A Prison Camp in Montenegro Is Now Becoming a Luxury Resort

The tiny Mamula island once held more than 2,300 prisoners during World War II

mamula island
"We were facing two options: to leave the site to fall into ruin or find investors who would be willing to restore it and make it accessible to visitors," Montenegrin tourism chief Olivera Brajovic tells the Agence France-Presse. Bertrand Gardel/Hemis/Corbis

For years, the government of Montenegro has wrestled with what to do with Mamula Island. Built by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century, the Mamula Fortress was repurposed into a concentration camp by Benito Mussolini during World War II. Now the Montenegrin government is drawing international criticism for its recent decision to allow the fort to become a luxury resort.

While the concentration camp wasn’t intended to be a death camp like Auschwitz, Mussolini’s fascist forces held about 2,300 people on the island whose diameter only stretches 200 meters, 130 who were killed or starved to death during the war, Pietro Lombardi reports for CNN. But while many European countries have paid homage to the dark chapters in their history by turning former concentration camps into memorials or museums, Mamula Island might soon feature spas and swimming pools, instead.

"To build a luxury hotel dedicated to entertainment at this place where so many people perished and suffered is a blatant example of lack of seriousness towards history," Olivera Doklestic, whose father, grandfather, and uncle were once imprisoned on Mamula, tells the Agence France-Presse. “No concentration camp in the world has been transformed into a hotel.”

The Balkan country has granted a 49-year lease to a Swiss-Egyptian developer, Orascom, who plans to build a $16.3 million complex of beaches, restaurants and dancefloors at the site.  Despite the international outrage at the proposal, the Montenegrin government defended its decision, saying that it was the best way to preserve Mamula Island for future visitors, the AFP reports.

"We were facing two options: to leave the site to fall into ruin or find investors who would be willing to restore it and make it accessible to visitors," Montenegran tourism chief Olivera Brajovic tells the AFP.

The current controversy over Mamula Island dates back to 2013, when the Montenegran government began advertising the island as an investment opportunity for developers looking "to satisfy the needs and demands of a wealthy clientele," Lombardi reports. This isn’t the first plan for the island that’s drawn criticism and protest, either: a development plan floated during the 1990s envisioned a casino and skyscraper built directly on top of the fortress, Nela Lazarevic reports for Balkan Insight.

Brajovic and other supporters of the development argue that this deal is the best way to preserve the island for future generations, saying that the resources brought in by the resort would not only draw visitors to Mamula Island, but would also go toward funding a cultural center and museum dedicated to the fortress’ infamous past. But others aren’t convinced that a resort is the best solution for the site.

“I think that for cultural heritage sometimes no resources is a better option than a bad intervention,” conservationist architect Aleksandra Kapetanovic tells Lazarevic. “Mamula is not in such bad condition, [it] is not at risk of crumbling over the next few years if something is not done right away. Waiting for a better solution, even for a decade, could be a viable option.”

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