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Memories of the Zagreb earthquake – the silent sounds and cracks of walls

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March 22nd, 2021 – I didn’t think I’d bother writing anything about the Zagreb earthquake that struck the city this time last year. What happened happened. What can be said? I thought in my usual way emotionally. The memories of Zagreb are something that many people carry with them, perhaps in silence. I am one of those silent people.

Regardless of these thoughts, as my friend and colleague Eva rightly said in her article, everyone who lives in Zagreb will remember that terrible morning. It’s always wonderful to think of how much we as human beings continue to live in complete ignorance, believing that we are in constant and all-encompassing control. If a global epidemic that one cannot see until the entire world grinds to a halt was not sufficient to prove that this is not true and will never be at all, then the mega earthquake was a good additional reminder.

I was sleeping at the time. It was early in the morning and the Zagreb tramway and lanes (often poorly maintained) tended to be fairly loudly noisy. When living in the heart of Zagreb, one gets used to the loud sounds, whether it be trams, garbage trucks or indeed a strange car accident. The lockdown in which Croatia has sunk as the new coronavirus found its way into the country has made the Croatian capital unusually quiet, and the sounds I’m used to are somewhat less. it was interesting.

Back then, before we were all done with the occasional irrational epidemic control measures, terrible infection rate reports and intermittent lockdowns, that time was totally unprecedented and in a distorted way, and somewhat exciting. The quieter Zagreb of the time was full of other sounds, including the birdsong as spring finally begins to break through the harsh fist of the long, boring winter.

We didn’t know at the time what was going to happen in 2020, and these feelings and gullibility are now very far away. But let’s get back to the point – memories of Zagreb.

I woke up to the sound of what I thought, in my conscious state half awake and half asleep, that it was a train moving at lightning speed towards my building. The sound was completely deafening, and I had never heard anything like it before. I climbed towards my building, as if coming from a distance, and gained momentum like a dangerous avalanche formed from little more than harmless snow. It only took me a few seconds, maybe three seconds at most, to realize that, of course, this was not a train.

I looked up and saw the plaster on the walls of my apartment start to crack, a long crack line appeared in the middle of the soft creamy color like something out of a movie. Having grown up in Britain, which is a quiet country suitable for such natural events, I have only experienced two earthquakes, one of which has grown and the other has done nothing more than turn off a lamp from my table. Really painful.

A deafening voice rose, the crack widened, as she ran along the wall as if to dance to the rhythm of that terrible sound. Earthquake.

Car alarms started to sound, and as I stood by the bed while the building was shaking as if made of paper, the people living on my street began running out of their buildings, taking to the streets as the police shouted at them to gather them together without masks. During a pandemic a new virus took hold that we knew little about at the time.

You are not safe inside. You are not safe outside either. How on earth did this happen? 2020 was just starting and it was already looking biblical. Plague, catastrophe, were locusts and famine then on the list as punishment? It sounds amusing now, but at the time, everything was so surreal that it was hard to know or believe what to do.

Worrying faces filled the streets as aftershocks rolled and alarms continued to sound as debris from the shamefully neglected Zagreb façades fell onto the windshield, which is now cracked and covered in dust. Tram stops. The police left. People are returning to their homes to inspect the damage to their homes, and suddenly the birds are noisy. It was weird.

As night fell, falling asleep with that terrible sound in mind and the fresh and lively cracked thinking of the walls was no easy feat. I’m not a particularly sensitive person, and I tend to let things get rolling on me, but this event was so annoying in some way that the ideas of packing an emergency exit bag and leaving it at the front door seem cute. Perhaps wrongly, I neglected to do so, and while there were some aftershocks, such a step was thankfully not necessary.

The beautiful and iconic Zagreb Cathedral, seemingly forever under some kind of construction, has suffered significant damage. The epicenter of the powerful earthquake, just outside Zagreb, received little attention when compared to the heart of the city as politicians took to the square to show their faces. The earthquake was a natural disaster that no one could have anticipated or do anything about even if they could, but it revealed some profound flaws about Zagreb’s management and the state of the city, as some parts of it are still littered with rubble and warnings. About potential fallen debris after one year.

How the memories of Zagreb Zagreb, buried somewhere in this city in the back of their minds, will reflect what will be done in the city renovation process. With progress at a typical slow pace in Croatia and astronomical numbers being mentioned, it is difficult to imagine Zagreb free from this event, which I hope I will never experience again.

For more information on the Zagreb earthquake and memories of Zagreb, see our dedicated section.

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