Decline and fall: The earthquake that exposed Croatia’s rotten interior
At 12:19 p.m., the bells of the Petrinja church rang as they have done every day for a year, marking the precise moment of the disaster. Ross pauses mid-sentence, catching his breath. Her grandson was with her at the time, watching cartoons in another room. She rushed to reassure him, but as the ground moved, she struggled to cross the two-meter distance that separated them. A cupboard collapsed at the sound of breaking glass. It felt like an eternity. “I will never forget the sight of my grandson’s pale face with the ceiling cracking above his head,” she said.
Ross and his grandson would emerge unscathed and, unlike much of the town, his home would escape serious damage. However, an abandoned structure nearby would be weakened to the point of threatening her home and so, for the second time in her life, Ross was forced to leave Petrinja. As a young woman in 1991, she had fled when the city was invaded by Serbian rebel forces at the start of the wars that destroyed Yugoslavia. She spent four years as a refugee on the outskirts of the Croatian capital, Zagreb, caring for her child while her husband served in the army. “We left with just a few things in nylon bags,” she said, recalling the war. “And then, after almost 30 years, a natural disaster like this happens and [once again] we have nowhere to go.
The Croatian army eventually expelled the Serbian rebel forces in August 1995, dismantling their proto-state, the Republic of Krajina, and cementing Zagreb’s control over a belt of territory that included Petrinja. The lightning assault, dubbed Operation Storm, is celebrated as the cornerstone of the founding of the modern Croatian state.
Since then, however, the state has effectively staged a slow withdrawal from the lands recaptured in this dramatic offensive. Investment and development have focused on the capital and the coast, whose tourism sector now accounts for a fifth of Croatia‘s GDP. Weakened by war, the economy of rural inland regions will continue to decline, along with the agricultural and manufacturing industries that once supported it.
In towns like Petrinja, the workforce has been swept away by conflict and migration, leaving behind the elderly and the poor. While the 2020 earthquake sparked an initial wave of official concern, the rebuilding effort has been slow, fueling anger and accusations of abandonment. Far from the glittering coasts, this is the story of another Croatia, coveted in war and abandoned in peace.