Milica Prokic – Human, Body, Stone: Environmental History of Barren Island as a Part of Yugoslav Political Prison Archipelago (1949-1956)


Event Dates: 13 – 16 September 2015
College Court Conference Centre
Knighton Road,
Leicester LE2 3UF

The Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960

Milica Prokic (Bristol) – Human, Body, Stone: Environmental History of Barren Island as a Part of Yugoslav Political Prison Archipelago (1949-1956)

‘The Balkans produce more history than they can consume’, said once Winston Churchill. Perhaps this statement partially illuminates the complex set of reasons for the historical obscurity of Goli Otok (Barren Island). This uninhabited island in Croatian Adriatic operated as a high security political prison and labour camp between 1949, after Josip Broz Tito broke off relations with Stalin, and 1956, when the bilateral relations between Yugoslavia and USSR were re- stabilised. The imprisoned were members of Yugoslav Communist Party: the self – proclaimed and the alleged pro-Stalinists. They were joined, and soon outnumbered by non- party folk who expressed  their doubts about Tito’s regime. After 1956 the island served as a prison for common felons, until 1988, when it was abandoned and left to ruin. As the subsequent violent collapse of Yugoslav state, marked by the armed conflicts in the 1990’s, turned the region’s focus on these more burning issues, Barren Island past was left to fade into oblivion. It has remained largely historically marginalised and virtually unknown outside the borders of former Yugoslavia to this day.

The survivors of Goli otok camp and a handful of concerned scholars agree that the aim of  this political prison’s regime was the ideological re-education, rather than the physical destruction of the inmates. However, certain re- educational methods were resoundingly corporeal. They included heavy beatings, starvation, dehydration and long exhausting hours of forced labour in the island’s stone quarries. With the extreme temperature oscillations between summer and winter, no drinking water and extremely scarce vegetation, the island made of barren weathered karst was also an integral part of the inmates’ corporeal experience. All this this contributed to the bodily suffering and sometimes death of the inmates.

The inmates themselves had built their own prison from the stone material of the island. Some of the labour units within the prison system, such as woodwork, stone-cutting and tile making workshops were orientated towards country wide distribution and sometimes even towards international export. However, the crucial purposes of labour in Goli otok were punitive and re- educational. The inmates were often forced to break and crumble the stone by using primitive tools or no tools at all, as well as to carry massive stone loads form one point to another and back with no constructive or productive purpose, all with the premise of ‘building socialism’. Under the slogan ‘We build Barren Island, Barren Island builds us’, the political prisoners had also partially afforested the island, protecting the scions from the burning Mediterranean sun with the shades of their own bodies. Therefore the prison years, particularly the political prison era, (1949-56) had brought about dramatic environmental changes to the island.

Approaching the topic form the viewpoint of environmental history, this paper shall focus on the interrelation of human prisoners and the prison island. Drawing form various scholarly accounts from across the disciplines, as well as the written and the oral testimonies of former Goli otok prisoners, the stone of the prison island shall be discussed as a place of incarceration,  a tool of corporeal punishment and an obscure symbol of political oppression from the times of Tito’s Yugoslavia.


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