Issue 1/2019 - Post-Jugoslawien

„The Proletarian Lung“

The Struggle for the Commons as Memory Politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Damir Arsenijević

Predatory capital first targeted the working class in socialist Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s. 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 this country. In this they were helped by the international right-wing forces and paramilitaries, including the Golden Dawn members. This was called transition into capitalism. Then, it came for the factories, leaving tens of thousands unemployed, stripping factories of assets, and creating post-industrial wastelands. This was called privatization. Now, it is coming for the country’s natural resources – its water and air, forests and land – changing entire ecosystems in order to build hydro-electric plants1 and despoiling its land into one gigantic waste dump for hazardous materials. This is called growth. This logic of growth creates conditions for an explosion of popular revolt in Bosnia and Herzegovina today.
I am well-rehearsed in living with unexploded bombs. Whenever I travel within Bosnia and Herzegovina, I am aware of the landmines that shift in the ground, marking their own lethal geography. According to the United Nations Mine Action Service, Bosnia & Herzegovina still ‘remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world’2. The red-and-white warnings “PAZI MINE” (BEWARE! MINES!) loom large whenever I leave the city of Tuzla. It is a painful reminder of how the war - past, present and future - continues making its demarcations, and how it continues to pose its threats. Today in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, I, and many other citizens of the city, also live near the de facto and metaphorical ‘unexploded bomb’ that is the former Chlorine Alkaline Power House (known locally by its Bosnian acronym, HAK). The disintegrating and abandoned post-industrial skeleton of HAK, looms over was one of the largest socialist Yugoslav mining and chemical industrial complexes. It is a dystopic and totemic site and it is where I imagine myself to be for much of my time. ‘Before the war’—which is such an overused phrase nowadays – the sight of the factory, together with the huge cooling towers of the Tuzla thermal power plant, would signal “HOME” to me. Urban myths of the late 1980s were vibrant in my teenage mind: such as rumours that the two giant spherical metal containers of the HAK factory contained such a huge volume of hazardous chemicals that their contents might even be capable of destroying the city of Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, which is only 180 kilometers from Tuzla. “What would I do if they exploded?” I wondered. I remember holding my breath whenever I went past them on the bus.
I come across a recent interview by Emina Busuladžić, or Minka, as she is known, the DITA detergent factory trade unionist who led the workers’ occupation of DITA– from 2012-2015 – to prevent all of its infrastructure from being cut up and sold as scrap metal. In 2014, the DITA factory occupation ignited the massive protests throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which people would make and hear claims such as ‘Stop Nationalism’, or more imaginatively, deliberately challenging ethnic divisions: “GLADNI SMO NA SVA TRI JEZIKA” [We are hungry in all three languages]. Being with Minka and other DITA workers on the factory barricades daily in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 was, for me, one of the most important lessons in political solidarity I have ever learnt. HAK’s two giant rusting spheres were just a couple of hundred meters from DITA. The rusting pipes of the skeleton of HAK still hold more than 47 tons of stagnant, highly-flammable propylene oxide. These pipes are surrounded by stacks of abandoned and corroding barrels, from which, slowly, over a quarter of a century, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic have been leaking into the ground. Between the adjacent sites of DITA and HAK, the black sheen denoting 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. 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 leads to statistically high levels of untimely deaths as a result of their exposure to it;3 either as a result of accidents, and/or via more prolonged ‘slow’ deaths from the chronic conditions they develop.
The DITA factory occupation repeated the war-time logic of defense: a trench was set up by the workers in front of the factory; workers who, themselves, had defended Bosnia during the wars of the 1990s. The owner, (who had simply wanted to asset-strip the factory as fast as possible, prior to shutting it down), and the police, were thus kept at bay. Of the entire industrial complex in Tuzla, DITA is now the sole surviving operational factory. The occupation was pivotal in that outcome. Next to DITA, HAK, rusting and overgrown with vegetation, stands as a reminder of what privatization in Bosnia & Herzegovina really means. The pipes with their toxic waste contents are hidden by the vegetation, just like the landmines are hidden in the fields and forests of Bosnia & Herzegovina. As I am reminded by my high school education during the war, between your trench and the enemy lies no-man’s land…with landmines. With the DITA occupation, I know where to be: not to be in the minefield but in the factory, to defend and to protect it, the trench between me and the enemy, even if that means being nearer the ‘unexploded bomb’ of HAK’s two giant rusting spheres; plus 120 barrels of mercury; all those tons of propylene oxide that could ignite or explode at any point: and I suddenly remember being in the basement of the tower block in which my family lived in early 1992, and finding my mother clutching a hand grenade—who knows how she got hold of it nor how much money – money that we could have used for food – she paid to buy it—she just did not want to be caught alive if the military came. It took months to persuade her to let go of the grenade: eventually, she did let go, once the security of ‘deep’ war-time had set in.
Letting go is never a safe thing, never once and for all: a shudder follows it. This letting go reminds me of the stories of poisonous chlorine gas that leaked in an accident at the HAK plant in the early 1980s. Minka’s recent interview also reminds me of this accident of the 1980s. This is how she remembers it:
‘I remember the accident as if it happened yesterday. Our factory was working at full capacity. I was in the lab upstairs. And then I heard somebody say: “Can you smell that? It’s HAK. Run! Run! Run!” And we all ran…I didn’t go far. Some ran towards Tuzla, some ran towards the hills. I simply ran to the factory Institute building. We were in the secretary’s office, just sitting still. There were a few of us. I could see people running around in blind panic. When I returned to the factory, I saw the director and some workers. Everybody else had fled. And then the director told me: “Now that you are here, Minka, start taking calls. We’re receiving calls from all over.” I remember it well…the calls kept coming and the callers kept asking: “How many dead?” “What dead?!” – I replied. There was blind panic. The concentration of chlorine gas had dropped by then. Some of my colleagues managed to get to the mountain Majevica nearby. I didn’t flee. I stayed in the factory.’4
“What dead?!” – those words in response to the HAK accident in the early 1980s resonate so strongly today, in 2018, that it takes some effort to draw breath. But to draw breath means to breathe in the polluted air of Tuzla, in one of the most polluted cities in Europe. When it comes to the number of deaths per head of population caused by air pollution,5 Bosnia & Herzegovina is ranked as the second deadliest country in the world by the UN Environment Program. This is how the war-time logic of the 1990s continues. The long-standing legacy of such practices as a permit to harm and legitimize the destruction of the commons in the name of profit is still taking its toll.
Pollution is weaponized in the extractive logic of predatory capital in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Its logic operates under the guise of ‘growth’, which claims to offer jobs and economic security. Yet, in reality, it destroys and contaminates water, air, and land in Bosnia & Herzegovina and renders its people expendable through exposing them to pollution and the impact of various deadly hazardous wastes. The post-industrial complex of Tuzla is a contested site around which simultaneously intersect the grief and anger caused by ecological accidents6 and new anxieties around current, mainly Chinese, investments in fossil fuels.7
I am assembling my survival kit: figuring out how to draw out the connection between and, thus, translate the outcome of war-time resistance and survival using the concepts and strategies of present-day struggles for the commons. I come across my doodles of rusted pipes and corroded barrels of HAK; I try to draw the blueprint of the factory, now that it is destroyed and all of its documentation is destroyed: I want to visually document and chart this devastated architecture and I want to recreate its timeline of destruction. I am looking at my doodles and images of HAK that I took on my phone: I ask how to imagine and construct a hopeful politics, that moves beyond the fixed gaze at failed industrial modernization. I am aware that I am creating a map of a geography of hunger, where poverty is harnessed as a form of governance in order to maintain cheap labor.8 How to imagine any kind of justice when surrounded by such destruction? I am also aware that I need to move beyond invoking injustice as a mere aesthetic gesture in public space. To succeed in doing this means to draw on the relationality between the work of mourning and the work of solidarity. Only this holds the potential to interrupt the governance triad that rules over Bosnia & Herzegovina: governance through insecurity – governance through poverty – governance through trauma. But I am also aware that I want to disrupt the opposition between the monetized death and grievable life today. The destruction of this opposition is at the heart of the disruption of the binary between nature and culture.
The disruption between monetized death and ‘grievable life’ means to start from that which is ‘ungrievable’ life in Bosnia and Herzegovina today. I must start with the “proletarian lung” of the metal picker whose lungs get burned by the left-over chlorine in HAK pipes, who succumbs to his injuries and dies. His death is the toll of the extractive logic of predatory capitalism in Bosnia & Herzegovina today.
‘The conditions under which labor power is sold in a capitalist labor market act on the individual’s glucose cycle as the pattern of exertion and rest depends more on the employer’s economic decisions than on the worker’s self-perception of metabolic flux. Human ecology is not the relation of our species with the rest of nature, but rather the relations of different societies, and the classes, genders, ages, grades, and ethnicities maintained by those social structures. Thus, it is not too farfetched to speak of the pancreas under capitalism or the proletarian lung.’9
Aldin Bejhanović is a metal picker who suffered from pulmonary embolism, caused by poisons at HAK. He says: “We took off gunmetal valves in pipes in manholes. 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, father and a neighbor 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 thus: “I was feeling out of air when I would bend down to pick 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.”10 Bejhanović’s uncle was not so lucky; his lungs were burnt after he had inhaled poisonous gas from the pipes that he had cut.
The work of hopeful memory in Bosnia and Herzegovina starts by enabling the autobiographies – of the proletarian lungs, of proletarian cancer caused by pollution, of proletarian asthma attacks – to be recorded and to be shared. These personal narratives are ‘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’.11 To be aware of how our surroundings are integral to and inseparable parts of our bodies is a start of a different kind of materiality for the struggle for the natural commons. This way, we who live in Bosnia & Herzegovina will be able to resist the resilience-based politics that has been promoted as the only possible solution to our political and social predicament. We will do so by interrupting the ‘Dayton mean time’, as the time on hold that is produced through ‘an “endless loop” of depoliticization’12, be it through the ecological accidents foreboding larger disasters, or through waiting for hidden mass graves to be located.
The different political time that we must produce starts with us re-assembling ourselves differently as a community, confident and courageous, that interrupts the enforced docility whilst we are drained for somebody else’s profit. This is a struggle that, under present conditions, echoes across Yugoslavia. Indeed, the sociality materialized in these struggles is being forged of necessity, in order to move beyond the paralysis caused by the ruthless abuse of people and natural resources, as carried out by the ethno-nationalist oligarchies and their rapacious international allies. A revived, commons-based sociality seeks actively to foster resistance to this larceny of natural resources. To do so, we must inhabit public spaces to raise and enact demands for ecological justice through forms of artistic production that challenge the extractive logic of capital. A different kind of memory politics starts by connecting solidarity and mourning through the rejection of the identity politics of victimhood. Or in the words of Sari Wastell, this would be ‘not solely a re-imagining of a shared world, but the assertion of a world, ontologically distinct in its everyday experience, that finds the manufacture of enduring uncertainty a folly for which it can no longer spare its time.” Wastell hears in the evocations of justice “a model for the ‘what if’ – subjunctive – politics that so much of the world requires – not only Bosnia & Herzegovina.”13
The ‘what-if’ politics will require a different and better way to figure out how to work together, a better way to approach and value the people with whom we work. This means that we need to remove ourselves from the realm of the privatization affect. This affect brutalizes us, and shatters and erodes our togetherness. As Branislav Jakovljević appositely remarks, when writing about the Workers University, which was founded on the DITA barricades:
“If participatory performance emerged as a response to rapid industrialization, only to be coopted by the cultural and entertainment industries, it finds its renewed meaningfulness and efficacy in regions of rapid deindustrialization. New forms of sociality forged in these places remind us that participation is non-synchronized and ex-centric. It insists on solidarity instead of synchronicity, on collaboration instead of manipulation, on engagement instead of interactivity, on distribution instead of accumulation and on an ethics of involvement instead of aesthetics of immersion.”14
Such work requires us to re-socialize, along more just and equal lines, that which has been subjugated through violent privatization and monetization: that is, space, time, infrastructure, political imagination and affirmative affect. And this work has already begun.



[1] See
[2] See David Henig, “Iron in the soil: living with military waste in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, in: Anthropology Today, vol. 28 no. 1., February 2012, p. 21.
[3] Informative reports by investigative journalists of June 2018 reveal the extent of the damage. See
[5] The UN estimate of January 2018; see
[6] See
[7] See
[8] See
[9] Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, “Biology under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health”, in: Stacey Alaimo (ed.), Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, Indiana University Press, 2010, p. 27–8.
[11] Alaimo, Bodily Natures, p. 102.
[12] Steff Jansen, “Rebooting politics? Or, towards a for the Dayton Meantime”, in: Damir Arsenijević (ed.), Unbribable Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Fight for the Commons, Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlag, 2014.
[13] Sari Wastell (forthcoming), “The enduring transition: temporality, human security and competing notions of justice inside and outside of the law in Bosnia and Herzegovina”.
[14] Branislav Jakovljević, “For an Art of Participation: Common goods for the commons”, in: Performance Research, 23/4, p. 209.