Compensation controversy over 'Adriatic Alcatraz'

Associated Press
In this photo taken June 28, 2012, the Adriatic island of Goli Otok is seen from the sea. The prison island housed up to 16,000 political prisoners over an eight-year period. They ended up there after being accused by Tito's regime of expressing sympathy toward Josef Stalin and his hardline Soviet dictatorship. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
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GOLI OTOK, Croatia (AP) — It rises up from the pristine waters off Croatia's coast, a forbidding mound of rock known as the Adriatic Alcatraz.

The amount former political prisoners are being offered for each day they spent on this hell: $9.

The paltry compensation Serbia's government is granting people imprisoned by late Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito in one of Europe's most notorious post-World War II labor camps has triggered outrage among many — and threats of a lawsuit.

"It's miserable," said Bozdar Vulovic, one of the few living survivors of the Goli Otok, or Barren Island, camp that was created in 1948.

Nearly 600 prisoners of all ex-Yugoslav nations — Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Slovenes, Macedonians and Montenegrins — are estimated to have died on the island from torture and disease; thousands suffered psychological damage from an infamous prison system that pitted the prisoners against each other in a battle for survival.

Goli Otok housed up to 16,000 political prisoners over an eight-year period. They ended up there after being accused by Tito's regime of expressing sympathy toward Josef Stalin and his hardline Soviet dictatorship. Tito, who espoused a more liberal brand of communism, broke with Moscow in 1948, earning him support from the West.

Some of the former Serb inmates are threatening to take the government to an international human rights court for what they say is meager compensation for the horrors they went through.

Others say they will reluctantly accept the offer because they have no time to waste on lengthy legal procedures.

"If you were my age, and if you were in bad health, what would you do?" asked 91-year-old Smilja Filipcev, who spent more than three years at Goli Otok as a woman prisoner.

Serbia has now belatedly decided to rehabilitate the victims of Tito's communist regime, including ex-dissidents, royalists and the Goli Otok inmates.

Authorities said they arrived at the $9 a day figure because Croatia had offered a similar sum. But that was 10 years ago when the money was worth much more. Croatia also gave its nationals "privileged" pension status that resulted in a much higher total package than the Serb one.

In 2003, Slovenia offered its ex-prisoners €6,300 for each year spent on the island. The other former Yugoslav republics — Montenegro, Bosnia and Macedonia — have not yet compensated their nationals.

"The fear that we went through is something that should be compensated," said Vulovic, who was incarcerated on the island for nearly three years. "And great fear it was,"

The controversy in Serbia has revived painful memories of the island camp kept secret for decades. Its existence was largely ignored in the West because inmates were thought to be hardline pro-Soviet communists, not dissidents like the ones in the ex-Soviet gulags in Siberia.

Tito was the undisputed leader of Yugoslavia for 35 years until his death in 1980. Those who publicly declared support after the split with Moscow were summarily dispatched to the island, without a trial.

Vulovic, an 85-year-old Serb citizen who was born in Montenegro, said the inmates on Goli Otok had arranged a "welcoming event" for him and the other newcomers.

"They screamed at us yelling 'down with the scum' and beat us with their hands," he said. "At Goli Otok, we had to spy on each other, and we had to beat other inmates up if they ordered us to do so."

"We were beaten all the time, while working, going to breakfast or to lunch," he said, adding that neither the International Red Cross nor any other international humanitarian organization ever visited the island while he was there.

Vulovic said trivial acts could land people in the camp — which was often compared to San Francisco's Alcatraz island because no one ever managed to escape.

"It was enough for someone to listen to radio Moscow, or privately say something good about Stalin, to be reported to the secret police and end up on the island," Vulovic said at his small Belgrade apartment with Stalin's portrait and the Bible side-by-side on a bookshelf.

"I was arrested when I was 17," Vulovic said. "The reason for my arrest was stupid. Somebody had written 'Down with Tito, long live Stalin' in chalk on the walls all over my neighborhood" in the Montenegrin seaside town of Kotor.

"According to the logic of the time, they thought that only high school students had access to chalk. So they arrested six of us from that neighborhood, and they beat us until we had to confess that we were the ones that had written those words."

In 1956, the island ended its days as a political prison and was turned into a high-security facility for the hardest criminals. Years after Tito's death, Croatia's tourist organization tried to reopen the 1.9-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) island for tourists willing to pay to re-enact the life of a political prisoner — including hard labor, stale food and nights in solitary confinement.

The plan, which even had the support of some former inmates who offered to work as tour guides, was scrapped because of the protests by Goli Otok political prisoner organizations.

"This is where the infamous Goli Otok lynches started," said former inmate Vladimir Bobinac, 85, while interviewed at the island, describing a lane of prisoners forced to organize welcoming party for new inmates.

"People were badly beaten, some even died," Bobinac said. "They were beaten out of fear. Those who did not deliver the punches were beaten themselves."

Filipcev said she was sent to Goli Otok from Serbia because she refused to denounce Stalin in his clash with Tito.

"They loaded us onto freight cars, and we were off," she said.

"When we arrived, they opened the car doors and we saw the sea in front of us. They kicked us out of the freight cars, and we waited for a boat to come pick us up. They loaded us into the ship's hull. They didn't wait for us to go down the stairs, they pushed us down, and we fell on top of each other. Some women fainted; some had their legs and arms broken."

She said that on the island, all the prisoners, including women, were forced to hard labor, mostly digging stones in a quarry.

"There we had wooden boards, with handles on each end, used for carrying heavy loads," she said. "You would trip and fall down onto the rocks. If you got injured, they'd make you sit down and break rocks until your injury was better, and then they would put you back to carrying rocks."

She said that when released, she came back home to Serbia.

"At the time when I was arrested, my elder daughter was four years old, and my younger daughter was two, so when they saw me, the first thing they asked was 'Are you really our mother?'"

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Stojanovic and Marko Drobnjakovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.

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