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Largest recorded earthquake in Croatia kills 7; destroys homes and churches

This devastated region of Croatia will need years to recover from the effects of the earthquake and the Catholic Church will surely be on the frontline of this daunting mission.

The author stands in front of a structure destroyed in the December 29, 2020 earthquake in Croatia.
The ruins of the local parish in Žažina, Croatia. The church organist was killed under the rubble as the church collapsed.

The earthquake that struck the area around Petrinja in Central Croatia on December 29th with a magnitude of 6.4 was the strongest ever to hit Croatia. In 1969 a somewhat stronger quake completely destroyed Banja Luka in neighboring Bosnia. Even the great 1880 earthquake, which shattered Zagreb in 1880 and prompted its rebuilding in Habsburg style, was less intense than the blow to Petrinja. Zagreb had its own destructive quake this year, when on March 22nd a 5.3 magnitude shock hit the city and caused huge destruction in the old centre and to the Cathedral and many other churches. Many, who lost use of their homes, are still unable to return.

The Petrinja event was, however, on a different scale. Its horror only slowly emerged, the repeated aftershocks paralyzing attempts to take stock. The area, with the exception of the principal city of Sisak, is underpopulated, economically declining, and does not – despite proximity to Zagreb, which is only fifty miles away – make many headlines. Suddenly everyone’s focus switched there.

The government has been slow in its response, but the population has reacted with great speed to organize help for those in trouble. Football team supporters (known here as the Bad Blue Boys), mountain rescue volunteers, a great number of existing or spontaneously formed groups of citizens were either on the spot or filling up lorries of essential supplies. Nobody told them, and nobody paid them. They just did it.

The earthquake has left seven people dead, including a 12-year-old girl, and many more seriously injured. Photographs circulating of Petrinja, but also of surrounding villages, including stark portraits of gutted and devastated baroque churches, have about them an eerily apocalyptic quality. This is partly because, apart from the emergency services, struggling to unearth victims and extricate survivors, so many photos are devoid of local people. The pressure is constant to avoid excessive co-mingling because of the deadly threat of Corona virus.

This is an area where suffering and hardship are part of recent history and where physical courage and moral endurance are both ingrained, particularly among the older generation. Sisak was on the front line during the war in the early 1990s, but both Petrinja and Glina were occupied by the Serb rebels who subsequently killed over 300 civilians. The buildings were looted, the Croats expelled, many lost family members. One elderly lady, who was pulled through the window of her devastated home by neighbors, her door having been jammed shut, remarked: “My son, it was awful as they pulled me through the window, but if we survived the war, we will survive this as well!”

On the face of it, moving everyone to Croatia’s empty hotels rather than supplying them with tents, shelter in the barracks or halls, and handing out food parcels would make sense. Perhaps it may happen. But people in this area have no wish to leave their ruined houses, which as soon as they were vacated in the past war years were stripped of the contents. And, of course, the farmers anyway cannot leave their livestock unattended. The fear of more quakes is also very real as several families told me that they prefer to sleep in their car rather than inside the house.

As through all the history of Croatia, not least the Communist period and the ensuing war, the Catholic Church is a central focus for the social needs of the area. The local bishop Vlado Košić stated that the priority is to deliver food and water to the most needy, as well as providing shelter for thousands of people who have evacuated their homes. The bishop called for two days of fasting and prayer for the all those afflicted.

The diocese’s Caritas office is now heading the relief effort and is being overwhelmed by requests for help. In addition, churches in the Sisak diocese have suffered major damage or have been destroyed. The Cathedral of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross has been badly damaged and will require major renovations. Tragically, the organist of the local parish in Žažina was killed under the rubble as the church collapsed.

On a more hopeful note, Croatian media reported that the first child born in 2021 was a baby boy named David, who was born in Sisak one minute past midnight.

This devastated region of Croatia will need years to recover from the effects of the earthquake and the Catholic Church will surely be on the frontline of this daunting mission.

For those wish to give:

Sisak Caritas office
Trg Vere Grozaj bb
44000 Sisak
Iban: HR1024070001100357106
Purpose: Earthquake relief

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About Stjepo Bartulica 1 Article
Stjepo Bartulica is associate professor of political philosophy at the Catholic University of Croatia and Member of Parliament.

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