Updated: Jul 7, 2021
When it comes to exploring and investigating the monuments built across the former Yugoslav-region, much of the focus of the Spomenik Database project concerns sites which commemorate the events surrounding WWII, Partisan fighters, fascist crimes and the victory of the People’s Liberation Struggle. However, in this hyper focused analysis, there is a type of monument that my research often neglects to examine: monuments dedicated to significant Yugoslav-era civilian accidents, tragedies and disasters. Furthermore, apart from my efforts, the increase in international attention garnered in recent years by memorial sculpture and architecture of Yugoslavia has also seldom focused on such monuments. When a community is struck by such unimaginable tragedy (that often involves the most vulnerable members of society), the bereaved citizens, families and survivors band together to create symbols to remember those who were lost, which operate not only as a places for grieving but also a conduits through which those who are suffering can attempt to make sense of the horrible events which transpired. Most commonly, these honorofic symbols have taken the form of memorial sculptures around which people can gather together and unite in solidarity. Such monuments offer a unique glimpse into the strength and resilience of the communities that created them, as well as signaling the depth to which trauma rippled through the lives of those who were connected to the events. As such, in this article, I will closely examine 8 monument sites across the former Yugoslav region that are dedicated to horrific tragedies, accidents and disasters that struck at, in their day, the hearts of not just the communities where they occurred, but also the nation as a whole. Each entry will explore the events in detail, the creation of the monuments, a description of their form, and, finally, their present day conditions.
1.) The 1974 Zagreb Train Disaster
Author(s): Vojin Bakić [profile page]
Year created: 1978
Location: Mirogoj Cemetery, Zagreb, Croatia
Coordinates: N45°50'04.7", E15°59'19.0"
On the evening of August 30th, 1974 at about 19:45 (7:45pm), train number 10410 was beginning its approach to the main platform of the central Zagreb train station, just another stop along its ultimate destination of Dortmund, West Germany. Having begun its trip in Athens the day before, the train had passed through Belgrade earlier that day where it had picked up a significant number of Yugoslav laborers headed back to their guest-work jobs in West Germany after a summer vacation. The train, loaded with over 400 passengers across nine wagons, also contained an unusual amount of children, as many of these Yugoslav guest-workers were travelling with their whole families back to West Germany. However, as the train began to approach the station platform, it did not slow down to the customary 40 km/h that it was supposed to, instead, it was coming up to the station at a dangerous speed of 104 km/h. Consequently, when the train barrelled into the station, all nine wagons jumped the track and piled themselves into a heaping mangled wreck in front of the platform. Through the course of this horrific event, 153 people died and over 60 people were injured, making it the worst rail accident in Croatian history. Sources describe that many victims on the overturned train may have perished from electrocution, as the train had crashed into a series of active power lines. It was later determined, after an investigation, that the most likely reason that the crew and operators failed to slow the train down was the result of their tiredness and perhaps sleeping while on the job, which led to them not applying the brakes to the train in time. However, the investigation also uncovered the fact that the train company had been severely overworking the crew, as those train operators had been working for 51 hours straight before the train crash occurred.
Many of those who perished in the train wreck were so badly injured that their remains were unidentifiable. As such, a collection of 41 remains that were not claimed by family members or identified were interred in a mass gravesite at the famous Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb. At this mass gravesite, which is located at a notable location with the cemetery, a memorial space composed of polished black stone was established around the burial site. A large engraving made into this stone reads as (when translated into English): “Victims of the Train Accident in Zagreb, August 20th, 1974”. On the second anniversary of the accident in 1978, Zagreb sculptor Vojin Bakić installed a small memorial sculpture at the center of the gravesite. Bakić’s sculpture consists of an irregular geometric crystalline-like shape fashioned out of polished and reflective stainless steel. This sculpture is crafted in a similar style to that of Bakić’s series of memorial sculptures at the nearby Dotrščina Memorial Park in Zagreb [profile page], which commemorates a WWII mass killing site. In speaking about the symbolism of his works at Dotrščina, Bakić makes the following comments:
“In the artistic solution for the memorial of the Dotrščina cemetery, I came to the realization that the crystal, realized in this glittering material, reflects what the victims who have fallen there represent for us: purity, permanence, eternal light... The brightening mass of the steel reflecting light in such a form arouses singing from among the tombstones, as well as the motivation to rediscover the physical and ideological radiation of the free-hearted people who are buried there."
It would seem that Bakić’s words would equally apply to his memorial sculpture here at Mirogoj that is dedicated to the train disaster victims. Much of the memorial sculpture work that Bakić created over his life meditates on the idea of using reflective materials to bring light into a place that is shrouded in darkness. Commemorative ceremonies still occur at the memorial site and efforts were put forward in 2014 and 2015 to restore the complex. It is important to note that in the aftermath of this tragedy, laws were passed in Yugoslavia dictating that train operators can not work shifts longer than 10 to 12 hours before they must rest.
2.) 1956 Mavrovo Avalanche
Author(s): Boro Krstevski & Milorad Stanković
Year created: 1967
Location: at the Mavrovo Dam, Mavrovo Lake, North Macedonia
Coordinates: N41°41'50.3", E20°44'55.8"E
In the early morning hours of February 11th, 1956, the workers of the new Mavrovo Dam project were asleep in their bunkhouses in an area along the Radika River Valley near the remote Šar Mountain villages of Strezimir and Sjtirovica. Well over 100 workers were asleep here that night, all of which were miners, engineers and other technical personnel who had been working since 1947 towards the construction of the largest dam of the SR of Macedonia. During the midst of this evening, large amounts of snow had been falling, leaving the slopes packed with large blankets of fresh newly laid powder. During that morning, some unknown force triggered an avalanche that swept swiftly down the mountain side and over the bunk houses, burying the workers under untold amounts of white snow. Rescuers from across the region quickly descended upon the area of the workers’ barracks, with the quick action and heroism on the part of these rescuers leading to more than 50 of those trapped under the snow being saved and brought to safety. However, 52 of those workers who were buried under the avalanche that morning did not survive. This event was the deadliest avalanche disaster ever documented in Yugoslavia.
Eleven years later in 1967, a memorial complex was unveiled just a few dozen meters northeast of the then completed Mavrovo Dam, near the village of Mavrovi Anovi. This year of the monument’s unveiling was selected in order to mark the 20th anniversary of the start of the construction of the dam. Situated just off of the side of the main road that encircles the lake, the central element of the complex is a memorial sculpture created by sculptor Boro Krstevski and architect Milorad Stanković. The sculpture depicts the stone carved figure of a mine worker drilling with his jackhammer into a stone pillar, with his right leg thrusted back dramatically and the stone crumbling as a result of his efforts. Bare chested and barefoot, the miner figure, rendered with enormous muscles, operates as the embodiment of all of the brave workers who lost their lives during the 1956 avalanche. Around the memorial complex are several stone slabs engraved with significant messages and information. One stone tells of the youth volunteers who worked on the construction of the dam, while another shows a diagram of the dam and communicates its statistical information. However, the most significant stone at the site is engraved with the names of the 52 workers who perished in the avalanche, along with an inscription which reads as follows (when translated into English):
“We proudly remember the victims of the avalanches and all the other workers who lost their lives during this construction, they are the grandfather of our glory, of our efforts, of our path to a bright future.”
Overall, the complex is in good condition and is regularly maintained by local patrons. Commemorative events continue to be held at the site on a regular basis. Since 1962, an annual honorific event called the “Mavrovo Memorial Nordic Skiing Competition” has been held at Mavrovo and centers its events around the monument. It is the oldest annual ski competition of the former Yugoslav region and among the oldest in Europe. It is held every year around early to mid-February, around the time when the 1956 avalanche would have occurred.
3.) 1971 Semizovac Train Disaster
Year created: 1971?
Location: Stragari, Serbia
Coordinates: N44°09'35.0", E20°39'56.7"
In the darkness of the early morning of July 17th, 1971, an overnight express passenger train from Belgrade was travelling southeast along the Bosnia River towards Sarajevo on its way to its final destination of the coastal Adriatic town of Ploče, Croatia. Aboard this express train were 400 passengers, of whom roughly 230 were elementary school children from the Kragujevac region and surrounding villages who were on their way to a school beach holiday at Gradac, a seaside resort town just north of Ploče. Travelling in the opposite direction along the same track was a freight train that had just departed from Sarajevo heading north towards Doboj. At about 3:08 in the morning, the freight train came to a scheduled stop at the station of Semizovac, a village just north of Sarajevo along the Bosnia River. As a result, signalmen at Semizovac gave the approaching Belgrade express train a red signal to stop. However, the operators of the Belgrade express train did not follow or heed the stop signal given to them, instead, they continued onwards at full speed towards Semizovac. Just moments later, the Belgrade express train collided head-on into the locomotive of the freight train which was stopped at Semizovac. The bulk of the train’s impact with the freight cars was absorbed largely by the first few passenger wagons of the Belgrade train, which were accommodating school children from the village of Stragari (a small settlement just 25km northwest of Kragujevac). As a result of this impact, 14 of the Stragari children, along with their teacher Zlatimir Ivanović, were all killed instantly. In addition to these children, the two drivers of the freight train were also killed. The two train operators of the Belgrade express train, Alojz Pokrajac and Ivan Jurilj, were both summarily arrested by authorities, however, I was not able to find any sources relating their fate or any explanation regarding how or why it was they came to cause the disaster at Semizovac.
Later the same day of the crash, Sarajevo authorities sent the bodies of the killed school children and their teacher back to Kragujevac. A special cemetery was established for the 14 young children just north of the village center of Stragari where they were all interred together, with photographic plaques depicting each child sitting atop their tombs. With the creation of this cemetery, a monument to their memory was also created at the same time. Positioned on the hill overlooking the cemetery, this monument is composed of fourteen abstract concrete forms fixed in a circular arrangement around a central pillar. The shape of this work is no doubt a symbolic representation of the children huddled around their teacher. A plaque attached to the monument relates the names of the children and teacher who perished in the train crash at Semizovac. Also on the plaque is a poetic verse about the tragedy, which reads as follows (when translated into English):
“My dearest... youth has dawned at dawn just as it is beginning to bloom. The wonderful childrens’ dreams of the blue sea has disappeared forever, covered in darkness. Don't weep for us, we have no tears of pain, instead, give us flowers, because our youthfulness wanted happiness. We wanted more life and love... our young lives are gone but remembering them cannot erase anything, not even the time that passes. These graves warn that we have been failed in the greatest of human responsibilities. Conscience and responsibilities.”
Recent photos of the memorial site at Stragari show the monument to be overgrown with vegetation. Meanwhile, I found no online media or news articles related to any events or activities at this site. Furthermore, the author of the monument, as well as its year of creation, are details that still remain elusive. If anyone has any information about this site, as well as recent photos or documentation, please share them with me.
4.) 1969 Banja Luka Earthquake
Year created: around 1971?
Location: Banja Luka, BiH
Coordinates: 44°46'13.8"N 17°11'22.4"E
On the afternoon of the 26th of October, 1969, there was a mild earthquake that shook the city of Banja Luka, BiH around 4pm. Only minimal damage resulted from this quake, however, the residents of the city were highly alarmed and skittish as a result, especially as a series of light tremors continued throughout the rest of the evening and into the early morning of the next day. Many residents spent the evening outside for fear that another quake would occur. It was not until the sun had risen on the day of the 27th, while people were starting to prepare themselves for the day, that the true menace of this fateful series of events would strike. Then, at 9:11, a massive quake began to shake Banja Luka and the surrounding area. The rumblings stopped after only a few seconds, yet, the city lay devastated in the aftermath of this disaster. Buildings across Banja Luka crumbled and toppled over, resulting in the destruction of over 86,000 apartments. Miraculously, despite the extent of the destruction across Banja Luka, only 15 people perished in the quake, possibly as a result of the heightened awareness the tremors caused leading up to the massive quake. Though, while just over a dozen perished, casualties were significant, with over 1,000 people injured. This was the worst ever earthquake to have its epicenter in the region of Bosnia i Herzegovina since the era of modern measurements.
One of the largest buildings damaged by the earthquake that was subsequently demolished during the city’s reconstruction phase was a large horizontal apartment block known as the “Titanic”, a housing complex for the families of JNA officers located right on the old town square. This giant residential complex was built just a few years before the quake struck and was a landmark structure within the city center of Banja Luka, resulting in many being saddened to see it removed. However, in its place, the city square was greatly expanded and modernized, with an extravagant new department store named “Boska” being constructed as the centerpiece of the square. At the center of this new square was erected a modest monument dedicated to the memory of all those who suffered and perished as a result of the 1969 earthquake. The primary element of the monument is the large three-faced “Insa” clock that formerly sat at the center of the old town square before the earthquake struck, with its hands forever frozen at the time when the shaking began at 9:11. The clock is dramatically perched upon a stainless steel pole that is zig-zagged, a clear symbolic reference to the quake. Behind the clock is a rectangular 5m tall black tile wall, perforated by a single square hole. This element may exist as a ghostly reminder of the many buildings here in the city center that were demolished as a result of the quake. No inscriptions or engravings exist on the monument, other than the date of the earthquake being written out on the faces of the Insa clock: “27 X 1969”, with the “X” being the Roman numeral for the 10th month, October. Unfortunately, I was not able to determine the exact year this monument was erected or who the creator was who designed it. Meanwhile, one additional memorial dedicated to the earthquake exists nearby on the side of the Boska department store in the form of a bronze plaque. A photo of it can be seen at THIS link.
The monument has been kept and maintained in good shape over the decades and is regularly commemorated. However, in 2014, a negligent driver struck the clock with his car and knocked it down. It was quickly repaired and replaced. Informally, the Banja Luka Earthquake Memorial Clock is known as the “Crooked Clock” or the “Wrong Hour”, while also being one of the most popular downtown meet up spots for young people in the city.
5.) 1984 Vodna Mine Disaster
Author(s): Miodrag Živković [profile page]
Year created: 1985
Location: Vodna, Serbia
Coordinates: N44°06'06.9", E21°33'39.5"
On the morning of April 21st, 1984, miners of the Vodna coal mine (part of the “Rembasa” and “Resavica” mine system) had just begun their shifts at work and were busy chipping away diligently at the rock. On this morning, one particular group of several dozen miners at Vodna were working deep in the Strmosten Pit, a notably deep shaft which goes down roughly 150 meters. Because of the depth of this shaft, a special ventilation system was in place in order to feed in air as well as for the removal of the build-up of dangerous gases. However, as a result of an electrical breakdown, the ventilation system stalled, allowing gasses to accumulate in the Strmosten Pit in the area where the miners were working. At about 10:30 in the morning, a large amount of methane which had accumulated suddenly ignited and caused an enormous explosion. Rescue teams from across the region descended upon the Vodna mine, however, reports indicate that all 34 miners who were within the Strmosten Pit perished.
At the marking of the one year anniversary of the tragedy, a memorial complex dedicated to the 34 lost miners was established in Vodna along the Resava River near the main entrance to the mine facility. The central element of this complex is a large concrete memorial sculpture titled “The Flower in the Stone”, created by famous Belgrade sculptor Miodrag Živković (author of some of the most significant monumental works in Yugoslavia). This sculpture, which sits upon a raised platform, is composed of a triangular body that is pierced with a flower-shaped cavity through its center. This whole sculpture is cantilevered off the edge of the platform and is perched in such a fashion that the whole arrangement appears to defy gravity. From the bottom to the top of the triangle is roughly 7 meters in height. While the symbolism of the flower component of the monument is straightforward (usually representing hope and life), the symbolism of other aspects (such as the triangle shape and the precarious positioning) is less clear). In addition, in 1988, a bronze triangular pillar was erected along the entrance pathway to the site which bears the names of all of the miners who perished.