Bos/Hrv/Srp 28 Dec 15

Hearts and Minds: The Battle for Montenegro’s Mamula Fortress

Plan to convert island fortress into a high-end resort angers families of locals imprisoned there during WW2, as experts warn Podgorica’s focus on tourism could undermine heritage preservation.

Nela Lazarevic
Swiss-Egyptian developers Orascom plan to transform Mamula Fortress, once the site of a concentration camp, into a luxury tourist resort Photo:

One thing Jovanka Uljarevic remembers about her late grandmother is her seemingly inexplicable fear of the sea: “Although she had lived her entire life by the seaside… Grandma Ljubica could not stand the sea. For sure it was due to the trauma from Mamula.”

Ljubica was just 12 when Mussolini’s fascist forces killed her father and imprisoned her, together with her mother and sister, in the spring of 1942 on the island of Lastavica, which lies at the entrance to Boka Kotorska Bay on Montenegro’s north-western coast.

They were taken from the nearby village of Morinj and were among the first prisoners held in the island’s 19th Century Austro-Hungarian Mamula fortress that was used by Italian troops as a concentration camp during the war.

Ljubica never spoke to the children about her four months as a prisoner on Mamula, but Jovanka pieced together part of her story from documents and relatives, who told her Ljubica, along with other women and children of all ages, were kept in crowded cells and that escape attempts were brutally punished.

More than 100 were killed or starved to death and over 2,000 imprisoned at Campo Mamula, according to estimates based on Italian military documents. 

 If the baby cried, soldiers would come in and beat everyone up until there was silence,” Jovanka was told. “It was cold, they were starved and the overall conditions were very bad.”

Ljubica was released as part of an exchange to make room for more male prisoners but Mamula remains an integral part of Jovanka’s family history, just as it is for the dozens of local families who gather each year on September 14 to honour victims and survivors.

Ljubica’s son and cousin visit one of the cells during the family’s annual Memorial Day visit to Mamula Photo: Jovanka Uljarevic

Unsurprisingly, Jovanka and some other locals whose relatives were killed or imprisoned at the concentration camp, are highly critical of plans by the Swiss-Egyptian developer Orascom to transform Mamula into a luxury tourist resort boasting a marina, spa, beach club, restaurants, and a dancefloor with DJs that promise to add to the “party ambience”.

“The Orascom project would ruin every memory of Mamula and what it really was,” Jovanka told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.

Montenegro’s ruling coalition party, the Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, disagrees, underlining the development will include a museum or memorial honouring the concentration camp victims that will be open to the public.

The DPS also stresses the project will see Orascom invest 15m euros in the largely-abandoned site, bring in an estimated 7.5m euros in rent revenue during the first 15 years and create around 200 new jobs locally.

A good number of locals also support the government-backed Orascom development plan, noting the fort’s condition is deteriorating and needs funding for restoration works.

MPs are expected to vote for a second time on whether to give the Orascom development the go-ahead between Monday and Tuesday. The project failed to secure enough parliamentary backing during the first vote in July this year, partly because the DPS has lost the support of its key coalition partner the Social Democratic Party, SDP.

In addition, ongoing opposition protests calling for Prime Minister Djukanovic to resign and the formation of an interim government have further undermined the ruling party’s ability to pass legislation.

Mamula: ‘Symbol of anti-fascist struggle’

Olivera Doklestic, a local construction engineer and activist whose grandfather, Lazar, father, Mirko, and uncle, Djordje, also survived imprisonment in Campo Mamula, is hoping the government will think again.

“The history of the island and its fortress must be at the centre of its adaptation. A luxury resort is not an adequate solution,” Doklestic insists.

Remembering her annual visits to the fortress with her father, she believes educational tours – combined with commercial activities such as restaurants and other facilities - are the most appropriate way forward, even if that “wouldn’t bring in a mountain of money right away”.

Many agree that the site’s development should be focused on education and remembrance in light of its history.

Mamula Fortress

Marking the entrance of the UNESCO-protected Boka Kotorska Bay, Lastavica Island lays around 3.4 nautical miles (6.3km) from the coastal town of Herceg Novi. Around 80 per cent of the uninhabited 200m diameter island is occupied by the fortress.

The fortress was built in 1853 by Austrian general Lazar Mamula to protect, together with several other fortifications positioned strategically around the entrance of Boka Kotorska Bay, the southern-most border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  

While there are no tourist facilities on the island, dozens of locals and tourists visit the island each day during the summer season. Boats normally charge an additional one or two euros on top of the regular Herceg-Novi/Zanjic beach return trip to include a 20-30 minute stop on Mamula.


“Places of former suffering like Mamula should be part of the educational system and of the special offer of educational tourism.

This would support the development of the culture of human rights in Montenegro, but also provide foreign tourists with the possibility to learn about the history of the anti-fascist battle,” believes Tamara Milas, programme associate of the Centre for Civic Education NGO.

Boutros Boutros-Gali, the former UN Secretary-General, even got involved in the Mamula development debate, sending a letter to SDP MP Ranko Krivokapic, the president of Montenegro’s parliament.

“We are surprised that the only solution for preserving and using the fort is a mere business arrangement and privatisation agreement,” the letter, which was also signed by Federico Major, former UNESCO general director, and other prominent international figures, states.

The signatories questioned the lack of wider public debate on the topic before giving initial approval of the Orascom development and suggested using the site for international meetings and negotiations, including encounters of world leaders might be a better way to honour its history.

The government insists the project has been the subject of wide and open public consultation and that Orascom’s plans fully respects victims and survivors.

However, heritage experts have also expressed concerns that, according to development plans available to the public, important architectural features with military historical importance, including observation posts and cisterns, might be modified or removed.

Austro-Hungarian fort expert Valker Pachauer is concerned the observation points marked on this photo will be removed or modified Photo: Valker Pachauer

Valker Pachauer, an expert on Austro-Hungarian fortresses in Montenegro from the Institute of Urban and Architectural History in Graz, Austria, emphasises the impact of the development on the fort’s historical integrity, including the construction of swimming pools in the courtyard, is still not clear.

“We don’t know how the inner structure and technical infrastructure will influence the historical building… Mamula is a significant architectural and historic monument as it is probably the only island fort that was built by the Austro-Hungarian monarchy… [it] should be seen in a wider context of European history,” he says.

However, Predag Sekulic, DPS MP and president of the Tourism and Spatial Development Parliamentary Committee, told BIRN the Orascom proposal “valorises Mamula Island in the right way while also preserving part of its historical value”.

In addition, during the Tourism Parliamentary Committee debate on last week, Tourism Minister Branimir Gvozdenovic assured MPs the project will ensure the fortress retains its historical character with “all elements related to the conservation requirements”.

“There is no charge in the dimensions of the objects, it will only get certain facilities that are a function of a high-quality tourism offer,” he underlined.

Montenegro’s Directorate for the Protection of Cultural Heritage declined to address Pachauer’s comments directly, telling BIRN they cannot “make comments based on speculation” as they have not yet received the final project plans from Orascom.

Luxury tourism ‘not the only option’

While public opinion on how best to preserve Mamula is very much divided, the debate has highlighted concerns about whether Montenegro is effectively balancing heritage conservation against the economic benefits of foreign investment in high-end tourism.

Since formally becoming an independent state in 2006, Montenegro’s economic development has largely focused on tourism and the construction of ‘mega-resorts’ – some of which lie in the Boka Kotorska Bay within a few miles of Mamula. These include Orascom’s resort town Lustica Bay, super-yacht marina Porto Montenegro and One&Only’s Porto Novi.

While acknowledging the value of foreign investment and tourism, some say the government needs to diversify economic development and heritage policy.

“There is a general lack of attention and awareness towards culturally enriching its [Montenegro’s] citizens and the public benefit in general,” claims Aleksandra Kapetanovic, a conservation architect and executive director of Expedito, one of the country’s leading sustainable development NGOs.

Parliament debate – key issues

Orascom’s proposed development narrowly failed to secure enough backing from MPs during the first parliamentary vote in July this year, with 39 voting in favour - just two votes shy of the 41 votes needed to approve the plan.

Predag Sekulic, a DPS MP and former tourism and culture minister, expects the project will get sufficient parliamentary backing on the second vote because it will preserve “its historical value” and “there is not even one rational reason not to support [it]”.

His confidence may yet prove ill-judged, says SDP MP Draginja Vuksanovic, a law professor who is also a member of the Political System, Justice and Government Committee. The SDP criticised the plan during the first vote, claiming it is not in the public interest or in line with local legislation, something the DPS denies.

“We will examine the document again, but it is clear that under current conditions the SDP will most probably not support this contract provided that it [the proposal] is identical to the first one in all its most important parts,” she predicts.

In addition the 49-year lease has raised eyebrows, with some observers querying whether the contract effectively amounts to a sale, something the government strongly denies, stressing the deal, once approved by parliament, is fully in line with legislation banning the sale of historical monuments.

The SDP and opposition parties have also criticised the 4,000-euro monthly rental income as being too low, although the DPS insists that measured against the high level of investment required by Orascom, the deal represents good value for Montenegro.

The second parliamentary vote is scheduled for Monday, December 28 or Tuesday, December 29.


“Everything seems to be approached through the optic of tourism, this is so obvious, the significance of cultural heritage for local populations is not given enough attention, not understood enough and there are not enough projects aimed at improving… education and culture.”

Kapetanovic, who attended a round-table discussion on the proposed Mamula development, believes the government needs to properly consider other means of maintaining and ensuring cultural heritage sites are sustainable, “especially when we have very specific heritage linked with painful memories”.

Stressing that conservation work could be done in phases, making the site safe for visitors and also negating the need to find all funding in one go, she notes that EU funds are available for restoring and repurposing heritage sites.

The EU Commission’s press office confirmed to BIRN that cultural organisations in Montenegro are eligible for funding for cross-border cooperation projects, which also includes funding for the protection and conservation of cultural heritage.

“While Montenegro has participated in projects both under the EU Culture programme 2007-2013 and the Creative Europe programme 2014-2020, to our knowledge, it has so far not been involved in projects on the topic of protection of cultural heritage”, the commission press office said in written response sent to BIRN.

Podgorica did obtain nearly half a milion euros of EU funding to restore the Ottoman Empire era Besac Fortress just above Virpazar, Skadar Lake, near the Albanian border.

The first phase of the project was completed in 2013, but the second part of the agreement, which envisioned the use of national funds to adapt the fort for visitors, including a museum and a theatre stage, has not yet been completed.

Neither the Ministry of Culture nor the Directorate for the Protection of Cultural Heritage responded to BIRN’s request for comment on the use of EU heritage funds for Mamula or other Montenegrin historical sites.

Orascom ‘will respect Mamula’s history’

For its part, the government insists that not only will the Orascom plan benefit the local and national economy, it will also serve as an educational monument. During last week parliamentary committee debate Gvozdenovic stressed “it will have a memorial room or a museum”.

“We will create a museum with the best restaurant and the best hotel on the Mediterranean,” Samih Saviris, president of Orascom, also promised when the tender was awarded pending parliamentary approval.

Orascom’s map of its proposed development of Mamula does not mention a museum or memorial room Photo:

However, there is no mention of a museum on Orascom’s glitzy promotional website,
or of a memorial room that several local media outlets reported had been agreed with the Union of Liberation Fighters, SUBNOR.

While Orascom has declined to respond to BIRN before the parliamentary vote, the government issued a press release back in October underlining the development “will promote the historical character of the island, creating a prestigious tourism destination and the only island-hotel with dedicated museum space in Montenegro”.

In previous releases, the government has also stressed that the 49-year lease of the island to Orascom will ensure Mamula “maintains the character of cultural heritage throughout the entire period of the lease. The fort is registered as a monument of culture and the investor is fully aware of this”.

‘Don’t waste Orascom opportunity’

Despite the concerns about turning Mamula over to high-end tourism, many support the plan and say the government is right to seek substantial foreign investment for the fort, which has been abandoned for so many years.

Supporters of the Orascom plan worry the fortress will continue to deteriorate without serious investment Photo: Dragana Zecevic Plavanski

Dragana Zečević Plavanski, director of local public service station Radio Herceg Novi, visits the island at least twice every year and worries that without restoration the fortress is at risk of irreversible damage.

“It would be terrible to waste such an opportunity offered by a serious company like Orascom after years of total neglect,” she says. “Mamula keeps degrading due to lack of funds… If we don’t use this possibility to approve the project, I am afraid that Orascom will find that we are not serious enough and abandon the idea.”
Still others note the current proposal is a vast improvement on plans floated in the 1990s to erect a casino and skyscraper on top of the fortress.

Pachauer, the Austro-Hungarian fortress expert from Graz, describes Orascom’s plan as at least being “less invasive” than the proposed casino and skyscraper bid.

Local art history professor, 77-year-old Lazar Seferovic, says simply: “We were actually lucky that the project to turn Mamula into a casino with a skyscraper on the top failed due to lack of resources.”

While public opinion remains divided over whether the Orascom plan would at least preserve the abandoned fort and help the local economy, Expedito’s Kapetanovic cautions as long as the fort is in relatively good condition there is no need to rush into a development that could inflict “worse damage” without the option of returning Mamula to its authentic state.

“I think that for cultural heritage sometimes no resources is a better option than a bad intervention”, Kapetanovic says. “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”.

 This article was produced as part of the Alumni Initiative of Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundationand Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network