Fact and fantasy collide at the Penang War Museum in Malaysia.
Friday 8 July 2016
Nobody lives on Daksa anymore. The small island lies just 1.5 nautical miles from Dubrovnik, the tourism capital of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast; you can even see it from the northern part of the city, a cluster of dark cypress bursting out of the Adriatic Sea with the white tip of a lighthouse just visible above the tree line.
In October 2013, the island went up for sale at 2 million euros. After three years on the market and still no viewers, the owners dropped the price to €1.7 million – a ridiculously low asking price for a 12-acre private island complete with several historic buildings, a boathouse and a dock. Yet for all the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to Dubrovnik every summer – and despite the dozens of companies offering boat tours of the surrounding islands – Daksa has managed to remain largely untouched.
The reason is not a pretty one, and for many locals Daksa is a place they would rather simply forget. The island was the scene of a brutal massacre back in 1944, and ever since then it has been the subject of ghost stories and superstition, fishermen’s tales about angry spirits that roam the island looking for revenge.
Even today, the crimes committed on Daksa have still not been subject to a proper investigation; but during my recent visit to Croatia I decided to do a little investigation of my own, taking a boat across to Daksa to explore this supposedly haunted island for myself.
The Boat From Dubrovnik
I first read about Daksa Island on Atlas Obscura, while I was preparing for my trip around the Balkans. I read some more, stayed up all night researching the place – but none of the articles I found seemed to feature photos taken on the island itself. Daksa was always pictured as a dark shape on the horizon, the outline of a forested rock with that dirty-white lighthouse standing forlorn at its northern end. Descriptions of the buildings and terrain on Daksa, meanwhile, tended to feature the same words and information from one article to the next; as if everybody who wrote about the place were simply rewriting the same source material.
The lack of photos, the lack of firsthand, original accounts, made it clear that not many people visited Daksa for themselves.
It left me wondering whether such a visit was even possible… though I couldn’t see why not. An uninhabited – and therefore, presumably, unguarded – island sat within easy swimming distance from the shore; I was cautiously optimistic that I’d find a way to get there.
I began researching boat hire the week before we arrived in Dubrovnik, and found that many of the local firms featured maps on their websites: the islands of Koločep, Lopud and Šipan labeled clearly on each, traced through with dotted lines suggesting scenic routes and easy currents. The lines invariably circled clear around Daksa, though – a J-shaped speck of land that wasn’t labelled on any of these maps.
I emailed a few of the companies: “We don’t go there,” was the only reply I’d get. So I decided to wait – we’d get to Dubrovnik first, head down to the port and wave some money around. Surely there’d be someone there who’d take us over the water… and if not, I decided, I’d just have to hire a boat and navigate myself.
We arrived in the evening and spent a night exploring the polished stone streets of Dubrovnik’s Old Town; before heading out, the following morning, with the mission of finding a vessel. “Boat tour!” someone shouted at me, sure enough, as we crossed a 16th century drawbridge in the direction of the ports. “Best boat tour in Dubrovnik!”
The streets were thick with tourists, and stall after stall set up along the roadside offered guided city walks and island excursions. The man who’d approached me was young, with good English and the beaming overconfidence of a natural-born salesman. I asked him about Daksa though, and his tone changed immediately.
“Oh man,” he said, “why do you wanna go there? There’s nothing to see – just a church and a cemetery.” I asked if he’d ever been, and he said No: “I would never set foot on that island. I guess I’m too superstitious.”
That superstition was shared by plenty of his countryfolk, it seemed, as finding a captain prepared to take us to the island was somewhat harder than anticipated. Going alone wasn’t an option either, I discovered – not without the proper boating license. By early afternoon we were looking at websites again, messaging one firm after another until, eventually, we had a positive response.
Our captain arranged to meet us at Dubrovnik’s medieval Old Town Port. He had offered us various tour itineraries, adding beach stops and picturesque caves to the suggested route around the islands. No, we’d said, just Daksa; and he’d agreed, although not without a note of disappointment.
After climbing aboard the vessel, we followed a wide arc out around the massive stone walls of Dubrovnik’s Old Town. On foot, I had found it difficult to truly appreciate the place – the streets too crowded with holidaymakers, the market plazas clogged with souvenir stalls, tour groups, vendors carrying great bundles of selfie sticks and loud, modern pop songs blasting out of Irish pubs and American-style burger bars. From the water though, that all changed. As we bounced across the surf Dubrovnik shrank into the distance; until it was no more than a clutch of timeless stone towers sat watch over the Adriatic.
Around the next corner of headland, Daksa finally came into view.
From this distance the mainland behind us looked alive: animated by the movement of distant traffic, and the tiny boats that nudged and barged about the ports like bees at a hive. Even the other islands glistened with the light reflected off yachts bobbing in harbours, but on Daksa, nothing moved. Instead a heavy stillness sat about the cypresses. Navigating round the west coast of the island we passed broken, tumbled walls engulfed in ivy; and reaching the north end, even that lighthouse turned out to be little more than a shell: a blind sentinel abandoned to ghosts.
We docked at a crude stone jetty beneath the lighthouse tower, and one by one we clambered onto land. Our captain would not be joining us – he muttered something about bad currents and boat maintenance, promised to collect us from the same spot one hour later, then parked the boat in open water a healthy distance away from Daksa. It looked as though we’d have the island to ourselves.
The Daksa Massacre
The earliest recorded history of Daksa Island dates from the 13th century: a Franciscan monastery was founded here in 1281, and dedicated to the martyred Saint Sabina. The island was a popular refuge used by sailors caught in storms off the coast and its name comes from the Greek, deksios, meaning right hand.
After WWII the history of Daksa becomes somewhat more complicated. The so-called ‘Daksa Massacre’ was heavily downplayed – or else wilfully forgotten – and details of the event were immediately drowned in a wave of post-war pro-socialist propaganda. It has only been seven years now since the bodies were recovered from where they fell.
A little background first: ever since the fall-out of WWI, many Croatians had been unhappy over the amount of power that Serbia wielded within the subsequent union of Yugoslavia. When Nazi Germany invaded the Balkans during WWII, Hitler played to these nationalist sentiments – setting Croatia up as a powerful puppet state under the rule of the Ustaša, Croatia’s homegrown fascist movement.
The results were brutal. Not just the Serbs living in Croatia, but Roma, Jews and other minorities were ruthlessly persecuted. As many as 450,000 victims would be claimed by Ustaša massacres and concentration camps. When eventually the Nazis were defeated it was the partisans, local resistance forces, who took control of the region – while their leader, Josip Broz Tito, stepped in as the president of a newly reunited Yugoslavia.
Generally the partisan movement is considered to have been a good thing. They were anti-Nazi after all, a sentiment that never truly goes out of fashion. These partisans had been of mixed Balkan nations and ethnicities, and that same attitude of pan-national comradeship would characterise Tito’s rule: ‘Brotherhood and Unity’ became his motto.
While these socialist-leaning partisans preached tolerance, however, such sympathy wasn’t always extended to those believed to have been working alongside the region’s former Nazi overlords.
The partisans entered Dubrovnik on 18th October 1944. Filled with revolutionary fervour these freedom fighters began the process of weeding out the last traces of fascism in Croatia, and in Dubrovnik alone they arrested more than 300 suspected Nazi collaborators. Amongst the numbers were a local priest, Petar Perica, and Dubrovnik’s own mayor, Niko Koprivica.
On 24th October, 53 of the accused men were rowed out to the island of Daksa and summarily executed. Their bodies were not buried, it is reported, but instead left to rot across the island. Flyers were later distributed around Dubrovnik by the partisans, listing the names of 35 of the massacre victims. “In the name of the People of Yugoslavia,” they declared. There had been no trial, and citizens of Dubrovnik were warned not to go looking for the bodies of friends and family on Daksa – or else risk meeting a similar fate.
After that, people stopped going to the island… until 2009, when forensic scientists finally began recovering the bodies from their open-air mass graves.
Exploring an Island of Ghosts
I was aware of a sense of foreboding as I climbed the barnacled stone steps up to the island. It wasn’t so much the place itself, but more what I knew about it that turned my stomach – a sense of dread that only grew as I reached the broken walls of old buildings built on Daksa’s highest ground.
My shipmates wandered straight inside that first building for a look around… but I headed off alone, towards the island’s interior. I was eager to explore in silence, to soak up the atmosphere of this place without the distraction of conversation. If there really were ghosts on Daksa, I would give them every possible chance to make themselves known.
Daksa is the smallest island in the Elaphite archipelago – 500 metres long, and 200 metres across at its widest point. I followed a path from the lighthouse, that cut between the trees towards the south. The island was largely overgrown. Beneath the cypresses, orange and lemon trees bowed into hidden groves, their fragrances mingling with the scent of wild garlic carried on the sea air. Cactus erupted from the remains of stone walls, basking in the rare sunlight that managed to find its way through the canopies above.
The articles I’d read about Daksa made the island sound fully furnished; they listed buildings – a 13th century monastery, a 19th century lighthouse and a ‘spacious’ villa – but the structures l found were little more than ruins, and largely indistinguishable from one another. Somewhere round the eastern flank of the island I passed through a curtain of waxy leaves to come face-to-face with pale stone arches, half suffocated by the wild vegetation. Between these pillars lay a loam of rain-sodden wood, only the odd splintered fragment still holding its shape with enough determination to tell that this had once been furniture.
Heading inside and walking from room to room, I had to guess this place had once been the island villa. It had been utterly ransacked since though, all its contents dragged outside and smashed. Etching on the walls showed where other visitors had been before – names and initials chiselled deep into the hard plaster.
Past the villa, another set of steps went down towards a simple concrete dock at the southeast corner of the island. I followed them to the waterline, stepping from concrete onto dark, slippery rocks. It was a relief to get out of the trees, to feel the wind, the fresh sea air again. The island felt strangely oppressive, I thought, as I looked across the water to Dubrovnik. The city shone back in the hot sun, bright and clean and naive; oblivious to these heavy groves and their sad history.
Even at the time, I realised that my reading of Daksa was heavily biased by what I knew about the place – it was hard to appreciate the island’s rugged, natural charm when with every step, I was worrying about landing my foot on some undiscovered human remains. When one of my friends caught up with me then, stood on the beach in sombre contemplation, I found I was glad of the company.
Together we made our way along the coastline, around the rocky southern tip of Daksa Island. The going got harder though, the further we went. Beneath the sea wall, cactus grew in abundance over the hot, salty rocks. I tried pushing through the rubbery plants to reach the gentler slopes beyond, along the island’s west coast; but the spines pricked at my legs, long cactus needles embedding themselves into the flesh of my calves, and I had to give up. We turned back inland, towards the darkness of the woods, climbing up and over the stone wall that formed the border between rocks and trees.
Beyond the wall however, I landed not in a wooded grove but rather a landscaped lawn. A memorial garden spread out around what looked like an old stone barn. In one corner was set a bench, and beside it, LED lights flickered inside the red glass jars of electric grave candles. It was mildly disorientating: the first evidence I’d seen that anyone else had visited in a hundred years.
Much like all the other buildings on Daksa, that barn-like structure was a wreck. The wooden upper floor had mostly collapsed – rotted, burnt, or both – to leave one great, empty chamber inside, a bare earthen floor between grand archways. Presumably this building had once been a part of the monastery, though its tiny barred windows would have seemed better suited to a prison. Across the walls, between names and dates, I spotted a disturbing number of swastikas scratched into the stone.
Walking around the back of the building, I came upon a square plot set inside a low wall where the grass had been allowed to grow wild. A memorial cross rose on a plinth at one end, while stones set around the area were engraved with lists of names. It could only have been a grave: the final resting place of the 53 men executed on Daksa Island in 1944.
I looked closer at the wall that ran down the east side of the plot. There were small scuff marks on the stones, dozens of little dents, and though I couldn’t be sure I wondered if perhaps they’d been caused by bullets; if this had been the very spot where victims were lined up for the firing squad.
Rather than chill me though, the discovery of that mass grave brought with it a strange sense of relief. Up until that point I had thought of the whole island as a grave; death had lurked in every shadow, untamed, but here by the process of memorialisation – through the kindness of a proper burial – it had at least been contained.
The cross, these stones, in some small way seemed to offer a degree of peace to the restless spirits of Daksa Island.
Daksa: A Post-Mortem
Daksa’s ghosts went largely undisturbed for 60 years. It wasn’t until 2009 that an unnamed individual stumbled across a mass grave on the island; authorities announced the discovery of six bodies in September that year, at which point a forensic team was sent in to explore.
What they found was the remains of 53 adult males, the bones gathered in two locations on the island. Beads were discovered too, along with crosses, rosaries and collars that suggested at least some number of Catholic priests had been amongst the victims. DNA analysis has since been able to identify 18 sets of remains. In October 2009 a psalter of bishops visited the massacre site, and in June the following year the bodies were re-interred – finally laid to rest in that plot I’d found at the southern end of the island.
There are still a great many questions though, as to what actually happened on Daksa in 1944. Most sources suggest there were a total of 53 victims; though some say 48, and others put it at twice that number. The perpetrators have never been identified, while 35 of the recovered skeletons remain anonymous. Even amongst the known victims, many have living family who today insist that these people had no connection to the Nazi atrocities.
Though there have been calls for a full investigation into the murders (including by the president of the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights), nothing has yet come of it.
In the years since the massacre, Daksa has become the focus of stories about ghosts and apparitions; but I believe such superstition masks a deeper, more poignant problem, namely that Daksa subverts the conventional historical narrative of this region.
For decades after the event, the socialist partisans who liberated Yugoslavia from the Nazis would be painted as the heroes in a black-and-white struggle of good versus evil. Even the subsequent break-up of Yugoslavia, marked by the rise of violent nationalism in the 1990s, would retrospectively come to reflect well on the Brotherhood and Unity that went before.
But on Daksa, the heroes of Yugoslav propaganda committed acts of evil against the villains. It’s no wonder that Tito’s regime tried to bury the story, forbidding all visits to the island on pain of death. The events were problematic then… and they remain problematic now. There is a strong right wing movement still active in Croatia, hard at work revising Ustaša history while paying tribute to fallen fascists.
Dubrovnik, meanwhile, is busy embracing the future. The UNESCO-protected Old Town has provided filming locations for Game of Thrones and Star Wars: Episode VIII; while these heaving crowds of tourists have only grown since Croatia joined the EU. Dubrovnik has no place for massacre islands or fascist shrines, and if ghost stories serve to keep a difficult past at bay, then so be it; but as far as I could tell, the only ghosts on Daksa are purely political in nature.
The Exclusion Zone.
The Bohemian Blog is bigger than it looks. In fact, there’s a whole restricted area hidden away behind the public pages… a space where patrons of the site can access exclusive content, book previews and private image galleries. It’s called The Exclusion Zone. Just sponsor me the equivalent of a cup of coffee for each new article I post, and I’ll send you the password. Check out my page on Patreon to find out more about the perks of getting involved.