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina
Living Death Camps describes the condition of two former concentration camps located in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia: the World War II-era camp of Staro Sajmište, and the camp of Omarska, dating from the Yugoslav war. Both are presently inhabited and used for other purposes.
Living Death Camps names a collaborative project that seeks to investigate the complex material and political issues currently unfolding around these two sites, and to understand the politics of commemoration in which each of them is embroiled.
Each of these sites has a complex and singular history, which we have undertaken to expose in our research. It is by addressing the specificity of each site that we sought to understand and intervene in the respective transformation of each place into a post-conflict site of commemoration. Starting from the acknowledgment that these two former death camps are presently inhabited and used, that they are places upon which the lives of many depend, we argued that it is a necessity for each of these sites to develop a project of commemoration that would remain responsive to the demands of ongoing life.
In an attempt to engage with this need and the difficult questions surrounding it, our research turned to some of the methods of contemporary archaeology. Our forensics have surveyed and explored the multiplicity of events registered in the materiality of each site, without an a priori focus on the historical layer that the death camp has left behind. The material entanglement of historical layers in each site forms the ground upon which a call for a simultaneous attention to its present and pasts can be made.
An inverted symmetry emerges from the research we have conducted in each of the two sites. In both cases our research culminated in the assembly of a public forum, however in Staro Sajmište we opposed plans for commemoration that involved the eviction of its current residents, while in Omarska we demanded that the local community be granted the right to commemorate the tragic events that took place on the site, which is today occupied by a commercial mine in operation.
Forensic Architecture Team
- Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)
- Susan Schuppli (research and coordination, Omarska)
- Francesco Sebregondi (research and coordination, Staro Sajmište)
- Steffen Krämer (videography & video editing)
- Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss (research, Staro Sajmište)
In Partnership With
- Grupa Spomenik
- Working Group Four Faces of Omarska
- Caroline Sturdy Colls, Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University
- ScanLAB Projects
“Burden of Proof” by Tom Holert, Artforum March 2013
“A memorial in exile in London’s Olympics: orbits of responsibility,” Susan Schuppli, openDemocracy July 2012
Staro Sajmište, or the Old Fairground, was built in 1938 on the outskirts of Belgrade to host international exhibitions and to present the Kingdom of Yugoslavia as a modern, industrialised, and technologically advanced nation. During World War II, following the German invasion of 1941, the fairground was transformed by the occupying Nazis into a death camp, where Jews, Roma, and political opponents were detained and killed. After the war, the remaining structures of the Sajmište complex became the residence of several generations of people—particularly those from the most vulnerable sections of society—and included artists’ studios, workshops, small industries, and homes for a Roma community. Due to the urban expansion of Belgrade over the past sixty years, Staro Sajmište is now at the centre of the city.
Recently, another transformation of the site was announced. In light of the City of Belgrade’s project to establish a Holocaust memorial in Staro Sajmište, which would necessitate the eviction of some or all the current residents (the first evictions of residents began in the summer 2013), we attempted to highlight what we saw as an unacceptable contradiction: a Holocaust memorial cannot be built on a forcefully cleared ground without immediately compromising its purpose. In order for such a claim to be articulated and heard, it needed to be made on a material basis.
Forensic archaeologist Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls has, in recent years, developed a methodology of investigation that she refers to as “non-invasive.” This involves using a range of complementary techniques, but it largely relies upon the sensing technology of Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). This device transmits radar pulses into the ground to a depth of up to fifteen meters, and detects minute differences in the densities of the subsurface by recording the reflected signal. In the fuzzy three-dimensional model of the subsoil it produces, one can identify buried objects, voids and cracks, and other disturbances in the soil structure. Sturdy Colls uses this method to map and digitally explore the subterranean strata of historic sites, in particular those shaped by a history of violence. We approached her in the spring of 2012 to work on an extensive survey of Staro Sajmište, putting her in collaboration with ScanLAB Projects, a London-based practice that specialises in large-scale 3D data capture. A singular image of the site at Staro Sajmište, above and below ground, has emerged from this collaboration.
Our survey has resulted in a report titled An Archaeological Assessment of the Area of the Former Judenlager and Anhaltlager at Staro Sajmište, Belgrade, Serbia, which analyses the different structures, additions, and alterations that have accumulated on the site’s thick ground. The report sought to unpack the history of the site as a process of ongoing transformation; it searched for historical and material continuities as well as ruptures. In this approach, all layers of the site, including and in particular those composed of its recent and present daily use, are regarded as archaeologically significant. Above all, the report demonstrates that Staro Sajmište’s multiple historical layers are inextricably entangled and mutually dependent.
On 5 October 2013, we convened a public forum inside one of Staro Sajmište’s most infamous structures—the former German pavilion, which had served as accommodation for the camp’s inmates during World War II. There we publicly presented our archaeological report, which served to provoke an open discussion about the future of the site.
The report confirms a counterintuitive fact: Staro Sajmište stands today thanks to its ongoing inhabitation, which has sustained it for the past sixty years. As Sturdy Colls put it in her presentation of the report: “The role of the people who have been living here since the war should be duly acknowledged. Because in actual fact, the people who have lived in these buildings have played a role in preserving them. Many of these buildings wouldn’t be here if people hadn’t lived in them.”
Not only did the residents of the site prevent its structures from degenerating into rubble—as happens after the long-term inoccupation of a building—but their number and distribution over the entire site has successfully hindered the realisation of several redevelopment plans during the post-World War II period—which could have meant the destruction of the historical buildings to make room for a denser or more profitable urban quarter. Based on these findings, our claim—which we publicly put forward on the occasion of the public forum—was the following: rather than evict the people living and working in Staro Sajmište, the City of Belgrade has a duty towards them and surely must include them as an active party in any future plan for commemoration.
The first transformation of Staro Sajmište from an exhibition ground into a concentration camp demonstrates a strange continuity between the two very different functions of the same compound—both made use of the same geometry of vision of pavilions around a central tower. The second transformation from a camp into a living neighbourhood illustrates a concept that philosopher Giorgio Agamben describes as “profanation”— “restoring into common use” of those things that have been excluded, separated, bounded, put out of access and touch. Today’s plans for returning the site to its original function—thereby completing a circuit that leads from a fairground through a concentration camp to a museum—would imply the re-sanctification of the site in the meaning of its exclusion from daily life. “Everything today can become a Museum,” Agamben writes, “because this term simply designates the exhibition of an impossibility of using, of dwelling, of experiencing.”
An appropriate commemorative project for Staro Sajmište would include a plan to rehabilitate its homes and modernise its collective infrastructure, in order to support its potential as a common space. The concept of a living death camp would demand that any commemoration plan should see to the improvement of the living conditions of the communities that have turned this place into a neighbourhood, and that have kept its material history alive.
In 2005 ArcelorMittal made a commitment to finance and build a memorial on the grounds of Omarska, the site of the most notorious concentration camp of the Bosnian war. Two decades later, no resolution as to how to commemorate the tragic events that took place on its grounds have been found.
In a chance meeting near the mine, Director of ArcelorMittal, Prijedor Mladen Jelača, proudly confirmed to us that the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the towering symbol of the London 2012 Olympics, was being fabricated with iron ore that came from the Omarska mine. This material link between London and Omarska—between a site where crimes against humanity were committed and another that celebrated that same universal humanity—formed the basis of our collective project. On 2 July 2012, shortly before the opening of the Olympics, we hosted a press conference in the immediate vicinity of the Olympic park. With the participation of survivors from the Omarska and Prijedor camps, we reclaimed the ArcelorMittal Orbit as the Omarska Memorial in exile.
Prijedor is in the region that is referred to, after the Dayton Peace Agreement, as Republika Srpska—an area whose demographics were dramatically affected by the war and where ethnic cleansing was the most intense and successful. Bosnian Muslims we spoke to, who had returned under the agreement, complained of daily harassment and continued discrimination. While ArcelorMittal claims it is fully aware of its responsibilities towards the local community and its employees, the mine’s postwar workforce is comprised almost exclusively of Bosnian Serbs.
ArcelorMittal insists on “not taking sides in this debate without engagement or prior agreement of the local communities and local/international stakeholders concerned.” Not taking sides in an area where persecution and injustice continue is not an act of neutrality but constitutes a political position by default. Not taking sides maintains the impasse of the present and forecloses the possibility of moving forward. Through the Memorial in Exile project, we aimed to raise public awareness of this material amnesia, and to put continued pressure on ArcelorMittal—demanding that it use its enormous influence to facilitate the entrance into public discourse of the history of the Omarska death camp.
Twenty years after it first emerged in the public sphere, the case of Omarska regained considerable public attention through our project. It may be that this contributed to bringing about a significant softening in ArcelorMittal’s policy regarding public access to the site. As a consequence, our team was granted access to the Omarska mine on 3 October 2012 to conduct a detailed photographic and 3D laser-scanning survey of the notorious White House. In 1992, this rather banal-looking one-story pitched-roof house functioned as a place for the torture and execution of inmates. Witnesses who testified in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) described an accumulating pile of bodies rising in a deadly mound beside it. The White House was also the site chosen by ArcelorMittal to build a memorial in a 2005 project that was later abandoned.
3D laser-scanning technology allowed us to capture a millimeter-perfect model of the interior, exterior, and immediate surroundings of the White House. The level of detail it provides allows one to identify features that are hardly visible to the naked eye, such as the footprint of a boot on an interior wall, but also remnants of improvised attempts at commemoration. The capture of this model constitutes a future-oriented archive. Considering the planned cessation of the ICTY’s activities at the end of 2016, the fate of the White House in the coming years is uncertain. Access to such a significant place of mourning for the relatives of the camp’s victims still remains highly restricted today. In the context of the ongoing negotiation of a commemorative project for Omarska, this singular three-dimensional archive has the potential to be mobilised in unexpected ways.
For a more in-depth account of this project, see the book FORENSIS: The Architecture of Public Truth.