GOLI OTOK Croatia (Reuters) - The clear blue waters of the Adriatic and the happy cries of tourists visiting Goli Otok (Barren Island) off Croatia’s coast help obscure its dark past as a hard-labour detention camp for political prisoners in formerly communist Yugoslavia.
Planners were due to start debating what to do with it on Monday, weighing a pile of proposals from building a memorial to wiping out all trace of the notorious jail and bulldozing the site for new developments.
The decision, say campaigners, will say a lot about how Croatians want to deal with their not so distant history.
Other than a small seafront restaurant named “Prison”, there are few signs of what took place on the uninhabited, rocky outcrop, strewn with austere, dilapidated buildings made of concrete and stone.
“In today’s terms, this place could only be compared to Guantanamo,” said Darko Bavoljak, leader of the Association of Goli Otok prisoners, referring to the U.S. military prison set up in 2002 to detain suspected Islamic militants.
The Association, which has for years lobbied in vain to turn the island into a memorial center, has denounced a government program to sell off Goli Otok and other unused assets.
“Their idea is probably to bulldoze the whole place and forget that anything ever happened here,” Bavoljak said.
“This was a painful episode and we want to preserve it for posterity. But in this country anything is possible, it is even possible that the state disregards its own history,” he added.
Croatia, which emerged from the break-up of Yugoslavia through its 1991-95 war for independence, is now trying to revitalize its Adriatic tourism, the main hard currency earner for the country which joined the European Union last year.
Croatia’s asset-management agency, DUUDI, told Reuters all options were open until Monday, a deadline for submitting project ideas.
“The initiatives (for the island) expectedly range from memorials to tourism. In the autumn, we’ll organize a round table about the island with all interested parties, including the ministries of culture and tourism,” a DUUDI spokesperson told Reuters in an emailed response.
Between 1949 and 1956, Yugoslavia’s secret police convicted more than 13,000 people from all walks of life of supporting then Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s hardline communism and sentenced them to undergo political ‘re-education’ at Goli Otok.
Yugoslavia had severed ties with Stalin’s Soviet Union because its leader Josip Broz Tito wanted to pursue a softer version of communism and move away from Moscow’s grip. But the fight to contain his opponents soon turned into a witch hunt overseen by the UDBA, or State Security Service.
A documentary made by the association lists the case of a Serb sentenced for “listening to radio stations of eastern European countries and belittling Socialist development”.
Those found at fault for whatever reason were sent to Goli Otok to be reformed along Communist Party lines through hard labor and political brainwashing. Around 400 died.
Zlatko Hill was imprisoned after someone had reported him for supporting Stalin, a charge he fiercely denies to this day. He spent 47 months on Goli Otok with no contact with his family.
“I can’t help thinking of that literary phrase ‘Hell, it is us’,” Hill, an 86-year-old geology expert and one of the few surviving prisoners from the 1950s, told Reuters during a tour of the island.
He said the method the government employed for keeping the prisoners in check was particularly sinister.
“There were very few police guards and they only watched the outer perimeter. Guarding, spying, denouncing, beating, it was all done by the inmates,” he said.
“Every two weeks we had to meet with assigned investigators and we had to report other prisoners, for not working hard, for whispering to each other, for not taking an active part in political discussions. If you didn’t denounce someone, you got negative points,” Hill said.
Every prisoner who arrived at the island first had to run uphill through a gauntlet of older prisoners who beat them and spat at them, shouting insults like “traitors” and “scum”.
Prison life consisted of hard labor in a quarry and workshops and a political education in the afternoon, where inmates discussed articles published in the Communist Party’s official newspaper.
Solitary cells for those who refused to ‘reform’ were dug into the ground in a pit called “Peter’s Hole”. Before leaving the island, every inmate had to sign a statement that he would cooperate with the secret service against enemies of the party.
The camp was converted into an ordinary prison in the late 1950s and eventually closed in 1988, just before the end of the Cold War. When Yugoslavia disintegrated and Croatia declared independence in 1991, the island was abandoned.
Since then, anything of value has been pillaged. The buildings, which once housed workshops for processing rocks and wood and for producing high quality ceramic tiles that were exported to Italy, fell into disrepair.
Pine trees planted by the first prisoners have taken root and spread, so its “barren” name is no longer accurate.
“We want to preserve the memory of the slave work of the prisoners and build a memorial center... lest something like this should happen ever again,” Bavoljak said.
Editing by Michael Roddy and Andrew Heavens