Today, in the city of Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Chlor-alkali Power Plant (known locally by its Bosnian acronym, HAK) is a hazardous, disintegrating, and abandoned post-industrial skeleton. Built between 1972 and 1976 with British and Canadian investment, HAK mass-produced chlorine and sodium hydroxide through mercury-based electrolysis. HAK used to be one of the largest socialist Yugoslav mining and chemical industrial complexes, employing around 2,000 workers from communities in the region of Northeastern Bosnia.
Damir Arsenijević is a faculty member at the University of Tuzla in Bosnia–Herzegovina. He helped to found the Workers’ University, which emerged out of the February 2014 protests in Tuzla, and more recently founded the “EARTH–WATER–AIR” platform.
In 1979, the Japanese company Mitsui invested in the building of the second phase — the HAK 2 plant — that produced toluene diisocyanate (TDI), a material used in the making of flexible foam. This was when, as a result of the domestic and international exports of its products, the industrial complex reached the apex of its production and financial fortunes. Now, in 2022, it sits as an unexploded bomb—encasing huge volumes of toxic waste that lie unsupervised in its over-ground spheres and underground pipes, with further toxic waste buried in unmarked locations around the former factory. It is a dystopic site.
The dystopic site of HAK is not only an emblem of the destruction of socialist Yugoslavia, but, since the company was privatized in the early 2000s, its hidden toxic waste stands as an invisible monument to the dismemberment of all Yugoslav industry and the disappearance of the socialist Yugoslav political subject — the working people — who owned and managed the country’s industry. In 2006, the Polish company Organika bought one part of HAK (renamed “Polihem” during the privatization process) and started laying off workers as early as 2007.
The corporate subterfuge that Organika carried out involved reneging on its promise to double production, firing the workers, and starting to cut up the production plant and sell it as scrap metal. As the HAK trade union leader Miralem Ibrišimović recounts: “Organika disbanded the rescue teams; halved the number of firefighters; halved the number of workers in production plants; stopped the acquisition of protection equipment and gear for workers; and, above all, stopped mercury waste treatment so that mercury was directly spilled into the Jala River.”
The privatization of HAK has entailed and continues to entail the ruination of the livelihoods of its workers, the destruction of the factory once owned by the workers themselves, and the wanton pollution of the environment. The HAK industrial wasteland, its jobless workers, and destroyed environment stand in stark contrast to how HAK operated between the late 1970s, when it was built, and early 1990s when the war against Yugoslavia began.
A Story of Destruction
When I interviewed the former HAK workers, they unanimously agreed that they felt safe and cared for during the socialist period despite working with such hazardous chemicals. Safety protocols were in place and all the relevant resources were available to support such protocols. As Enes Husarić, one of the HAK workers I interviewed, puts it: “We had our own medical and dentist facilities in HAK including the medical lab that operated during all three shifts. If you had a toothache in the evening, you’d go and see a dentist in the factory. Nowadays, you can’t get an appointment to see a doctor in the main medical centre in town. In addition to the fire brigade, there were rescue teams, each team with its own vehicle, and if somebody tells me ‘you must have felt unsafe there in HAK’, I ask ‘how was I unsafe?’ Each time I entered the HAK factory, I felt safer than anywhere else. Because we had all that we needed there.”
Enes Husarić testifies to an enormous loss of care for the workers and for the communities, caused by the destruction of HAK. This loss is closely tied to the toxic threat that goes beyond the ethnic divisions, which were first drawn in the blood of mass executions and concentration camps in the 1992–1995 war, and afterwards maintained in the ensuing “post-war period”, in which ethnic authoritarian elites exhaust and further impoverish the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
How to piece together with the community the story of its own destruction and losses that it has suffered without falling into the ideological traps of the proclaimed inevitability of the collapse of socialism? How is it that industrial toxic waste came to be abandoned or buried during the privatization of HAK in the first place? And most importantly, how can we, as members of the community living near the HAK plant, actually establish the quantities of toxic waste that threaten our livelihoods and the locations where this waste is buried? How do we move away from regarding the practice of wanton contamination by the private owner Organika as a necessary evil of privatization as well as a fait accompli, and instead insist on political and legal accountability for such actions, all the while being aware that the injuries and affliction suffered by the communities and the HAK workers are in excess of existing legal and ethical dispensations?
In short — what kind of justice do we imagine and could we enact for our communities?
In 2018, these questions became pressing for me and my colleagues from the Workers’ University in Tuzla after we heard reports that metal pickers, who were scavenging through the remnants of HAK for scrap metal, were being exposed to toxic gas and some of them were dying as a result of such exposure.
Aldin Bejhanović is a metal picker who suffered from a pulmonary embolism, caused by poisons at HAK. He says: “We took off gunmetal valves from the pipes below the manhole covers. There was work. But after some time, the barrels appeared. It was stinking. It stank so strongly that it hurt my eyes. I could not take it. I stopped for a while, but later I, my father and a neighbour arrived to cut out pipes. And we found it there. We did not know that it was a poison. The place was not even marked.” He describes being poisoned like this: “I was feeling out of breath when I bent down to pick up something, and I had put up with this for around 14 days. I thought it was cigarettes.” “When it grabbed me and threw me down and when blackness fell over my eyes, I could not reach my car.” Bejhanović’s uncle was not so lucky: his lungs were burnt after he had inhaled poisonous gas from the pipes he had cut.
Today, the rusting pipes of the asset-stripped skeleton of HAK still hold more than 47 tons of stagnant, highly flammable propylene oxide. These pipes are surrounded by a stack of 120 abandoned and corroding barrels, from which mercury, cadmium, and arsenic have slowly been leaking into the ground for over a quarter of a century.
Around HAK, the black sheen of cakes of carcinogenic toluene diisocyanate (TDI) waste can be seen protruding from the ground, shaping the outline of the many landfill sites scattered across the no-man’s land between the two spheres. The accurate size and exact locations of these landfills are undocumented by the government or any other official body. The only people who go anywhere near the lethal skeleton of HAK are the impoverished and unemployed former industrial workers, who disassemble and pick through the site for scrap metal to sell. As a result of this “work”, they are regularly exposed to toxic waste, which, due to their exposure to it, leads to statistically high levels of untimely deaths: either as a result of accidents or via more prolonged “slow” deaths from the chronic conditions they develop.
The story of Aldin Bejhanović shows how violence is polyvalent. It ranges from strikingly large and obvious — such as the war-time violence of executions and mass graves, the violence of the asset-stripping of companies during their privatization, or in ecological catastrophes — to a less obvious and less visible type of violence, such as the work of toxic waste and toxic narratives on our bodies and our minds. These interconnections are, in the words of Stacy Alaimo, “profoundly biological as bodies and selves are constructed from the very stuff of the toxic places they have inhabited. As various toxins take up residence within the body, the supposedly inert ‘background’ of place becomes the active substance of self.”
Transition, Privatization, and “Growth”
The abandoned and hidden toxic waste at HAK is not just a left-over of the privatization and asset stripping of the factory. The toxic waste and contaminated environment are active agents that continuously produce their effects. In order to grasp what structural position the abandoned industrial toxic waste occupies and what value it has in the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we have to situate the discussion in how the strongly trade-unionized working class in socialist Yugoslavia was destroyed.
In the early 1990s, predatory capital first targeted the working class in socialist Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its mercenaries, the ethno-nationalist elites who were in charge of bringing capitalism to Yugoslavia, targeted and executed the working class in the war and genocide that ensued, and buried it in hidden mass graves scattered throughout the country. They were helped in this by the international right-wing forces and paramilitaries, including members of Golden Dawn. This was called the transition into capitalism.
Then, it came for the factories, from which it extracted value through international companies, leaving tens of thousands unemployed, stripping factories of assets, and creating post-industrial wastelands with incalculable quantities of hidden hazardous waste buried in unknown locations. Throughout the 2000s, trade unions were corrupted through political pressure and bribes, while strikes by workers against factory closures were dispersed using police enforcement. Through such structural violence, the environmental threats were downplayed, while workers, of necessity, became overwhelmingly preoccupied — individually and collectively — with the fight for their livelihoods, to sacrifice their immediate survival in order to prevent future ecological disasters. This was called privatization.
Now, predatory capital is coming for the country’s natural resources — its water and air, forests and land — changing entire ecosystems in order to build hydro-electric plants. Indeed, this is a threat for the entire Balkans, as Ulrich Eichelmann, the director of RiverWatch, an Austria-based NGO, says: “What we have here in the Balkans at the moment is a gold rush on the rivers ... I sometimes think the western countries that are financially supporting this degradation process have no idea what they are destroying. There is nothing in Europe remotely like this river system.” This is called growth.
This logic of growth creates environmental instability as the principal driver of political and social instability in Bosnia and Herzegovina today because contaminated soil, water, and air can no longer nurture and support life — thus condemning populations either to acquiesce to their slow extinction or to flee the polluted areas.
I want to analyze and make visible the inseparability of environmental instability, international finance, violence, and power. I will do so by outlining the shift in perspective about environmental instability that it is necessary for us to make — the essential radical change in the ways we approach and talk about environmental instability. This necessary shift challenges the perspective of inevitability we usually hear — “there’s nothing that can be done to stop or prevent this” — into one that adopts the stance that environmental instability is a form of violence and should be treated and responded to as such, by outlining its injuries, its perpetrators, and its redress.
Secondly, in addition to the HAK factory, I will discuss two further examples from Bosnia and Herzegovina that demonstrate how international capital — through waste colonialism — has extracted and continues to extract value from local industries with complete disregard for the lives of local populations, who are rendered expendable, desensitized, and vulnerable to market exploitation. This is the way in which international capital and its comprador of local authoritarian elites weaponize pollution in order to exacerbate poverty and create from local populations docile bodies that provide the exploiter elites with cheap labour.
Environmental Instability as Environmental Violence in Post-War Bosnia and Herzegovina
What are we talking about when we use the term “environmental violence”? Spectacular violence is immediately visible and fast-acting with regard to the environment. Such violence is maintained either through direct exploitation and destruction of natural resources or through what is known as “waste colonialism”, which predominantly refers to the removal and relocation of toxic waste from privileged and affluent countries to those countries that are kept in poverty.
The term “waste colonialism” was first recorded by the United Nations Environment Programme’s Basel Convention working group during which African countries voiced anxieties about rich countries from Europe and North America accessing and using African land for the disposal of toxic waste. However, in light of the privatization context behind the phenomenon of HAK as well as other factories discussed later in this piece, we ought also to widen the meaning of this term.
We must include in it all those deindustrializing practices of finance capital that greedily exploit factories, strip them of their assets, remove capital from communities where these factories are located, and then exit, leaving toxic substances, unemployment, and toxic narratives to circulate in these communities. The greed of neoliberal capitalism can be seen as an aspect of a much larger and organized phenomenon, which is referred to as the perverse structure. In such a structure, neoliberal capitalism relies and thrives on “ambiguity, illusion, evasiveness, trickery, collusion and guile” and leads to pseudo-political responses “or ‘as if’ politics in which enormous energy is put into the specification of objectives, targets and indicators and the corresponding demonstration that one’s performance is moving towards such targets.”
There is also the form of violence that is difficult to perceive and is slow to draw attention to itself: the so-called “slow violence”, which takes place “gradually and is out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” This is the violence of landmines and toxic waste that are the daily reality of post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, that speaks of the disposability of its population, and, as such, is a continuation of the war-time logic.
In post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina, peace exists only as an absence of military conflict and is experienced as even more horrible because it has normalized the logic of the disposability and expendability of people for profit. Such violence “sediments” gradually and is felt on a different temporal scale. This scale also provides testimony to the continuing but invisible deaths of Bosnia’s citizens that are a prolongation of war-time injury, despite them not being present in our daily memory, because there exists no holding form which could acknowledge and register these deaths as such.
Questions may arise regarding this level of normalizing the disposability of people: How is it possible for politicians to be oblivious to this and how come communities do not oppose this? In order to begin answering these questions, we should consider it an organized disavowal at the societal level. Such kinds of disavowal are characteristic of a cynical position, underpinned by the formula: “I know very well this is happening, but…”, which also sits compatibly with the perverse structure of neoliberal capitalism. Disavowal, unlike straightforward negation, speaks of dealing with the anxiety of loss as a systematic and organized avoidance. As Weintrobe points out, “the more reality is systematically avoided through making it insignificant or through distortion, the more anxiety builds up unconsciously, and the greater is the need to defend with further disavowal. In the long run, disavowal can lead to a spiral of minimizing reality with an underlying build-up of anxiety and this makes it dangerous.”
Therein lies the firm foundation for a properly political approach to the problem of waste colonialism. Exposing the need to exercise constant vigilance towards the well-hidden timescale of slow violence is to acknowledge the existence of hitherto unspoken testimony to the effects of such violence. Acknowledgment of the existence of the testimony is the precursor to bringing the people, their families, and their stories into settings in which they can and will be heard. As Rob Nixon argues, “chemical and radiological violence, for example, is driven inward, somatized into cellular dramas of mutation that — particularly in the bodies of the poor — remain largely unobserved, undiagnosed, and untreated. From a narrative perspective, such invisible, mutagenic theater is slow paced and open ended, eluding the tidy closure, the containment, imposed by the visual orthodoxies of victory and defeat.”
Indeed, in a post-conflict setting such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the boundary between victory and defeat is blurred, time is mostly perceived as frozen time, in which lives have been placed on hold. A quarter of a century after the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are renewed concerns about conflict in this country. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are suspended between the war that has not quite ended and a future that has not yet commenced.
However, the future time — indeed the future itself — has been hijacked and pawned by the victors of the war — those elites who profited from the war and who impoverished the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina by planting landmines, creating hidden mass graves, and leaving toxic waste. These landmines, hidden mass graves, and toxic waste carry out their destruction slowly. They follow their own temporal logic, all the while constantly producing a threat. The peace agreement established what Steff Jansen calls “meantime” as a liminal temporality of “endless loop” of depoliticization, which puts people in an endless “transition” to capitalism.
In such a transition, what is produced is a “victim”, as a privileged identitarian position in the ethno-capitalist order, forever grieving for the lost object that is hidden and withheld. The message that the comprador authoritarian ethnic elites are sending to the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina is that citizens are worthless and expendable.
ArcelorMittal Polluting Zenica
The prognosis as to how the reality of slow violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina is impacting on the country is gloomy. Bosnia and Herzegovina is ranked as the second-deadliest country in the world by the UN Environment Programme when it comes to the number of deaths per head of population caused by air pollution, while in some areas around Tuzla and Zenica, polluted by coal-fuelled plants, there are record numbers of cancers. The emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) have been recorded as exceeding the permitted limits by 166 times as was the case in Zenica in 2015, while Tuzla Thermal Power Plant is among the ten largest polluters in Europe. It is estimated that air pollution costs Bosnia and Herzegovina 21.5 percent of its GDP annually. In terms of life lost due to pollution, starker figures come from the European Environment Agency. In their 2020 report on air quality in Europe, they estimate that in Bosnia and Herzegovina a staggering 60,500 years of life are lost each year because of air pollution.
For years, local activists in Zenica have warned the public about the pollution and have organized themselves to end it. In April 2014, I was walking the streets of Zenica and noticed graffiti stencils on the buildings that read: “Mittal nas truje” [Mittal is poisoning us].
Mittal’s name was known to me for years as the company that bought the iron ore mine complex in Omarska, in Northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been used by the Bosnian Serbs in 1992 as a concentration and torture camp for more than 5,000 Bosnian citizens. In 2005, Mittal Steel, which now goes by the name ArcelorMittal, promised to the survivors of the concentration camp that it would finance and build a memorial on the site, but reneged on this promise. When, in 2012, ArcelorMittal confirmed that iron ore from the Omarska mine had been used to build the ArcelorMIttal Orbit in London as a landmark of the London Olympic Games, an initiative was launched to reclaim this monument as The Omarska Memorial in Exile. For Mittal, the Omarska concentration camp survivors were to be disregarded and thus silenced, but its toxic emissions and its toxic silencing is now killing the citizens of Zenica.
ArcelorMittal is the second-largest steel producer in the world and the fortieth-largest toxic air polluter. Regular activist and journalist reports from South Africa via France and Czechia to Bosnia and Herzegovina speak of ArcelorMittal disrespecting environmental standards and inducing toxic precarity wherever its operations are located.
In 2004, when the then Mittal Steel became the owner of the steel company in Zenica, it committed to making “all appropriate investment in the protection of the environment.” ArcelorMittal re-started its steel production in Zenica in 2008 and its track record so far has been as follows: The plant at times operated without the necessary environmental permits (between 2014 and 2017);
At the time of writing, in 2021, year on year since the steel production was re-started, environmental activists and local journalists have consistently reported about the clouds of brown and orange ash and dust being emitted from the steel plant, without any legal or environmental regulation or restraint by the BiH state, or any concern on the part of ArcelorMittal. In 2019 alone, authorities in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina ranked Zenica as the city in Bosnia and Herzegovina with the worst air pollution. All the while, ArcelorMittal has continued to downplay these ecological incidents as “one-off” events that would not be repeated. Now, however, the quantity and toxicity of the air pollution in Zenica has permeated into the soil. Recent five-year tests of soil and plants show that the soil around Zenica is contaminated with heavy metals, making agricultural produce unsafe for consumption.
In December 2012, a local environmental NGO — Eko Forum from Zenica — organized a mass protest of citizens against air pollution. They took to the streets in their thousands, accusing the local authorities of being complicit in the pollution of the city’s air and demanding that filters be installed in the ArcelorMittal plants. By 2017, the company was working without the required environmental permits, previous ones having lapsed in 2014 and 2015. This situation had been de facto promoted by the local and federal authorities, who used the argument that “should the pressure against the polluters continue, we (BiH) will discourage the foreign investor and 2,500 people will be without jobs.” Endless legal loopholes, made possible through the Memorandum of Understanding, which the Federal government signed with ArcelorMittal on 16 January 2014, has facilitated the pollution of Zenica by this company to occur with complete impunity.
In 2015, Eko Forum activists decided to go down the route of seeking legal redress. They filed an official criminal lawsuit against the ArcelorMittal company representatives for environmental pollution and they also filed official complaints against the then Federal Minister for Environment and Tourism and the Head of the Federal Inspectorate for misconduct in public office. In early 2019, the Sarajevo Cantonal Prosecutor’s Office rejected the complaint against these two public officials on the grounds that, given the complexity of the problem, they had made efforts to improve the situation.
As for ArcelorMittal, on 20 November 2020, the prosecutor’s office of the Zenica-Doboj Canton announced that they would cease the investigation into this company and its director on the grounds that insufficient evidence of environmental pollution had been presented, with one environmental expert witness officially stating that “the most important measures outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding signed between ArcelorMittal and the Government of The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina on 16 January 2014 need not to have been taken before 30 September 2019.”
This position reveals that Bosnian ethnic elites have complete disregard for their own legislation and are willing to make big international companies de facto above the law by making them exempt, through bureaucratic and legal machinations, from legal environmental responsibility in this country. As Professor Samir Lemeš, head of the Eko Forum Zenica, recently stated: “Big polluters are used to getting environmental permits without meeting any requirements … the GIKIL company is the only plant that has lost its environmental permit. But it is still in operation! Nobody stopped the production, even though this plant keeps on polluting the environment, even though it does not meet legal requirements. We are afraid that such a thing may also happen in Zenica.”
His fears are not unfounded because the GIKIL company, based in Lukavac, near Tuzla, is also an example of years of impunity where environmental pollution is concerned, while the local population suffers the consequences.
GIKIL: Pollution with Impunity
Global Ispat Koksna Industrija Lukavac (GIKIL) is the leading producer of metallurgical coking coal in Southeast Europe. Through various ownership schemes, the GIKIL plant has been co-owned by the Mittal family since 2003. It has neglected environmental protection to such an extent that major accidents have begun to lead to worker injuries, fish deaths in the Spreča River, and threats to the life of the surrounding population. When the company lost its environmental permit due to ammonia and tar spills in 2018 and criminal charges for environmental protection were filed due to public pressure, the CEO and the owner of GIKIL, together with their associates, fled Bosnia and Herzegovina to avoid personal responsibility. The company, meanwhile, ignored the order to stop production and continues to operate without an environmental permit to this day.
GIKIL was created as a merger between the local chemical company Lukavac (KHK) and Global Infrastructure Holdings Limited. Subsequent changes to the privatization contract list Global Steel Holdings Ltd (GSHL) of India as the co-owner. The court register breaks down the ownership of GIKIL as follows: 67 percent owned by the Tuzla Canton Government and the remaining 33 percent owned by GSHL. However, this apportion of ownership is not reflected in day-to-day production and practice. For over ten years, the India-based and owned GSHL has been fully managing and making decisions about GIKIL that have been detrimental both to the workers of GIKIL and to the environment.
The journalist Amarildo Gutić succinctly outlines the illegality surrounding GSHL’s dealings within GIKIL: “GSHL never fulfilled the contractual obligation to invest 43 million euros in the coking coal producing plant. It additionally drove the plant into debt. It mortgaged GIKIL to obtain loans worth several million euros which it then showed as investments. GSHL also bought raw materials from its foreign affiliate companies and represented this as an investment into GIKIL. As a result, GIKIL’s debt has ballooned to 160 million dollars. Millions of euros were extracted out of GIKIL and were billed as consultancy fees, which were then provided by affiliate companies from India.”≤span class="MsoFootnoteReference">
Artificially created financial losses provided GIKIL with the financial rationale to scrap health and safety measures for workers, to stop payments of salaries to workers, and to commence laying off the skilled workforce, all of which led to environmental accidents. In our interviews with GIKIL workers, through which we have attempted to untangle how workers’ safety at the workplace came to be diminished and ultimately ended, and how conditions were created for environmental accidents to occur, they all agreed that profit had been prioritized at the expense of both workers’ health and safety and the health and safety of the surrounding communities in the Tuzla Canton.
Zijad Šehabović, the former lead engineer at GIKIL says: “People who buy factories eschew environmental protection obligations because this is an additional cost. But this cannot be allowed to be neglected. If the focus is on the extraction of profit alone, then you have a great number of people whose health is affected because of pollution, which costs far more than the profit extracted. The problem has been constant lay-offs of the workforce. We’ve had the decrease in the workforce and no modernization or automatization of production that would make up for the contraction in the size and skill-base of the workforce. This leads to many things happening without proper supervision. This, in turn, leads to conditions for environmental catastrophes to happen. If you lay off the skilled workforce and don’t replace them, then such catastrophes are bound to happen.”
A major environmental accident happened at the beginning of August 2018. A reservoir with ammonia containing tar exploded. The chemicals were released into the River Spreča, whilst also being released into the atmosphere. The Spreča River flows through 12 municipalities and impacts the lives of around half a million people, many of whom rely on the river for agriculture. Tomislav Ljubić, the main prosecutor of the Tuzla Canton Prosecutor’s Office, commented on the scope of this accident in stark terms: “The cost of preserving 1,000 jobs in GIKIL may be the poisoning of half a million people in Tuzla Canton.”
A couple of days later, on 9 August 2018, Mr. Ljubić further assessed the level of environmental catastrophe: “To put it clearly, one person with whom we have been in touch commented like this: ‘To hell with the fish and the ducks. This is so dangerous for the health, lives, and bodies of the people’. Our prosecutors went to the factory by order of the court. And what they found there was horrifying. It is a different planet there. Workers walk around carrying glasses of milk and have no protection whatsoever. Our prosecutors came back from the factory having lost their voices because of their exposure to the fumes being released in the factory.”
Environmental activists from the non-governmental organization Eko Forum Lukavac regularly pointed to how each Tuzla Canton government favoured GIKIL and disregarded the reports of pollution provided to them by environmental activists. In our conversation, Bajazit Okić from Eko Forum Lukavac depicted their activist struggle against pollution produced by GIKIL: “In two years alone, there were 15 official reports by the inspectorate and each of these recorded and established the existence of excess pollution. Whenever we reported environmental accidents in GIKIL, GIKIL management always negated this and claimed that no accident had happened. This is the way they have been deceiving the public. Our authorities kept shifting responsibility amongst themselves every time we threatened to file lawsuits. And then we decided to file lawsuits, but our legislation is so weak that it permits company owners to extract profit at the expense of the health of the people.”
He added, with regret, that if citizens’ protests and reports of pollution had been taken seriously, the major catastrophe of August 2018 could have been avoided. According to him, the corrupt practices of the municipal and cantonal authorities, and the lies that GIKIL management has spread within the community that the aim of Eko Forum Lukavac was to close down GIKIL have been particularly insidious. This is how predatory capital combines the threat of toxicity together with the threat of poverty in order to force the affected communities to become docile subjects that will sacrifice their health for the profit of big companies.
Grasping the Courage of the Hopeless
The hidden or abandoned toxic waste and the wanton pollution may work across a larger timescale in the shape of slow violence. However, in the interviews with the workers — whether we were jointly reconstructing the potential sites of hidden industrial toxic waste at HAK or thinking about how the destruction of health and safety measures at GIKIL have been allowed in the first place — what dominated was the numbers and the horrible nature of the continual deaths. These were either the deaths of the people who these workers knew and who lived near the factories or deaths of their co-workers. As Zijad Šehabović from GIKIL put it: “Many of my friends who worked at the coking coal plant would get one or two monthly pensions and then they would die. They handled such strong carcinogenic materials. It is rare that any of them would live into old age.”
I was also dominated by the sense of urgency. Through these interviews, it is as if, in coming together and re-making that inter-generational connection, we tried to recover and record together as much as possible before this generation of workers is gone. Stranded between the losses of the war and the losses of this post-war privatization, how can the community break through the destructive conspiracy between toxicity and poverty manipulated into existence by the naked self-interest of global finance capital? And how can we maintain and keep alive the little rage that is left in exhausted and poisoned communities to hold those who have profited from this conspiracy accountable?
It demands painstaking work: Neither work that fetishizes or aestheticizes the predicament of toxicity nor work that builds the false hope that our best bet, if all is contaminated anyway, then we just need to let go and withdraw. We need work that seriously takes into account the hopelessness of our predicament. As Alenka Zupančič reminds us, grasping such “courage of the hopeless” may move us beyond our current paralysis and enable us to think a thought that is “not opposite of action but rather the inherent condition of a properly courageous action that eventually makes a difference.”
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