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A Croatian house destroyed by the recent earthquake
The earthquake that rocked Croatia left many families homeless and isolated in the dead of winterImage: Goran Gazdek/DW

Croatia after the earthquake: A snow-white disaster area

January 31, 2021

More than 35,000 homes were destroyed in the massive earthquake that rocked Croatia in late December. DW spoke with a family that was made homeless from one moment to the next.

https://p.dw.com/p/3obHO

The snowplows have just finished clearing the streets as it begins to snow again. In better times, this region in central Croatia would be nothing short of a winter wonderland, if it weren't for the recent earthquake that rendered many here homeless.

Snowplows and other vehicles are heading towards the village of Svrakarica, some 50 km (31 miles) outside of the city of Sisak, which is home to the Ognjenovic family, or used to be, before the earthquake hit.

The Ognjenovic family, whose home was destroyed by the recent earthquake in Croatia
The Ognjenovics say their children were terrified by the massive quake that destroyed their family home in DecemberImage: Ajdin Kamber/DW

The family of five has reason to be hopeful, however, because their new home, a mobile home, is on its way. Or at least they think it is, as it navigates slippery turns and steep inclines on a flatbed trailer pulled by what they believe is a sturdy tractor. Bringing up the rear of the convoy are two cars filled to the brim with aid supplies courtesy of the people of Rotterdam, Holland.

Weather conditions are anything but ideal as the convoy travels at just 20 km an hour (12.5 mph), meter-by-meter, to its snowy destination. But as fate would have it, the convoy stops dead in its tracks just short of its destination, at what happens to be the highest point in the small village.

The snowplow leading the convoy completely halts, forcing the tractor that's following behind with mobile home in tow to put on the brakes. Things then go from bad to worse after a second tractor joins in to help pull the mobile home, resulting in the trailer loosing its small wheels and stranding the convoy.

It is now nighttime, with so much snow on the ground there's no moving anything one way or the other as the participants in the convoy head out to the small village on foot, carrying much-needed humanitarian aid.  

Finding shelter with neighbors

The Ognjenovic family had been living in its 100-year-old home for three generations. But damage done by the earthquake was so devastating that Croatian authorities deemed it uninhabitable. Milan and Martina Ognjenovic and their three children — Mico, Tin and Milica — were made homeless from one moment to the next. They remember the morning of December 28, "Everything that could fall down fell down and everything that could break broke," says Milan Ognjenovic. "My children were in shock and couldn't stop crying," he says.

And there wasn't just one earthquake that day. A second, even stronger quake, this one measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale, was recorded less than six hours later. Afraid to sleep indoors, the family, like many others, spent the ensuing nights in their cars as aid supplies from all over Croatia poured in. People donated food, clothing, shoes and diapers to those living in the devastated area.

Stoja Roksandic, a neighbor, rushed to the village and offered the family of five a place to live since her own home had sustained little damage. "Its warm and roomy and the children are safe here" said Martina, "or at least as safe as you can be during an earthquake."

A poor area

Martina and Milan Ognjenovic, both 27, are the youngest adults in the village of Svrakarica, which is made up of about 15 elderly people. Most are farmers who own small plots of land and maybe a few goats or sheep in an area that is considered poor — very poor. "Life here is very difficult. But at the same time, if you're willing to work you can get by," say Martina and Milan. "We started out with just a few goats and now we also have a small herd of sheep."

The Ognjenovic's are members of the Serbian minority in Croatia. At the end of the war, which lasted from 1992-95, the family fled to neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina. They returned to Croatia in 2000. "We couldn't wait," says Milan. "The first two years weren't easy. Our house was destroyed and we had to start from scratch. The only thing the government paid for was our staircase and the wood paneling."

Milan Ognjenovic and some of his sheep in Sisak, Croatia
Like many in this poor region, Milan Ognjenovic and his family are small farmers who work hard to get byImage: Goran Gazdek/DW

The next hospital is 80 kilometers away

The surrounding area looks like something right out of a travel brochure. Snow-covered hills, romantic cabins and sheep roaming around the countryside. But the reality tells a different story: "We're 20 km away from the nearest grocery store and 80 km from the nearest hospital," says Milan, "which means we're often isolated from the outside world for days on end when it snows."

The family's story was so moving that it inspired members of the Croatian non-profit organization "Solidarna" to raise money to buy the mobile home and give it to the family of five as a gift. Everything seemed to be going well until their new home it got stuck in the snow, just a few hundred meters outside of the village.

Despite this, the Ognjenovics say that they're overwhelmed by the outpouring support they've received in the aftermath of the quake. Martina, Milan and their three children are looking forward to moving into their new home once the snow melts. Still, they see it as a temporary solution and are anxious to rebuild their old home. They say won't rest until that day finally arrives.

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