Vera Winter, born Barišić, was a young clerk in one of the federal institutions in Belgrade when the Resolution of the Cominform was published in the summer of 1948. One of her acquaintances was recognized as a sympathizer of Stalin, which was reason enough for her to become suspicious as well. After naively telling two Udba agents that she listens to Radio Moscow, she was arrested shortly. After a difficult investigation, she was deported to a women's camp on Goli Otok.
"They were lucky. I was in the brigade where you carry stones, all the way from the shore up to the hill. What was difficult aside from carrying the stone was that we didn't have any shoes, just some rubber sandals. These were actually old car tires that we tied with something. Awful. After a while, my feet started to bleed, so I had to tear my blouse to tighten the shoes (...) The hardest thing for me was hard physical labor without rest. This constant carrying stones or cement bags from morning to night. I had scars until recently, and some are still visible today, even though 60 years have passed. That was one thing. And the other was the mental exhaustion, such that I was breaking down within. I couldn’t take it any longer, I said to myself, I would do whatever they asked of me just if I could die that moment. Can you imagine that?”
Excerpt from an interview with Martin Previšić in 2009 in Zagreb
remains of the female internment camps on Sveti Grgur ©Simon Bučan
Belgrade photographer Jelena Mrdja, the daughter of prisoners, told Radio Free Europe how her parents ended up in the prison camp in their student years
"My mother Radmila Stevanović was on her second year at the Faculty of Agriculture in 1949. She knew how to type on a typewriter, and one provocateur asked her to type something out. She agreed and was arrested, although she never received this document. This was already enough for her to be declared a sympathiser of the USSR and sent to a prison camp. Father Stojadin Mrdja started looking for the missing girl. He went to mother's home village, not far from Belgrade, and asked around if anyone had seen her. He was arrested and also sent to Goli Otok. Mom was there for four years and dad for a year and a half. After being released in 1953, they met again, and I was born in 1956.“
Mrdja adds that her parents rarely ever talked about what they experienced. "It wasn’t allowed to talk about it although everyone knew that they were on Goli Otok. We never went to the seaside. They said that they had had enough of the sea in their lives.”
When father grew old, after his wife's death, he began to talk about the tortures.
"Life in the camp was arranged so that the prisoners were forced to torture one another. Otherwise, they would have been punished and beaten even worse. I think the former prisoners kept silent not only out of fear but also shame. They did not want to talk about how they had tortured other people”, says Mrdja.
©State Geodetic Administration of the Republic of Croatia
Milka Nedeljković, who was arrested on 2nd of August in 1949 in her hometown Velika Drenova, after finishing the second year of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, was taken to Belgrade's Glavnjača Prison. There, in the investigator's office, without any interrogation, she was brutally beaten. After 15 days she was taken to the regional Udba in Kragujevac. They put shackles on her legs, handcuffed her and threw her in a solitary confinement. The policeman who escorted her could not bear it and asked the investigator to transfer him to another job. He was sentenced to imprisonment on Goli Otok. When they took off her shackles they transferred her to the newly built prison, over the river Lepenica, to a cell with a board as a bed. Already on the first night they released water into the cell that submerged it together with the board on which she was lying. She was transported from Kragujevac to Ada Ciganlija, and then to Zabela, where she witnessed the lynching of the old revolutionary Savka Tasić, who left her bones in this camp. Then follows Punat, where she finds her sister Persida, then the islands Sveti Grgur and Goli Otok, where − after well-thought-out scenario − they had been lynched by Bosnian prisoners who were forced to revise their beliefs. Hungry, thirsty and crushed, they work in the quarry, carrying lime and cement, staggering like ghosts. On one occasion − while they were taking out a stone from the hill with 15 kg heavy crowbars, breaking rocks with heavy tilt hammers and carrying them with carriers to the shore in order to throw them into the sea − the cruel prison manager Marija Zelić said: "When the sea is filled with rocks to Velebit, we will let you go home." And it was about ten kilometres to Velebit mountain.
“On Goli Otok, I carried a large bar for extracting the stone and a sledge hammer for breaking larger boulders. Stumbling, I carried bags of cement and lime, unloading the ship that supplied the women's camp. We carried drinking water in large cauldrons that were delivered to a certain place by male camp inmates. We got three sips of drinking water, so some women tried to drink seawater, but they got sick, and some drank rainwater and got amoebae. Epidemics began to rage. After two years, they let me through the bloody passage* and Marija Zelić extends my stay in the camp. My sister Persida refuses to stand in the line where I am being lynched. So they put her under a boycott, she got joint inflammation and had to be hospitalized. Two convicts, Novka Vuksanović, who survived Auschwitz, and Brana Marković, Simo Marković's wife, were assigned to the so-called shit brigade. They were lowered into the faecal discharge canal and cleaned it with their bare hands. They stank awfully because they didn't have soap and water to wash themselves. The late Novka Vuksanović said that Goli Otok was incomparably worse than Auschwitz, and the unfortunate Brana Marković, the oldest convict, refused any conversation with investigators, was constantly boycotted, and, upon her return from prison, old and helpless, she hanged herself at the New Cemetery in Belgrade. I also remember the painful moans at the hard labour of Olja Aleksić, a Russian woman married to a lawyer in Kruševac, who couldn’t bear the constant torture and − out of fear of going through the passage for the third time − was found hanged behind the outhouse toilets. After four years I was released from the camp. I come home, I enter the yard. My mother didn't recognise me. She asks who do I look for and faints when she finds out who I am. Father too. The neighbourhood gathers to see me as if I’ve returned from the dead. The consequences are three surgeries: of Basedow's disease, jaw surgery − because all my teeth were knocked out − and gastric ulcer surgery.”
* refers to torturing method “špalir”: two raws of prisoners stand opposite each other creating a passage and the convict has to pass throw it while the other prisoners kick her/him and shout insults
Texts from the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of Goli Otok by the Goli Otok Association for Serbia: "Rememberance Evening”
Book cover: Milka Žicina “Neka to bude sve”
illustration: Čermak Jeroslav, Crnogorska devojka s torbom na leđima/Studija Bosna, 1878
Radmila Stevanović Mrdja - called Čajka, was imprisoned for three years, from July 4th 1949 when she was arrested until March 1952 when she was released from Goli Otok. Her "crime" consisted in saying that we and the Russians must reconcile, if not in a year or two, then in 20 to 40 we will certainly have to sit at the same table and resolve disputed issues as human beings and internationalists.
With 305 women from all parts of the former Yugoslavia, she was transferred from Belgrade to Ramski Rit, a swamp at the shore of Danube near Pozarevac, to a built up camp surrounded by wire, guards and German shepherds. Marija Zelić's first sentence when addressing the prisoners was: “You are moral and political losers, so you will get what you deserve here in the camp.”
Later the major of the Federal Udba, Veselin Popović, came as the new manager to Ramski Rit and immediately abolished the violent self-government. He tried to provide them somewhat better life and better nutrition in the terrible conditions of the Danube swamp. He secretly informed them about the snitches and fake convicts in prisoner suits, and he released prematurely some of the prisoners. Sensing that he is being kept under Marija Zelić watch and therefore came under suspicion with his superiors, on March 1st 1950 he sailed with a camp boat on Danube, disarmed the policeman who was securing the vessel, forced the motorist to dock on the opposite shore and fled to Romania.
Marija Zelić became the prison manager. In 1990 she gave an interview to the editor of Radio Belgrade about Ramski Rit and said among other things: “These were eight-hour jobs suitable for women's abilities. They were doing … something, they were fiddling with something. I’m not familiar with any torture in Ramski Rit. I don't know about any tortures in Ramski Rit. “
“Malicious Marija Zelić is shamelessly lying. In Ramski Rit every woman had to fulfil an arbitrary norm, to clean and deepen 10 meters of canal in the liquid mud up to her knees. Neither of us could do that so we stayed to dig much longer than the supposedly scheduled working hours. We started early in the morning and stayed until 5 o'clock in the afternoon. We got a few peas in the soup and a tiny piece of corn bread for lunch, and for breakfast and dinner a clear chicory without bread. Only 3 corn breads were baked and divided into 305 parts! We gradually turned into skeletons. With muffled moans, with hands full of bloody blisters, without possibility to bandage the wounds, our sad procession staggered day by day. Due to the strong winter and the rain, at the beginning of October 1949, they transferred us to Zabela and from there, on April 6th 1950 to Goli Otok. One horrible picture of student Dora Stojsić tied to the mast of Punat still haunts me in my sleep. And this is the evil deed of the heartless Marija Zelić. Ever since Ramski Rit and Zabela she had been attacking the brave and persistent student Dora Stojšić so she gave the order in the port of Bakar that she (Dora Stojšić) gets crucified on the mast of Punat, after all the convicts were rushed below the deck of the ship. They tied her hands spitting the most severe insults and let her sail to Goli Otok in the wind, all beaten up with her hair tousled. After all the atrocities in the mud of Ramski Rit, the persecution in Zabela and the torture in the seawater on Goli Otok, many of my companions remained barren. I wasn’t affected in such a misfortunate way, so after my release from prison I gave birth to three wonderful children with my dear Mrdja. They made our lives meaningful and became our support as we got old."
Texts from the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of Goli Otok by the Goli Otok Association for Serbia: "Rememberance Evening”
Marija Zelić ©web page beztajni.rs,
text “(H)istorija: Logori za bande ibeovki”
"On the 22nd of March 1945, that's also one of the dates I remember very well, I'm called by the Dalmatian department of OZNA (Department for People´s Protection) and they tell me that they're moving me to work for them. The place where they're appointing me is Dubrovnik, sector: counterintelligence. In this moment I felt the exact same thrill, as when I had been admitted to the Communist Party. How so? Well, because even before that I had already heard that the Department of OZNA had been established, that it's an organisation which will protect, that it's an organisation for fighting against all enemies of the people and so on, and that only the best persons will be chosen, the best staff, and now I'm also one of those who's being admitted to this OZNA organisation, and, of course, I'm all excited about it. It was a secret department and I immediately joined as an operative. I'm twenty two back then and I continue working on that position, on those affairs, till the end of 1946. Then, in ´46 I'm being transferred to work in Zagreb. However I come to the conclusion myself that the state is no longer in danger on either side..., and you know, this was an illegal activity, because the department I had worked in..., it was illegal, except on the regional level. The regional department of OZNA – this one was legal on the regional level, but the one where I had worked in – that one was illegal. So, listen, as soon as you hear me say “counterintelligence” it means that one fights against the intelligence activities that threaten you from the outside. So, de facto, it was a fight against the Anglo-American espionage. So, I do this job till ´46, and then I'm called to work in Zagreb, and in Zagreb I ask to be released from all duties at OZNA considering that no more …, that Yugoslavia is stable enough and that OZNA can also do well without me. And I wanna study. I suddenly have an urge to move to Belgrade, to visit it for a few days..., so I come to Belgrade and I stay there. I enrol at the University of Law. In 1947 I join the Youth Work Action at the railroad... - already as a student of Law – ...the railroad Šamac–Sarajevo. I was a labourer there. And as labourer I'm being recruited – I'm being round up, as we would say back then, and now we would say engaged to become a participant of the advanced...economy course...the advance economy course within the government economic council of SFR of Yugoslavia. Now, the thing is, that I had already ended all ties with OZNA..., because OZNA was..., listen..., right until 1952 - first OZNA and then UDBA - were both military formations. So..., I wanted to free myself at least a little bit from these military fetters, from secret and illegal operations, and...I was young, I wanted some more liberty..., and not these military chains..., I thought that I had already paid my dues to OZNA – to OZNA and to the military – and that now...I´m free. I'm a free citizen. However..."
Explanations: Ozna - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OZNA Udba- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_Security_Administration_(Yugoslavia) FNRJ - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_Federal_Republic_of_Yugoslavia
from the interview by journalist Svetlana Lukić with Marija Zelić Popović, 1989