Editorial

Majske Poljane, Glina, Petrinja: A Foreigner View of Croatia's Emergency Response

By 30 December 2020

December 30, 2020 - A day after the devastating Petrinja earthquake, TCN visits Majske Poljane, Glina and Petrinja, finding tragedy, humanity, and Croatians pulling together with huge hearts. 

My first and only previous visit to Petrinja was in the winter of 2003. For reasons which now escape me, I went to pick up a Ukrainian employee of OSCE and his son. The son had a broken leg and my task was to transport him to hospital in Zagreb. Of Petrinja, I remember very little apart from the snow, the cold, and the many destroyed buildings after years of war and enemy occupation less than a decade previously. 

Not much good has happened to the people of Petrinja and surrounding areas in the 25 years since the war finished. Unemployment, emigration - a sadly common story in continental Croatia outside the capital Zagreb. An earthquake measuring 6.2 was felt in ten other countries and every part of Croatia yesterday - it was my first earthquake experience, over lunch in Varazdin, 140 km away - powerful enough to have us leave the house immediately.

As TCN covered the aftermath, it was clear that a major tragedy was unfolding, with 7 deaths reported within hours. International messages and pledges came pouring in, and international interest in the live updates was huge. I decided to go and visit the next day, so that perhaps an in-depth account of the situation on the ground might help people understand the scale of the tragedy, as well as painting a realistic picture of what was happening on the ground.  

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Unsure of how busy the roads would be, I left home in Varazdin at 5 am, picking up TCN colleague Marc Rowlands from Zagreb on the way. Never having done anything like this before, we decided to start in the small village of Majske Poljane, where four of the seven deaths  had occurred, and where the mayor had claimed that  only 10% of buildings were not damaged. 

The mayor was not exaggerating.  

The fog was thick at times, and our hearts sank the more we drove along the narrow main road. How does a community recover from something like this? Rebuild?

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A shell-shocked man was standing by the side of the road. His house was more or less intact, but he was alone and without power. His neighbours had not fared as well. On hearing I was English, he told me that he was a war veteran and had fought side by side with an Englishman in Vinkovci in 1992 in the 109th Brigade.

"Was his name Steve?" I asked, the only Englishman I knew in Vinkovci who fought for Croatia (and DEFINITELY the only Englishman to open a pub in a field in the middle of nowhere in eastern Croatia).  

" Yes, Steve. He probably will not remember me, or recognise me after all these years." I suggested we try and sent Steve the photo above to find out - the reply came back that the face was familiar. Such is the smallness of the village that is Croatia. 

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While Vladimir's house was in reasonable condition, the same could not be said of the neighbours' house across the road. Yesterday, this had been an inhabited home. Today, inhabited only by at least 10 horses that I counted, one of which was tied to a tractor. All were shellshocked. 

I told various media colleagues I came across today about the horses, and they featured on the national news this evening, and I recently heard that a container of help has arrived at the house, including help for the horses. 

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Ours was not the only car with Varazdin plates in Majske Poljane. They came from Varazdin, Cakovec, Zagreb, Vukovar and Bosnia. Volunteers, Croatians and foreigners with their cars filled with food, blankets, water, clothes, looking for locals to donate to, to help them through this difficult period. 

Vladimir had already received a visit from the Red Cross yesterday, and they brought food, blankets and clothes. He took only a little food, as the need for the rest was perhaps greater with others.  

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It was a theme of the day - cars from all over Croatia (here, Nasice) filled with supplies to help the people of Majske Poljane, Glina, Petrinja and Sisak. 

Of all the countries I have lived and travelled in, never have I seend a nation come together in time of crisis in the way Croatia does. As my heart was breaking with the horror scenes all around, it was also beaming with pride at the efforts of my adopted homeland.  

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The humans of Majske Poljane may have been confused by what had happened, and so too were the animals. From those horses to the bleating sheep and many dogs either wandering around confused or guarding houses which no longer existed, the loneliness and loss of direction of beloved pets was as poignant as anything I saw today.  

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We made our way back through the mist to the other side of Majske Poljane, to be greeted by the Croatian army, just part of the emergency response.  

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They were soon at work, setting up temporary shelters. 

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Great teamwork, obviously well-practised. 

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And within 15 minutes, mission complete for the first tent.  

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We headed on to the nearest town,  Glina, which was also badly affected. On the way, by the side of the road, piles of rubble from the damaged houses. Neatly arranged, waiting for the authorities to collect them.

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This is the photo a friend from Petrinja sent me yesterday. Cleaning this up was going to take forever, surely?

We couldn't believe how clean the streets of Glina were, until we saw the local teams in action.  

One section complete, on to the next. 

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Some things will be impossible to fix.  

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The fire brigade was out in force, removing loose debris and making buildings as safe as possible. Lots of loose chimneys were removed in the region today.

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From Glina to Petrinja, but there was plenty to observe on the way. A beautiful stone church in Gora, victim of the quake, huge chunks of stone lying in its gardens. A local told me that the church is only a few years old, having being rebuilt after the Homeland War.  

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The entrance to Petrinja.  

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With no fixed agenda, we decided to follow things that interested us. Such as the Red Cross on quad bikes delivering emergency water. 

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It was hard to keep up as they went house to house, with local residents coming out to collect their allocation. Efficient, innovative, and very effective.  

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One of the most heartwrenching sites of the day were the numerous  families sitting in their gardens and yards outside, with basic supplies of food and water. Others were just standing there, looking lost. With the threat of more tremors, no electricity, and nowhere to go, many just sat outside in the cold and waited. There were so many incredible photos to be taken, but neither of us wanted to be that intrusive.  

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But perhaps a flavour in this collage from a LinkedIn contact.  

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And so to the centre of Petrinja, whose collapsed buildings have become the most iconic of this latest disaster. 

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Horrifying.

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But then, the strangest thing... Look the other way into the centre of the square to find a beautiful Advent in Petrinja park, seemingly oblivious to the chaos all around.  

A video tour of a tale of two Petrinjas in one square. 

And I thought back to my friend's photo the previous day - the streets of Petrinja were incredibly clean so soon after such a catastrophe.  

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Another reason, perhaps, why people were just sitting around in their front gardens was that there was nothing open. Cafes and restaurants have been closed for weeks due to corona, but the shops and supermarkets were also shut. But there was little chance of the people of Petrinja going hungry, as there was help from every corner of Croatia. I stopped to take a photo of 'Sinj Loves Petrinja.'

"What would you like?" asked the man in a strong Sinj accent.

"I would love a cold beer," I replied. 

"Sorry, no beer but we have lots of other things. Take what you need."

"Haha, I was joking. I am a journalist, I don't need anything but thank you."

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A woman approached asking if they had any bread, and she took what she needed for her family. Such things happened all over the region, gifted by people from all over the country, today - it was heartwarming to see. 

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And everywhere, the volunteers, waiting to be allocated their tasks. Everything is being very well-coordinated by the local civil protection units.  

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Marc wanted to take some photos of something along the road, and I found myself watching this old couple whose house had been damaged, urgent repairs to the roof a priority.  

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Within minutes, a team of volunteers appeared with a ladder and set to work. Such things happened all over the region, volunteers from all over the country, today - it was heartwarming to see. 

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There was one appointment I had that I was keen to keep - finally meeting Josip Granic and the amazing team from the Croatian Mountain Rescue Service, whose headquarters were in the Lidl car park.  

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We are curiously bonded by both being unlikely male models (ok, he far more likely than me) in the Varteks 'Imperfect Guy in a Perfect Suit' campaign. Josip is a big TCN fan and was very helpful in a great feature on the amazing team at the Croatian Mountain Rescue Service by TCN earlier this year - Meet HGSS The Croatian Mountain Rescue Service

Despite working through the night without any sleep, Josip found time for an interview with Marc, which we will publish tomorrow.

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Police road checks in the earthquake era. I was expecting much more traffic congestion, but the police kept things moving.  

What the police could not control were more tremors. Alone in the car again as Marc took more photos, the car started to move side to side, and the earth was definitely moving underneath me - a 4.1 earthquake I was to discover later. Par for the course in Croatia in 2020 and nothing to write home about.  

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And the traffic kept flowing, bringing the essential items to the locations which needed them most.  

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The damage was everywhere, and for all to see. 

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Some with memories of the celebrations of a happier festive season, just a few days ago, when life was very different.  

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There was time for one more stop before returning to Zagreb - the church in the village of Zazina. Its front and spire no longer there.  

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Ripped from the rest of the building.  

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This is how the church had looked just 24 hours earlier. I learned later that the church organist had been cleaning the organ when the earthquake struck, and he was tragically killed. 

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The frescoed walls inside still there to see.  

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Young versus old, as the neighbour emerged without a scratch. But as we saw with the church in Gora, young does not necessarily guarantee safety from earthquakes.  

We drove back to Zagreb in relative silence, each lost in their own thoughts and suffering from the early start and the trauma of the day. 

A harrowing day for sure, but also a heartwarming one. Croatians are the most resilient people I know, at their finest in adversity. There are thousands of heroic examples of this being performed on a daily basis at the moment, and I applaud each and every one of them who has risen to the task. 

And let's not forget the generosity of the diaspora and international community as well. The response to this disaster has been magnificent, as has been the emergency response. Help IS getting to those who need it most on the ground, and the donations ARE making a difference. 

For more on the Petrinja earthquake, follow today's live updates. For more on how you can help and donate funds, food, material and humanitarian aid, click here and here for the details of a special (free of additional charges) HPB donation account for Grad Petrinja. 

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