Photo: Barbara Matejčić

Reporting from Banija: 72-year old man slept in tractor carry basket for days

Written by Barbara Matejčić, published by

IT is eight in the morning, we are on the road to Banija, it’s January 8th, ten days after the big earthquake. Luka Juranić is driving. Ian Grgić is co-driver and navigator. Ivana Kordić is sitting in the back next to me. She is going to Petrinja for the first coordination meeting of organizations, associations and volunteers, and then back again to Zagreb.

We’ll be going farther, to those in need. Messages are arriving, phones are ringing, voices are mingling. “…so, three mattresses, a heater, rubber boots…”, “…first we’re going to the warehouse in Petrinja and then to the village of Maja…”, “… the woman who broke her hip, ok…”, “…a camper will come for Đuro…” Martina Uzelac is on the line, she is our dispatcher for that day.

“A colleague came across an old man who had been sitting on a stump in front of a collapsed house for three days, alone in front of the house, waiting.”

She is in contact with the people affected by the earthquake and relays their needs to Luka and Ian, who then deliver the supplies. They are rather well-coordinated. With dispatchers working the phones and teams working on the ground, several teams like these have been helping in Banija every day since the big earthquake on December 29th.  They are all volunteers and do not belong to any organizations. When they realized who in the field was working on the same task – helping the people of Banija as quickly and efficiently as possible – they formed an informal volunteer collective, called ‘Sloga’ This should have been the task of the civil protection system, to be ready and to be organized, but instead, it was done by hundreds of independent, agile volunteers.

“This has shown that there is no system for a civilian response to crisis situations,” says Ivana, but the team from Sloga is not interested in public criticisms of the system, at least not while help is still most important. But it angers them when volunteers are called out for bringing chaos after an earthquake. If there was any chaos, if in some cases, aid was delivered to the same household more than once, for example, it was still better than no one reaching them for days, and volunteers were often the first to ask affected people how they were doing and what they needed.

“Our colleague came across an old man in a hamlet who had been sitting on a stump in front of a collapsed house for three days, alone in the middle of the forest, waiting,” Ivana recounts. There are many similar cases of people that no one reached for days after the earthquake, and every day of waiting meant more frostbite, more hunger, sleeping outdoors, feelings of abandonment.

Chaos is a consequence of the state’s lack of disaster preparedness

The chaos was caused by the unpreparedness of the state for this kind of a catastrophe, everyone we spoke to these days who was engaged in Banija confirmed to us. It is difficult to estimate how many informal volunteers have been in the Banija region since December 29th. Ten days after the earthquake, Sloga has on average about twenty volunteers on the ground daily, but there are many such initiatives. Luka and Ian estimate that at least two hundred people a day are on the ground in Banija, not counting the caterers who provide food and volunteers who joined an organization.

“People do not trust the state and institutions, that is why they self-organized. If prepared procedures in case of a disaster had existed, then we would have known who to contact to direct us where was needed – how many volunteers go to stack warehouses, how many are needed to deliver supplies, and to whom, how many to remove the rubble… But there was no system for coordinating volunteer assistance to meet people’s needs, so we had to manage on our own,” says Luka.

They expected Radio Banovina to broadcast news about the aftermath of the earthquake, but music was playing

Managing on their own, for many looked much as it did for Luka and Ian: when it rumbled that Tuesday, with friends, they headed for Banija that same afternoon. “It has become a reflex, as soon as something happens to think about how to help,” Luka says. Both he and Ian, even though he was 14 at the time, and many others in Sloga, were active in 2015 in helping refugees. On the way to Petrinja, they listened to the local Radio Banovina, expecting an uninterrupted broadcast of news about the aftermath of the earthquake, but nothing, music was playing.

They came to Petrinja, helped to repair the roofs, removed the rubble and roughly scanned what kind of assistance would be needed in the coming days. Luka immediately launched the WhatsApp group Radio Banovina, which over a hundred people soon joined. Similar initiatives connected in Sloga, self-organized, and there they are every day on the road. Before the earthquake, they had never been in that area, but now, after 2,500 kilometers in Banija, they know every hamlet.

As we drive, we hear on the radio that Minister Medved, head of the newly-founded Civil Protection Headquarters, established as a result of the earthquake, announced that 300 new container homes should be arriving soon. Many are still sleeping in muddy yards, in cars, in stables.

“Only Sloga has procured about 30 campers and container homes from various donors,” Luka commented briefly.

“Here, even without the earthquake, people are in need of everything”

In a warehouse for donations in Petrinja, Ana Maria Gacik, a young volunteer from there, hands us food, a mattress, a heater, and rubber boots. She says it’s easier for her to work than to think about how everything around her has collapsed. And that she loves her city, but that life for them has never been good there. It’s easy to understand, Banija looks like a neglected child. Along the main road in the village of Novo Selište, a sign still warns of mines. Luka and Ian remarked that they were almost as shocked by Banija’s poverty as they were by the earthquake.  “Here, even without the earthquake, people are in need of everything,” says Luka.

 Ian Grgić obtaining household supplies from the warehouse

We come to the first family in the village of Maja. There is six of them with two children squeezed into a container in the backyard of the house, which firefighters told them was dangerous. It was only the day before that they received the container, from private donations. Until then, they had been sleeping in a neighbor’s van. Their faces are frozen with a fear that has not yet begun to subside. A middle-aged woman says she has been drinking Praxitene since the earthquake, she had not taken a single tranquilizer in her life until then. She stretches out her palms, they are shaking slightly, but she says, “It’s okay, they’re not trembling anymore. If only my nerves could calm down a little.”

12 people are living in a makeshift garage in the backyard

In the warehouse of the initiative “People for People” in Glina, we pick up more heaters, mattresses, winter shoes and clothing and take them to Maja. Then we go to a hamlet that has no name. To find it, all they tell you is Maja, near the school. Elderly parents and their son are sleeping in a house with a cracked roof foundation and a collapsed chimney. They have nowhere to go. They need a heater and bread. They plead for a container home.

Their neighbors are huddled in a makeshift garage in the backyard of their damaged house. There were twelve of them, ranging from five to 50 years old. The eldest, Dragan Jurković, says that his son got a container home because his apartment in Glina was damaged, and since he had nowhere to put it, he brought it in front of his father’s house. They sleep in it in shifts. No one had asked them if they wanted to go to any temporary shelter.

Dragan Jurković’s family in an improvised garage, Luka Juranić is first from the left

He says that everyone bypasses this hamlet because Roma live there, even though they don’t declare themselves that way; and that no one would have looked after them were it not for the deputy mayor of Glina, Branka Bakšić Mitić. They only got asphalt last year, up until then there were holes and mud up to the knees, he says. As there is now. Wherever we go is mud. They need boots, blankets, a heater, although they are afraid that HEP [Croatia’s national energy provider) will still charge them for electricity. Their neighbors, a young couple, Milorad Litra and Zorica Paropatić and four children sleep in a van. They urgently need a container home. No one here is asking for anything more than the basics, and volunteers don’t promise what they’re not sure they can do. Only that they will try. And they do try.

A 72-year-old man has been sleeping in a tractor carry basket since the earthquake

We head to Đuro Peškir (cover photo) in Stražbenica, a village with five households and seven inhabitants. At the age of 72, Đuro is the youngest. Along the way, we meet a team of builders and architects who are volunteering to inspect houses.

An upset, young statistician says that three grandmothers weigh heavy on her heart because they are staying in houses that are not suitable for living and begs Luka to get them container homes. At Đuro’s we meet brothers Deni and Noell Paladina who came here with their sister Beattrice, from Buzet to celebrate New Year’s Eve. They filled two vans with donations, brought them, stayed for a couple of days to help, then returned for more donations and back again to Banija. During the day they help whoever needs it, at night they sleep with a friend in Sisak. Deni recounts that yesterday they were with a woman who cried non-stop. She lost her son in a flood last year. She was saving money to fix his grave, and then the earthquake collapsed her roof and a neighbor sold her a container for her savings. Deni is a stonemason and promised to complete her son’s grave.

Since the earthquake, Đuro has been sleeping in a tractor carry basket for transporting cattle. He neither has anywhere to go nor wants to leave his home because he has cattle to take care of and from which he lives. He offers us brandy, juice, he’s cheerful. “As unhappy as I am, I am so happy that people come to help me,” he says. That’s when the camper arrives. It was procured by the mayor of Drvenik and brought by three young men from Poljica. They say this is the fourth camper they brought to Banija. They assembled it in Đuro’s yard and drove back immediately, about 500 kilometers, for the second time that day. And they will be back again, as soon as they get more campers.

Pizza as an illusion of normalcy in crazy circumstances

In a well-organized warehouse run by the locals, in the small village of Marinbrod, we take what families from the hamlet of Maja near the school need. On the way to them we stop in Petrinja, Luka says by O’Hara’s. We open the doors of the former cafe and it is as if we are re-entering normal life. Music is playing, it smells of pizza. A dozen people, all busy working, kneading, stretching, baking, stacking pizzas in boxes. We are talking to Marin Vanjak. He once owned the O’Hara pizzeria in Zagreb, and now, under the company Pizza Premium Brands, he equips pizzerias and educates staff in pizzerias. After the earthquake, a friend called him and told him to get a pizza oven and come to Petrinja.

And that’s how it was. They brought equipment and procured food donations. Over a hundred people from Croatia and the region, who know how to make pizzas professionally, came forward and since January 5th, have been distributing up to 1,000 pizzas a day for free. They intend to stay as long as there are sponsors and people willing to work. The pizza goes to the CMRS [Croatian Mountain Rescue Service], firefighters, Civil Protection, Red Cross, Caritas, for families, kindergartens, non-governmental organizations, for everyone who comes. Luka takes five pizzas and we take them to the families we stayed with in the morning. “In such crazy circumstances, pizza is like an illusion of normalcy, it will come in handy,” says Luka.

People have not taken a shower since the earthquake, nature is their bathroom

We leave the pizzas, along with blankets, boots, heaters, and hygiene supplies. Zorica says that they have not taken a shower since the earthquake, they didn’t have where. Nature is their bathroom. Lastly, we go to the old men at the end of the street. We give them bread, flour, a heater, they asked for nothing else. Thank you, thank you, thank you, they repeat. There are no lights, no cell phone signal, there is not really even a house, even though they sleep in it because it’s cold outside and they have nowhere else to go. We’re leaving. Their hands wave out of the darkness.

It will take weeks to get everyone settled somewhere. Months, probably years, to rebuild their homes. Who knows how long until the fear subsides. Perhaps it will be of comfort to them that strangers, whose duty it was not, came to them to ask them how they were doing and what they needed.

This content was created with financial support from the European Union project: “Towards an open, fair and sustainable Europe in the world – EU Presidency Project 2019 – 2021″. The author is solely responsible for the content which cannot be considered the official position of the European Union.