Poisoned by Peace: Environmental Violence as a Weapon in Wars of Capital

A reality of war that recedes into the background in peacetime but is all the more destructive manifests itself in environmental violence as an integral strategic approach in the “arsenal” of capitalist violence, Damir Arsenijević argues in his contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism,” exploring the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina.


The result of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina is this: hundreds of thousands of dead, hidden mass graves, the legacy of concentration camps and war-time rapes, a ruined country, and the theft of socially-owned property by a new class of ethno-capitalists. Peacetime offers its own terror: a continuation of the production of people and social relations as waste, managing people as waste, constantly wasting lives and wasting environments in the rampant chase for profits by these ethno-capitalists. If this seems insufferable, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are given a false choice: you either accept the Dayton Peace Agreement or you risk another war.

Bosnia and Herzegovina today is poisoned politically, economically, and environmentally. Constant political instability – accelerated by Croatia’s and Serbia’s colonial attitudes and practices –, deepening poverty, catalyzed by the wholesale privatization of natural resources, and the increasing number of incidents resulting in ecological damage and disaster: all provide stark evidence of a toxic mode of governance.

Key to understanding the ecological incidents and catastrophes manifest in the successor countries of former Yugoslavia is that these incidents and catastrophes are not a handful of isolated “accidents,” but are rather symptoms of a deliberate strategy of continued violence carried out by ethno-capitalist elites.

Continuation of war-time logic

From the taking hostage of large swathes of land through rendering them inaccessible with landmines; via treating natural resources as war-time spoils (we must remember that one of the final decisions that “the Croat Republic Herceg-Bosna” – a Bosnian Croat ethno-capitalist wartime fiefdom – signed with Croatia was to give to Croatia the use of Buško jezero for the purposes of a hydro powerplant at Orlovac, that is based in Croatia); to disposing of the industrial toxic waste from privatized and demolished factories by hiding it and burying it in unknown locations, we see one thing: a continuation of the logic of war-time.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

Environmental violence is an integral strategic approach in the ‘armoury’ of ethno-capitalist violence. Its concrete materiality is felt decades after military activities (big, spectacular violence) is over. It is arranged and managed deliberately to be a constant threat over a large proportion of population. It is a means of weaponizing nature and promoting the domain and the anxiety of the uncontrollable fate that hangs over the country. If huge environmental catastrophes happen, their agency is immediately ascribed to “nature,” “chemicals,” “toxic waste.” When slow dying happens as a result of the work of the toxic waste that is not secured or properly disposed of, then contaminated sites become totemic – revered and feared – in communities as sites of danger, and thus their true histories and manufactured origins become erased and forgotten.

Spectacle of human sacrifice

In other words, environmental violence is an all-powerful means of weaponizing nature by ethno-capitalist elites to maintain and proclaim the practice of their omnipotence, all the while staging the spectacle of the ongoing sacrifices of human lives as determined by fate: communities where all children have cancers; metal-pickers who inhale chlorine and their lungs burn; impoverished agricultural communities using contaminated water; people who venture into unmarked areas with landmines who are killed by them.

All of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a shrine in which a sacrificial ritual takes place daily: deaths caused by environmental violence – slow or quick – continue in the aftermath of war; populations unwittingly relinquish their lives; these ethno-capitalist elites, as the current high priests, demanding ever-more deaths, rulers of time and space who exert the power to proclaim if and when there will have been enough dying. We are in the domain of the mythic, in the domain of destiny. In this domain, there is no space for subjectivity.

A post-industrial skeleton

Take this example: The former Chlor-alkali Power Plant (known locally by its Bosnian acronym, HAK) located in the city of Tuzla, in north-east Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a hazardous, disintegrating, and abandoned post-industrial skeleton. This industrial skeleton is occupied daily by the unemployed who are engaged in an informal scavenger economy. Aldin Bejhanović is one of them. He is a metal picker who suffered a pulmonary embolism, caused by the poisons at HAK.

He says: “At first, we were removing the 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 me, my father and a neighbor arrived to cut out the 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.

Untimely deaths

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 huge, white, poison-leaking 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.

An invisibilized monument

Since HAK was privatized in the early 2000s, its hidden toxic waste stands as an invisibilized 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, Organika, a company from Poland, bought one part of HAK (renamed ‘Polihem’ in the privatization process) and as early as 2007 it had started laying off the workers. The corporate subterfuge that Organika carried out involved reneging on its promise to double production, firing the workers, and starting physically to dismantle 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 spill into the Jala River.”

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. Moreover, the structural position the abandoned industrial toxic waste occupies and the value it has in the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina, relates to how Yugoslavia as a country was expropriated and destroyed; how the working people as a political subject of Yugoslavia was expropriated and destroyed; and how Yugoslav socially-owned property – that tied the political subject to the polity – was expropriated and destroyed.

Our rivers connect us”

How do we 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? How to break through the all-gripping conspiracy between toxicity and poverty brought into this world by the naked self-interest of global finance capital imposed by ethno-capitalist elites? How to stay alive whilst being poisoned by peace?

This requires keeping alive the unbribable life that is left in exhausted and poisoned communities, in order to hold those accountable who have profited from this conspiracy. It also takes the exercise of fortitude to channel this unbribable life. The brave women of the village of Kruščica, near Vitez, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, taught us this when they stood up against the building of two mini hydropower plants that would have destroyed the river Kruščica and its natural habitat. They said: “our rivers connect us.”

This goes beyond interconnection through natural habitat – it is the interconnection that transcends the identity politics, on which ethno-capitalist elites thrive. This latter interconnection – a way of expressing the solidarity that identity politics divides – is what was violently attacked by the police in Kruščica. So, what gets results is not only the manifestation of unbribable life, but an organized unbribable life, its politically productive and emancipatory anger, that asserts the notion and practice of social well-being and social care for all.

For the elites, it is essential that this emancipatory struggle must be suppressed, hidden, not valued, not talked about: not locally, nor regionally, nor internationally. And this is precisely why we must talk about it and be always guided by it.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de

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