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July 24, 2020



Photography by Mary Crnkovic Pilas
Story by Karin Svadlenak Gomez

As if a global pandemic were not enough, on a cold March day the city of Zagreb was struck by an earthquake. It was the strongest quake the Croatian capital had experienced in 140 years; it left the city scarred and the hearts of its residents wounded. Australian photographer Mary Crnkovic Pilas shares a personal account of that day's aftermath in her adopted home.


The venerable old city of Zagreb lies gravely wounded. A historic gem, it is among the oldest cities in Central Europe, offering many cultural treasures and lively, safe streets full of cafes and restaurants. Visitors love it. In 2019, the region had experienced a big increase in visitor numbers, continuing a trend over the past several years — some 140,000 tourists visited Zagreb County last year, more than two thirds of them from other countries. So it is especially heartbreaking to look at the centre of this historic city and see the piles of rubble, the buildings missing entire walls, the cathedral missing a steeple.

On 22 March 2020, on a freezing Sunday morning that began with snowfall after the city had enjoyed several weeks of warm spring weather, disaster struck. Zagreb was hit by an earthquake of a magnitude of 5.5 on the Richter scale. And its old structures crumbled.

The centre of the city, where most of the damage occurred, is also the area most visited by tourists. Many different types of buildings, both directly or indirectly connected to tourism suffered damage or were destroyed — hotels, restaurants, rental apartments, museums, shops, churches, and cemeteries, to name only a few. When tourists will be able to stay or visit these places again is a big question mark. So the earthquake has had and will have an enormous impact on the general economy, and on tourism in particular.

At the time the earthquake hit, the Corona virus was just starting to take hold. Croatia still had only a couple of hundred confirmed cases, but distancing measures and lockdown were already in place. By comparison to the same month in 2019, in April 2020 visits from abroad were down by an incredible 99 percent because of Covid-19. Like in other countries where tourism is a mainstay of the economy, this hurts.

The ogre of the pandemic also made a difference to how people reacted. “I believe many people who would normally most probably have gone out to help, stayed home, afraid of the virus. I know I was one of those,” says Mary. “It was also difficult in an emotional way, as when something like this occurs, your first reaction is to cry and hug someone, but we all had to keep our distance when we were sent out into the streets to wait out possible aftershocks.” Mary thinks that having the pandemic present in people's minds was, in a strange way, also a “blessing in disguise”, as few people were in the streets when the earthquake struck. “Had they been out, who knows how many more casualties there would have been.”

The damage to buildings was severe, with 6,197 buildings reported to have sustained damage, and 1,900 of those now considered unusable. Most of Zagreb's centre was rebuilt after the strong earthquake of 1880, at a time when building materials and knowledge was not at the level it is today. The only 19h century building that did not sustain any structural damage was the Croatian National Theatre, which had been reinforced after the Skopje earthquake in 1963.

For Mary, and for many Croatians, Zagreb's Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, Ban Jelacic Square, St. Mark’s Church, and the statue of King Tomislav are important symbols of Zagreb. The Cathedral is the largest religious building and one of the most important cultural monuments in Croatia. It was damaged so severely that one of its spires, 13.5 metres tall and weighing 30 tonnes, had to be removed to avoid the danger of collapse and further damage. The removal of the cathedral tower was a unique event — something like this has never been done before anywhere in the world.

The removal of the spire's top was achieved through a controlled explosion. The cathedral now stands shrouded in scaffolding and missing a top.

Seeing the cathedral in the state it was, surrounded by rubble and with one steeple missing, was a shock for Mary and her fellow citizens. “I always have choir on a Friday evening and being the choir leader, I never miss a session unless I am very ill. But I had to miss choir practice the day they removed the northern tower as it was too emotionally distressing for me to witness it — I couldn’t sing after that.”


The mood has been very sombre in Zagreb. Seeing the cathedral without one of its steeples is a constant reminder of what happened that tragic Sunday morning.

Many people lost their homes. Some stayed with relatives and friends, some, even though their homes were unsafe, stayed there, while around 600 people were given lodgings in Cvjetno naselje, a dormitory for non-resident students. It remains to be seen what will happen to them once the summer holidays are over and the fall university term starts.

“Even though I moved to Croatia in 1992 when the Homeland War was still happening, I have never been so afraid in my life,” Mary admits. “Thankfully, no one in my family was hurt, nor did our home suffer any damage in the earthquake, but the psychological trauma is something that we will feel for a long time, especially with the aftershocks that happen every fortnight or so.”


How to move on is a big question. There are many visions and opinions on what should happen next. Because of extensive damage, some buildings just cannot be restored to the way they were before and will most probably have to be demolished. Very little money has so far been made available by the current Federal Government. They have provided 12,000 HRK or approximately 1,600 EUR for chimney repairs to households and buildings affected by the earthquake. Anyone familiar with the cost of building repairs will realize that this is not going to help much.

In the beginning there were many volunteers, especially mountaineers and rock climbers, who helped with cleaning up roofs, rubble, etc. Then the Mayor of Zagreb brought about a controversial law that forbids volunteers to help with the clean-up. Now only paid workers are allowed to do this work.

At the time of writing, there is still no official law in place for the reconstruction of buildings, even though it has been drafted and is under discussion. Current building regulations allow emergency maintenance work in situations where the earthquake has endangered the usability of buildings. Anything more than that needs a formal construction permit. Public buildings such as museums are waiting for restoration, pending an official government decree. “So to cut a long story short, it has been a nightmare for property owners,” says Mary. “As to whether it is going to be possible to restore Zagreb to the way it was before, this is something many of us would like to know, because at present there is still no clear plan or vision for reconstruction – should it be restored to the way it was, should it be a “mix” of old and new, or should it be completely redone?”

How long it will take to rebuild Zagreb is anyone's guess. Estimates range from two years, which Mary thinks unrealistic, to ten years or more. Three months down the road one can still find rubble and debris in the streets. It is estimated that the cost of repairs (using the World Bank’s methodology) will be 42 billion HRK or 11.5 billion EUR, a staggering 10% of Croatia’s BDP. A complete restoration of the city would cost 17 billion EUR.


There is a street in Zagreb where a mended heart seems to bond together the cracks in a wall. Even though this healing heart was not conceived to symbolize the recovery from the earthquake by Zagreb based artist & designer Ivona (Voona Design) — it was part of the street art project Okolo // Around — it went viral as a symbol of the earthquake in a very short period of time in local and international media.

Will a post-quake, post-Covid 19 Zagreb return to the way Mary knew and loved it? She is not so sure.

“Honestly, I don’t know if Zagreb or the world for that matter will ever return to the way it was in the foreseeable future. It breaks my heart to say it, but I feel that we will live in a world with masks and social distancing and for now, I can’t see the end in sight. As we are a fairly “southern” country, we are very “touchy feely” and like to hug and kiss our friends and family to greet them. But that is becoming more and more difficult and even, in a way, unethical, as sad as it is to say that.”

But the human heart is resilient. Sve je moguće is what is written on this building, which translates into “Everything is possible”. May the heart of Zagreb and its people also beat strong again soon.

Thank you for telling us your story, Mary. Our team at The Pictorial List wishes you and your city all the best for a full recovery.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily shared by The Pictorial List and the team.

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