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Tracing Oblivion: The Ustaše Concentration Camps on the Island of Pag, Croatia

Dates: 2022-2023

Croatian version/Hrvatski

Remains of a stone building in front of rocky mountainous terrain and blue sky.Rui Gomes Coelho, Sep 2021

During the Second World War, the Independent State of Croatia and the Ustaše promoted and organized the genocide of ethnic and religious minorities within its territory, as well as the systematic repression of political opponents. Starting in the summer of 1941, the Ustaše established a system of concentration camps as part of their genocidal policies against Serbian, Jewish and Roma communities. The island of Pag became one of the system's cornerstones with one camp located in the village of Metajna and another on the cove of Slana. On the mainland, the system also comprised camps in Gospić and Jadovno.

Since the 1990s, many of the sites related to this process were destroyed, politically repurposed or subjected to oblivion, whereas the memories of organized violence perpetrated by the Ustaše regime and the Axis occupation forces have been marginalized and silenced. Memorials built after 1945 to commemorate victims of fascism were specifically targeted in this context and continue to be threatened by politically inspired acts of destruction. Similarly, the preservation of sites of former concentration camps has been 
neglected by state authorities and their material traces risk to disappear under the threat of unregulated tourism, urban development, and agricultural works.

An aerial view of structural remains in rocky terrain. In the top right corner, a blue lake is visibleValerija Gligora, Sep 2021

The memory of sites such as Pag's concentration camps, has oscillated between state-sponsored narratives and local or individual perspectives. Local perspectives tended to be more resilient, and often clashed with initiatives pursued by survivors and the descendants of victims, NGOs, heritage institutions and researchers. The significance of stories that get to be told about the camps are constantly disputed and negotiated in the public sphere, subjected to historical and political contexts. Yet, the materiality of those camps grounds the society’s relationship with the history and memory of genocidal practices.

In this project, we challenge the transformation of Pag's Ustaše camps into blind spots of Croatia’s contemporary society. Despite the publication of memoirs, archival sources, journalistic and academic research about the history of this Ustaše camp, state authorities and heritage institutions are reluctant to acknowledge its existence and encourage the transformation of Slana into a site of remembrance and the commemoration of its victims. By documenting and studying the camps, as well as discourses produced about them, we aim at promoting preservation initiatives and encourage conversations about the role of such sites in ongoing debates about human rights and democracy.

The project’s research team consists of a group of heritage professionals with diverse disciplinary backgrounds. This team critically mobilizes concepts and methods of archaeology, anthropology, art history, and cultural studies to work with multiple stakeholders, including descendants of victims and local communities, in the definition of an open, collaborative research agenda. So far, the team has shown that the traces of Metajna and Slana’s concentration camps might take many forms: they might be small things lost under rocks, pieces of broken memorial plaques or fascist graffiti on monuments, or memories that have remained private since the war. Each one of these traces carries a transformative potential.

A small boat on a dark blue-green lake, bordered by rocky terrain. Distant mountains and blue sky are visible in the background.Rui Gomes Coelho, Sep 2021

Research Team:

Rui Gomes Coelho (Department of Archaeology, Durham University, UK and Centre for Archaeology, University of Lisbon, Portugal)

Valerija Gligora (Valdir – obrt za istraživanje i usluge, Zagreb, Croatia)

Ivona Grgurinović (Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, Croatia)

Sanja Horvatinčić (Institute of Art History, Zagreb, Croatia)

Lujo Parežanin (Department of Comparative Literature, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, Croatia)

Sara Simões (Centre for Archaeology, University of Lisbon, Portugal)

Iva Stojević (KU Leuven, Belgium)

Project collaborators: 

Igor Drvendžija (Archive of Serbs, Serbian National Council, Croatia)

Laia Gallego Vila (Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain)

Angelina Stefanović (University of Belgrade, Serbia)

Project partner:

Department of Culture, Serb National Council, Croatia


Government Office of Human Rights and Rights of National Minorities of the Republic of Croatian through the program of the Department for Culture of the Serb National Council