Earthquake reveals skeletons in Croatia’s building closet

People search for reusable materials from a destroyed house in the Majske Poljane village near Glina, 04 January 2021. The 6.4 magnitude earthquake that struck Croatia on 29 December 2020 left many houses in Petrinja, Sisak and the Glina area damaged or destroyed and another 4.2 magnitude aftershock was measured earlier on 04 January 2021. The 29 December 2020 earthquake left numerous people injuried and at least seven people dead. [EPA-EFE/ANTONIO BAT]

Milan Škornjak is from the village of Strašnik, 10 kilometres away from the devastated city of Glina. For 20 years, he has tried to alert government officials that his revamped house had not met construction and safety standards.

Unfortunately, the earthquake, with a 6,4 magnitude, which devastated Sisak-Moslavina County in Croatia last Tuesday, killing seven and injuring several dozen, has proved his point.

“My house was rebuilt after the war in 1996, but the foundation was not done right. I realised right away that as soon as you take the concrete in your hands it breaks. People were fooled into robbery thinking that it was a reconstruction.” said Škornjak while pointing to the broken walls and damaged foundation of his shattered house. His family is currently living in a donated camp trailer on their front lawn.

His house was one of 25.000 family homes rebuilt in the period from 1996, after the war. According to initial estimates, 15.000 houses have been severely damaged presenting a safety hazard, while 3.000 properties are expected to be destroyed in the coming weeks.

When Škornjak came back to his village after the war ended in 1995, the only thing left on his property was a well. The most important thing for him at the time was to quickly get a roof over his head. Quality was not his concern at the time, he admits.

However, several years after the house was rebuilt, he began noticing red flags. The most obvious and worrisome was the poorly-constructed foundation and low-quality roof tiles. Škornjak filed an official complaint in 2000, trying to alert the authorities about a potential safety hazard. His “Kafkaesque” experience led him to Glina, Petrinja, and Sisak. In the end, he even travelled to Zagreb, where he tried to complain to the central housing office.

“I was carrying papers from door to door, trying to make the government fix my house. All they ever gave me were empty promises while sending me to the next office. I even talked to the state secretary who promised to help me. But then he started avoiding my calls, and whenever I called him, his assistants told me that he was on vacation.” Škornjak explained.

Other Strašnik locals are also sharing their experiences with the media.

“Everything they did, they did fast and poorly. The concrete reinforcement has not been adequately connected to the iron from the concrete blanket. My father, a constructor himself, tried to warn them at the time that they were not obeying standards, but they laughed at him.” said Tomislav Šubić, Škornjak’s neighbour.

“They never asked us to sign any paper at the end of the project. After we got the furniture, the job was considered to be done. Everything was very chaotic and there was a lot of stealing taking place at the time. Nobody could stop it. We just wanted to get our house back.” added Šubić.

The current Sisak-Moslavina County prefect Ivo Žinić, an architect by profession, was in charge of reconstruction in the late 1990s.

Žinić confirmed during an interview this week that more than 90% of the houses in Strašnik, one of the villages most damaged by the earthquake, were reconstructed on his watch. However, the responsibility for the damage lies exclusively in the hands of private contractors, he says.

“The late 1990s reconstruction of Sisak-Moslavina County was one of the biggest projects in Croatian history. More than 150.000 family houses have been rebuilt according to professional standards of the time. Hundreds of experts were asked to supervise the project while the ministry itself was the official coordinator. It was one of the best systems which I am very proud to take part in. I cannot take the responsibility for a devastating earthquake, however.” said Žinić during an interview for N1.

The Prime Minister Andrej Plenković expects an investigation into the case and has refused to comment on the scandal without new information.

[Edited by Tea Trubić Macan/Benjamin Fox]

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