The massacre of Daksa island
The island of Daksa lies north from the city of Dubrovnik, and it is the closest island that you see in front of the main port of Gruž. In the distant past, it had been a home of the Franciscan monks, ever since 1291*. There on Daksa Island, in the 17th century, inspired by the religious themes, Dubrovnik’s famous baroque poet Ivan Gundulić wrote the verses of his poem The tears of the prodigal son. Once, it was an island that provided inspiration and peace, it had been a haven of spirituality. Today, it is the island of doom, overcast by the shadows of the atrocious happenings from World War II.
Daksa is uninhabited and forsaken island. The small piece of land shaped like a boomerang is covered in dark pine trees that are trying to hide the horrors and the shame of bloody crimes from 1944. Only a few robbed and derelict buildings are to be found on Daksa: the old monastery with the church of Our Lady**, another church dedicated to St Sabina, the old family summer villa, the lighthouse*** and the house where the family of the lightkeeper had once lived.
After Partisans entered Dubrovnik on the 18 October 1944, coming from Serbia and Montenegro, they arrested more than 300 citizens of Dubrovnik. Among these people, there were many prominent citizens, politicians, but also businessmen, intellectuals, priests, and other distinguished figures known for their previous work. Among all of them, there was hardly anybody who had anything to do with the fascist war crimes from 1941. Still, their judges, jury and executors, all in one, acted on the principle – whoever is not with us is against us. They were declared to be Nazi collaborators and national enemies.
The fatal night of 24th of October was just the beginning of the practice that lasted for several days. Dozens of people were brought from the city prisons of St Lawrence Fort, Karmen and Labirint, and other places where they had been held as captives. They were taken to the nearby island of Daksa. The Mandrač harbour on the little island was the last station for these miserable men. Among the first victims were the three Franciscan monks. They were stripped and then they were forced to dig their own graves. They died singing praises to the Lord. Others followed. The gunshots echoed loudly through the dark autumn night. The several consecutive nights of that October, the men were all falling into the shallow pits of Daksa, one by one, killed in cold blood with a bullet from the back****.
A few days after, on Sunday, the 29th, the posters appeared all over the city that contained the proclamation of the verdict for the 36 civilians who were all sentenced to execution by firing squad. It was also announced that they were found guilty of treason after a thorough investigation and interrogation of witnesses and finally their trial.
However, this couldn't be further from the truth. None of the prisoners or witnesses had been questioned, there was no evidence obtained, no trial was held. All these men were not killed by the firing squad; instead, they were all shot from the close distance, probably kneeling and, certainly, not facing forward the executioners. And then the verdict was issued!
The lightkeeper worked on the island at the time. During the crimes, he and his family had been removed and transported to the mainland where they stayed for 17 days. Even later they were removed again for 10 days from the island for the same purpose.
The family lived on the northern part of the island, while the killings mostly occurred on the opposite end. There were whisperings that they could sometimes hear the screams at night, coming from the other side of Daksa. Whether these were real screams of later victims or the wails of the restless spirits of the killed, it has remained unknown. The children had even seen the human hands sticking out from the ground while they were playing. Then they ran crying to their mother’s arms for comfort, with a horrible image carved forever into their memory.
Needless to say, the family soon moved away, frightened forever by the threats of having to stay silent about what had happened.
The citizens of Dubrovnik were warned to not go looking for the bodies of their family members or friends, or else they might face a similar ending. The brutal killings aroused the feelings of terror, so the people quickly grew silent.
Through the socialistic times, it was not allowed to publicly discuss what had happened, and one could only dream of visiting the island to lay flowers on the graves. Up until the Croatian parliamentary elections in 1990, it was strictly forbidden to visit Daksa.
This crime has been veiled by silence for decades. In 2009, the bones of 53***** persons were found during the exhumation from the two mass graves. With the former mayor Niko Koprivica, who, after having been killed, was thrown into the sea, his body floated to the shores of the Šipan island, the number climbed to 54 persons.
Along some of the bodies, rosaries and crosses were discovered, while the others had wire coiled around their limbs. The skulls were pierced with one, sometimes even two or three bullet holes. All of the victims were stripped to their underwear, and then they were shot. They were all civilians, men between 20 and 70 years of age.
However, more victims are suspected to have been killed, the exhumation still isn't finished, so Daksa probably hides more secrets, and this sombre island isn't the only location where the bloody executions occurred in the war.
Furthermore, many locals still foster the superstitions about Daksa, and probably it will stay haunted for a very long time by the blood that was absorbed by its soil.
The island of Daksa is a symbol of tragedy and misery that have plagued many families. May their loved ones find the light to guide them to eternal peace, just like the ships are guided by the lighthouse of Daksa into the safe harbour that is near.
* The previous owner, the nobleman Sabin Getaldić, left the island with the church and the monastery he had built in 1281 to the Franciscan friars in his will.
** The chapel of Our Lady even used as a morgue by the Austrian army in the 19th century.
*** The old lighthouse was erected in 1873, during the Austrian rule
**** Among the victims of the massacre were Jesuit priest Petar Perica, composer of famous Croatian song Djevo Kraljice Hrvata, and Niko Koprivica, the mayor of Dubrovnik.
***** Of these, 18 were identified by DNA analysis, 26 were named using data and documents, and the remaining 9 are still unidentified or uncertain.
Mijović Kočan, Stijepo: Orsula i Daksa – početak Bleiburga, Kronika i zapisci jednog dokumentarca, Vjesnik, Narodne novine d.d., 1999.
Various authors: Ljudi koje pamtimo: žrtve Dakse - korak bliže istini, Naša Gospa, Dubrovnik, XVI, br. 43, pp. 51-67