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Symbols of Loss: 8 Yugoslav Monuments to Tragedies & Disasters

Updated: May 26

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

A view of the 1974 train disaster memorial sculpture at Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb. Credit: personal photo

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.

A vintage Yugoslav-era photo of the 1974 train crash at Zagreb.

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

A photo of the monument to the Mavrovo dam workers who perished in the 1956 avalanche. Credit: Xiao Yang

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.

A vintage Yugoslav-era postcard view of scenes from Mavrovo, including the dam workers monument.
A recent photo of one of the water intake towers of the Mavrovo Dam. Credit: 91 Days Macedonia

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

A contemporary view of the monument in Stragari dedicated to the train crash victims. Credit: Lavlja Jazbina

Author(s): [unknown]

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