Culture & ideas

Croatia: The island of Marshall Tito

3 August 2009
Trouw Amsterdam

Goli Otok prison. Photo by Kristoforina.

Goli Otok prison. Photo by Kristoforina.

A Croatian island that was home to a sinister Titoist re-education camp for 40 years will shortly be provided with a memorial and documentation centre. For former detainees, acknowledgement of the horror they endured remains an ongoing combat, reports Dutch daily Trouw.

One night in 1949, in a darkened cell in Montenegro, Dmitar Kastratovic, an 18-year-old student, sat with his hands tied behind his back. A leader of the youth section of the local communist party, he had been arrested ten days earlier for possession of a Soviet newspaper. The secret police agent interrogating him shoved a pistol against his chest, "Who is smarter, Tito or Stalin?" After hours of grilling, Kastratovic finally replied "Stalin." Two days later, he was sent for three years to the island prison on Goli Otok.

Today, Kastratovic is nearly 80, but the memories of the horror that he experienced there continue to haunt his nightmares. He remembers being forced to work for hours without water in the searing midday sun. "Sometimes, they only gave us four beans to eat, but if the guards heard anyone complaining, all of us were punished. They made us run for hours, and battered us with truncheons until we collapsed." Kastratovic eventually lost a kidney to the torture on the island, and he still suffers from debilitating headaches – but he was one of the luckier inmates. Images of friends, who committed suicide by jumping from the rocks, or those who died from exhaustion still appear in his dreams. He was ordered to carry the bodies of the dead to the other side of the island, where he had to bury them with his bear hands.

"Goli Otok was a Yugoslav Gulag, a labour camp where Stalinists and other opponents of Tito were sent to be 're-educated,'" explains Trvtko Jakobina, a historian at the University of Zagreb.  Today, the island is accessible to the public. "But if you go there, you won't find the type of information that is in this exhibition in Zagreb," says Sacha Zanko, a Croatian project leader at Rotterdam's Berlage Institute – an international postgraduate institute which offers specialist training in architecture and urbanism. In collaboration with the Zagreb Architects' Association, and the Croatian organization of former inmates, Ante Zemljar, the Dutch institute has prepared plans to turn Goli Otok, which literally means "Naked Island," into a memorial – these are now on show at a Zagreb exhibition along with documentaries and photos, and sculptures by ex-prisoners. 

Former inmates are hoping that a memorial will help dispel the myth of a progressive and benign government in Yugoslavia. It is a myth that some of the new states that emerged after the break-up of the country in the 1990s, have sought to maintain. In the early 1990s,  Berislav Jandric, a historian at the Croatian Institute for History in Zagreb, set out to conduct research on the communist regime's secret police between 1949-1953. "The Croatian authorities refused to allow me to publish a list of prisoners' names, because they were worried they would be sued for human rights violations." For years, former inmates have been campaigning, without much success, to clear their names – and the guards who worked at the camp have never been tried in court. The break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s has meant that ex-prisoners are now distributed over several countries, and this has made the fight to obtain acknowledgement and financial compensation even more difficult.

The architects' initiative to develop the island as a memorial and tourist attraction may herald a change in official attitudes to Goli Atok. For project coordinator, Sacha Zanko, the site has a lot in common "with Robben Island [where Nelson Mandela was held]. The challenge is to develop it in a way that will attract tourists and remain respectful to the experience of the former prisoners." 

The exhibition entitled the Human Scale of Goli Otok will run in Zagreb until 8 September.