Zeljava Air Base and Spomenik Grmec
Today we visited the scariest location I have ever been to. The Zeljava Air Base was a strategic location on the border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina for the JNA, the Yugoslavia National Army. The military compound consisted of a series of tunnels dug deep into the tallest mountain in the area, a large compound of storage units, barracks, administration buildings, and guard towers, as well as a large satellite and missile tracking facility. The compound was abandoned and largely destroyed as the JNA retreated after the mid-90’s war.
We arrived at the site to the welcome of abandoned aircraft, mine warning signs, and the erie silence that accompanies the vacant infrastructure of past war. Although the sun was out and spring was in bloom, our heart rates were pulsing with fear from the moment we turned off the highway. With foreboding signs warning of latent land mines and others ‘strictly forbidding entrance, observation, or photographing’ of the area we stuck to paved surfaces and didn’t linger there for long.
We left with an impression of the deep-seeded scars of fear that the horrors of war leaves. These painful memories are embodied in the structures and landscape where the events took place.
Driving on, we reached Spomenik Grmec a few hours later. Two massive upturned concrete domes face each other, deep in the forest of Bosnia. The spherical volume between the two halves of the monument is split only by an arc of sky that widens to conifers towards the ground. Still filled with a bit of paranoia from our earlier visit, we make quick work of sketching and photographing the spomenik, and move on to the beautiful castle town of Jajce where we spend the night.
Spomenik Petrova Gora
This morning we left Zagreb on the well-traveled freeways. As we diverted our route towards the first of the spomeniks we’ve planned to see, the freeways fade to regional highways, to winding country roads passing through villages not shown on our detailed driving map, and eventually to what is a roughly paved forest road. No busses can take you here, the spomenik isn’t even marked on maps or road signs. Nearing the site, we drove through a small town with intimidating Croatian Polija (Police) standing around. Further on, in the dense forest on a nearly single lane road, army tan jeeps shove past us with dirt blazing off their tires and grim faces obscured by dusty windows. At the summit, we finally reach the spomenik, and not a soul was around, except a red van parked with no one in it. In the maintenance building, the hum of a large generator was heard, but what need does an abandoned building have for electricity? Stone and ceiling tiles have been stripped off of the monumental entryway and former restaurant area. Bar stools and counters are stripped down to single poles of structure protruding from the concrete. The eerie feel that abandoned buildings, with their marks of past use now discarded was only heightened by the monument complex’s remote setting and very foreign location.
We park, lock our car, approached tentatively, fearing the army buggies that continue to pass on the road below are part of some sort of operation efforts in the area, and will ask us to leave. We are also wary of the possibility of land mines and political extremists because of everyone warning us of grim locals with still extant alliances to old political tyrants in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia. We walk up the processional path to the spomenik, a man approaches us in the opposite direction carrying a ladder.
"Dobri dan"…we say (Hello). Hoping a gun doesn’t appear out of the back of his pants.
“Dobri dan”…says guy. “Hello”. He speaks pretty good English. No gun. To our great relief, we learn that he is working towards preserving the spomenik and is there on a photography session. They are organizing an event that will be held at the site in two weeks to commemorate its construction and motivate volunteer preservation efforts. The President and Prime Minister of the Croatia will attend, with hopes to raise awareness of the decaying state of Spomenik Petrova Gora.
Some spomeniks run the gray area between building and sculpture. Petrova Gora is a full on building; constructed to memorialize the efforts of the hospital nearby that served citizens and partisan forces for four years during World War II. Construction of the monument was abandoned mid-completion due to the outbreak of war, as such, it is a completed shell with unfinished interiors. Nevertheless, the structure is amazing. Monumental sweeping curves expressed by polished zinc panels on the exterior and plaster on the winding walls and stairs inside.
The man we met mentioned that during World War II there were a group of individuals, the Ustase, loyal to Ante Pavelic and the Nazi Party. Some of these affiliations are still very much alive in older citizens of the area today. As the spomeniks were commissioned by Josip Broz, the dictator of the new Yugoslavia that followed WWII under the pretense of socialism, the Ustase hate them. Younger individuals, he says, do not hate them. They would like to preserve the importance and effort put into these structures, as well as the memory they carry.
As the pictures indicate, this building has a lot of work to be what it once was. Much of the exterior was stripped of its zinc panels about three years ago; by groups of gypsies after the borders of Romania were opened according to our new Croatian friend. Now, the exposed insulation is water logged and rotting, marble has been removed from the grand entrance to the site, the elevator shaft is open unfinished, debris and decay are everywhere. Despite its dilapidated state, the spomenik is very moving with its grand cantilevered arcs and spiraling staircases.