06 August 2007

1852) Genocide Tourism: Tragedy Becomes A Destination

Since visiting the former Nazi death camp at Dachau in 1997, Dermansky, a 40-year-old from Santa Monica, Calif., has seen the killing fields in Cambodia, walked through mass grave sites in Bosnia and stood among human remains in Rwanda. She is, in her own words, obsessed.

"Why go to Club Med," Dermansky, a photographer, asks, "when you can witness this kind of history?" . . . .

She is not alone. An increasing number of tourists are traveling to places of horrific human catastrophe. In Rwanda, Bosnia and Armenia, travelers pay their respects to victims of genocide at popular memorials and cemeteries. Even Kurdistan in Iraq, scene of an ethic cleansing campaign during the 1980s, is promoting its horrible past with a genocide museum. Tragedy has become a destination.

Nearly a million tourists visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in 2005, up from half that the year before. Other former death camps have seen a similar increase in recent years.

Lately at Auschwitz, the growth in tourism has made for some odd juxtapositions. Visitors dine in a newly renovated cafeteria built within the large room where thousands of Nazi victims were processed upon arrival at the camp. This blending of modern tourist convenience and the apparatus of organized death disturbed Dermansky.

"It's a tourist jungle," she says.

While they are perhaps the best known, the concentration camps scattered across Germany and Eastern Europe are not the only genocide sites seeing an increase in visitors.

To accommodate the swelling tourist trade, the Cambodian government last year hired a Japanese firm to build a visitors center and hotel adjacent to the Choeung Ek killing field near Phnom Penh. When the visitors center opens next year, the new company will charge a $3 admission fee rather than the current 50 cents. The town of Anlong Veng in northwest Cambodia is building a genocide museum in the renovated houses of former Khmer Rouge officials to attract tourists.

Tourism Cambodia, a private travel company based in Phnom Penh, offers an assortment of tours specifically geared to genocide tourists. In addition to Choeung Ek, the company highlights excursions to the Tuol Sleng Museum, a school-turned-prison where some 17,000 people were killed between 1977 and 1979; the Kamping Puoy Reservoir, a Khmer Rouge work project made famous by the late Haing S. Ngor in his book "Survival in Cambodia's Killing Fields"; and the civil war museum in Siem Reap. The Tourism Cambodia Web site warns that these sites are "not for the squeamish."

Bosnia on the list

Sarajevo, Bosnia, is another center for genocide tourism. According to the Bosnia-Herzegovina Tourism Board, visits to the country were up 25 percent in 2005 from the previous year and are running nearly 20 percent ahead this year.

"We've come to terms that there are places in our country that attract tourists because of war history," Arna Ugljen, the tourism board's director of public relations, said.

Teri-Lynn Spiteri is one such visitor. She was deeply moved by the plight of Bosnians during the war in the 1990s, especially the massacre of 8,000 civilians at Srebernica in 1995. Watching the news at the time, Spiteri, who has been to the former Nazi death camp at Dachau twice, was reminded of the Holocaust.

"I recalled hearing over and over during history class in high school how 'nothing like this will ever happen again' and 'those who forget the past are bound to repeat it,'" she says.

Spurred by the 10th anniversary of the massacre at Srebernica and compelled to see for herself the impact of the events she'd witnessed on television, Spiteri, 42, traveled to Sarajevo in 2005. Her friends and family didn't understand why she needed to go. And although Spiteri regularly traveled alone, they were also concerned for her safety. Seeing the anniversary coverage on the news, Spiteri's mother was convinced that the war was ongoing and tried daily to talk her into staying home.

"Once I left," she says, "I had to call every day, and if I missed a day I paid dearly for it on my next call home."

While she did not get to Srebernica on that trip -- NATO peacekeepers she met in Sarajevo warned her that something was "brewing" in the area -- Spiteri did encounter a Serbian general being interviewed by Italian television. Speaking through an interpreter, the general expressed his surprise that she was a tourist.

A need for reflecting

For Spiteri, the trip to Bosnia was the culmination of a decade of fascination with the struggle and recovery of the local people. She says she worries that other travelers bent on visiting genocide sites might not be so reflective.

"If you are going just for thrill seeking, hoping to find 'remains,' or perhaps get a kick out of others' misery, I'm disgusted by that," she says.

Not everyone is sanguine about the development of genocide tourism. Tessa Somerville of the Kurdistan Development Corporation, a private commercial investment firm working with the Kurdish government, is repelled by the idea of dark tourism.

"How can people vacation when mothers are giving birth to babies who are affected by the chemicals which rained down during Saddam's Anfal Campaign and there are many people still searching for loved ones who have disappeared?" she asks.



Some in the travel industry are ambivalent about the spread of genocide tourism.

"To each their own," says travel agent Steve Murphy of Kumuka Worldwide in New York. "I guess people wouldn't offer it if there wasn't a market for it, whatever your own decision on it."

Murphy is afraid that genocide tourism exploits the local population while enriching a few tour operators.

'He cried like a baby'

Rajan Tiwari, director of Kiboko Tours & Travel in Kilgali, Rwanda, shares some of Murphy's feelings about genocide tourism and prefers to point out more conventionally uplifting attractions -- like a temperate climate and endangered gorillas.

"The genocide was and still is painful," he says, "Personally I feel it is quite important that visitors visit to understand the Rwandans better, and they do."

Tiwari remembers an American accountant who while at the genocide site in Ntaramta broke down and collapsed in Tiwari's arms. "He cried like a baby," he recalls.

For Tiwari the genocide exists in two worlds -- a heartbreaking past that lingers each day and a future that holds the promise of understanding and recovery.

Standing in a church in Rwanda where Hutus murdered 5,000 ethnic Tutsis in 1994, Dermansky faced a similar quandary. As she surveyed a scene of horror -- disintegrating clothing and shoes scattered among bones and other scraps of human remains -- she thought about the visitors who would come after her.

If the local authorities cleaned up -- or "sanitized," in her words -- this place, would future visitors feel the same sense of horror that she felt? Was she being selfish in her desire to witness such devastation?

Dermansky is already planning her next trip. It's simply a matter of where to go next.

"Nowhere has a monopoly on injustice," she says.

By Steve Silva | Special to the Chicago Tribune, USA
August 5, 2007

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