Macabre memories

Have the penchant for visiting sites that have a tragic past? Then dark tourism is your calling as it offers more than a lesson in history, writes Shobhana Sachidanand

An abandoned Ferris wheel in an amusement park in Pripyat, Ukraine

Anything related to death and suffering only sparks sadness but when people want to explore these very historical places of tragedy, tourism gets a spike. Dark tourism has become the latest fad catching up with tourists across the globe who want to delve deep into history to gain insight into the horrific events attached to these places. There are, however, those who feel that tourists forget the sentiment attached to these places and tend to click pictures/selfies, belittling the fact that these sites went down in the annals of history due to the tragedy and loss associated with them. There are others who suggest that the process of grieving for strangers has a therapeutic effect, apart from raising awareness of sometimes hidden histories of human suffering and injustice.

In Germany, dark tourism is sometimes referred to as Gruseltourismus (or ‘shudder tourism’), the term ‘Thanatourism’ has also been coined (in reference to ‘Thanatos’, the demonic personification of death in Greek mythology), and denotes tourism which dwells solely on the macabre, and sites associated with particularly violent deaths.

Perhaps more dubious still are those destinations which cater specifically to this kind of death-fetishism. Some have in fact labelled dark tourism as a kind of exploitation, whereby heightened emotional responses are marketed as a selling point. Some of the most frequented places in recent times that have given a boost to tourism and helped improve the respective country’s economy are:

Auschwitz

Germany’s largest concentration and extermination camp located in a portion of the country that was annexed by Germany at the beginning of World War II, Auschwitz was actually three camps in one: a prison camp, an extermination camp, and a slave-labour camp. As the most lethal of the Nazi extermination camps, Auschwitz has become the emblematic site of the “final solution”, a virtual synonym for the Holocaust. Between 1.1 and 1.5 million people died at Auschwitz during its years of operation. Jews here were left to die from starvation and exhaustion. Nowadays, the camp functions as a museum for tourists.

Chernobyl & Pripyat

When a television mini-series examined the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl, it drove up the number of tourists wanting to see the plant and the ghostly abandoned town that neighbours it for themselves. The 1986 disaster in Chernobyl, in then-Soviet Ukraine, was caused by a botched safety test in the fourth reactor of the atomic plant that sent clouds of nuclear material across much of Europe. The area around the plant retains the feel of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where stray dogs roam and vegetation encroaches into windowless, abandoned buildings strewn with rubble. In Pripyat, the ghost town, once home to 50,000 people who mainly worked at the plant, an amusement park houses a rusting hulk of a merry-go-round and dodgem-car track, and a giant Ferris wheel that never went into operation. The wheel was to open on May 1, the traditional May Day holiday.

Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Japan

In 1945, a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and later on Nagasaki. The city had been spared conventional bombing by the United States so that the effects of a nuclear weapon on an undamaged city could be assessed. The device detonated about 600 metres above the city. At least 66,000 people were killed and around 69,000 more were injured in the explosion alone. The US Strategic Bombing Survey mapped Hiroshima after the explosion and made calculations about the bomb’s yield and destructive capacity. The images of the damage, and the state in which the city and its structures were destroyed and obliterated have left a telling effect on those who have visited the site later.

Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima
Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima

Rwanda – Murambi, Nyamata and Kigali

Rwanda offers the most chilling of experiences amongst all the genocide memorial sites as whole bodies have been kept on display, half-decomposed, half-mummified by lime, which has turned the bodies white. The experience is both gut-wrenching and shocking at once. The “shock and awe” policy of the Murambi Memorial is deliberate – and is defended officially as serving to prevent genocide denial. Whether or not you follow that reasoning, the site is, in any case, controversial. Some claim it is undignifying to display corpses like this. On the other hand, most of the dead at Murambi were given a dignified burial, and only unclaimed corpses were put on display.

During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Tutsis (the ethnic African groups) tried to seek refuge in churches and schools, including the nearby parish of Gikongoro. As the place got overcrowded, the refugees were told to move on to a new school complex on the hillside at Murambi (since the construction was incomplete, the school was not operational yet). This turned out to be a ploy to assemble a large number of Tutsis in a place where they could more easily be massacred.

‘Ground Zero’, New York, USA

In September 2001, terrorists with links to an Islamist extremist group bombed the World Trade Center (WTC). Until then, the Twin Towers were the centrepieces of the WTC complex. They were the tallest buildings in New York City, and for a brief period upon their completion, they were the tallest buildings in the world, attracting roughly 70,000 tourists every day.

The shock of the events of 9/11 was immense worldwide, and in New York in particular. Faced with the images of devastation after the collapse of the WTC’s Twin Towers, many people made an analogy to the destruction caused by an atomic bomb (Hiroshima & Nagasaki) and so ‘ground zero’, a term normally used to denote the hypocentre of a nuclear explosion in atomic testing (or the epicentre of an earthquake), was transferred metaphorically to the WTC site. The expressive term stuck and is still used, even though the debris has long since been cleared.

‘Ground Zero’ has, from the outset, been a very odd kind of dark tourism attraction. This special kind of early 9/11-tourism wasn’t without controversy. Initially, curious visitors wanting to see the site were regarded by some people as somewhat disrespectful. But such reservations didn’t stop people from wanting to come here – and the need felt by so many to pay tributes at the actual site soon became widely accepted, and even promoted. It is, in fact, the most popular dark tourism site in the entire world.

The positives of some countries trying to leverage on such incidents can be attributed to the fact that tourism is one of the strongest forces to help devastated communities earn income and get back on their feet. Visiting the sites of atrocities gives us a better understanding of history than reading about it in books.

Being able to make a connect with the past and not treat the memorials as sites to take selfies is what dark tourism is all about.

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