October 29, 2020 – TCN joins Zagreb Volunteers Centre in Čučerje to find out who are the Zagreb volunteers and why they do what they do. Čučerje is a semi-rural community which lies at the epicentre of the March 2020 earthquake.
By the time we ran out of the building, the first tremor had stopped. At 6:25am, the asphalt road lay quiet and motionless. People in pyjamas, nightgowns or underwear stood on the pavement. Others emerged even later. Although masonry in other parts of the city continued to fall, the 5.5 magnitude earthquake that visited Zagreb on 22 March 2020 was over. It had lasted much less than a minute. Its repercussions would last much longer.
Damage to a Zagreb city-centre building in the 2020 earthquake © Franjo Tahy
The tragic news of a fatality filtered through the media several hours later, as did pictures of the devastation visited upon the Croatian capital’s buildings. Some of its oldest were hit particularly hard. However, most modern constructions had emerged largely unscathed. Acknowledging the area’s seismic capabilities, everything built after the 1963 earthquake of Skopje in neighbouring Macedonia had been constructed to withstand such force.
Offers of help soon began to arrive from overseas. Despite international struggles related to Coronavirus, many still had sympathy upon hearing of the Zagreb earthquake. This outside sympathy and the media that prompted it were rarely directed to the semi-rural communities which experienced the earthquake’s fiercest force.
The front of the town church in Čučerje, surrounded by scaffolding seven months after the earthquake
The small town of Čučerje is just short of 11 kilometres to the north-east of Zagreb city centre. In late October, the town looks impossibly pretty – houses perched in the foothills of Mount Medvednica, surrounded by greenery and trees exploding in a myriad of autumn shades. But, behind the colourful exterior lies a hidden suffering.
The spire of Čučerje’s church is scarred on all sides by long-veined cracks
Čučerje lies just 500 metres from the epicentre of the earthquake. Scaffolding bolsters the town church, its spire scarred on all sides by long-veined cracks. Back from the main road, down simple, country lanes, sit houses much older than those standng proud above the centre. Here, life still exists in a way similar to that of the original residents of such dwellings. Elderly neighbours are preparing to heat their homes by wood-fired burners, chasing away the chill seeping in through the cracks the earthquake has left. As winter approaches, such hardships are not always reported as loudly as those faced by the damaged cultural institutions holding priceless collections in the capital. But, the struggle does not go unnoticed by Zagreb Volunteers Centre (VCZ).
Čučerje residents and members of Zagreb Volunteers Centre meet in the community centre to plan the day’s action
Established in 1998, Zagreb Volunteers Centre acts as a conduit between charities, communities and non-profit organisations who need support and those willing to donate their time to good causes. Since it was formed, over 18, 000 people have submitted their names to the centre as potential Zagreb volunteers who may be called upon. The centre has helped over 700 organisations find Zagreb volunteers.
“Before 1996, there was a set-up that facilitated international volunteering – it helped connect Croatians with international actions that were looking for help,” says 28-year-old Dunja Hafner, who works for Zagreb Volunteers Centre. “But, it was noticed that some people couldn’t commit to an overseas trip and that others simply just preferred only to volunteer locally. The logical step was to move into facilitating that.”
Zagreb volunteers gather in the early morning mist
“Since we started, the numbers of Zagreb volunteers in our database has grown steadily. But, over more recent times, volunteering does seem to have become a more popular thing to do. And, many people have put their names forward for volunteering since the advent of the earthquake. In the immediate aftermath, there were so many people volunteering that we had to just direct people to the specific groups who were appealing for help. We even had to turn down some Zagreb volunteers who offered their time. That had never previously happened in the history of the organisation. Now, we are managing better and we help co-ordinate some of the actions ourselves.”
“Before the earthquake, the main volunteering areas to which we would send people were actions for children, the elderly, events like culture, sports and music festivals, animals, ecology projects and nature conservation.”
My name is Dražen Blažević (centre), I was born in Croatia. My mother and grandparents are all from Zagreb. This is the city where I live. At the moment, I don’t have regular employment, so I can afford to give my time to an action like this. While I’m looking for a full-time job, I make ends meet by doing food deliveries on my bicycle. Why am I here today? Honestly, it was only two weeks ago that I just had this feeling that I should give my time to help people. In one minute I decided I would volunteer. Before this, the kind of help I would give was only to my neighbours, the elderly relatives of friends. People like that. As an official volunteer, this is my first time. Maybe this sounds a little selfish, but I thought it would make me feel good.
My name is Alexandra and I am from Čučerje. I live here with my family. Right now, I am without a full-time job, so I take on some other daily obligations – I accompany kids to kindergarten and school, and I help out in our local church. I look after their social media pages for them. I also play the organ in the church. It was a very simple decision for me to join in with today’s action – I live here. I walk past the devastation left by the earthquake every day. This town has experienced lots of problems because of the damage. For me, giving my time today is a way of showing the love I have for my town and the people who live here. Well, something like that.
My name is Borut Babanić (right) and I’m from Zagreb. I work as a project manager. I wanted to volunteer so I could help people. The residents of Čučerje are some of the worst affected by the earthquake and so that’s why I want to come here specifically. I wanted them to not feel that they are alone. This is the first time I joined an action via the Zagreb Volunteer Centre.
My name is Antonio Frinčić (left). I’m from Zagreb. I work for the Croatian Foundation For Children. It’s an organisation that assists in looking after children and families who have small incomes or limited means. It’s a state-funded organisation. My position there is a paid one. This is not the first voluntary work I’ve undertaken, but it is the first time I have volunteered through the Zagreb Volunteer Centre. My answer is the same as Borut’s – I came here because I wanted to help these people.
Borut and Antonio are pictured side-by-side because they spent most of the day working together. When they arrived in the morning, they were strangers. They left as friends.
My name is Marina Krolo and I’m originally from Split. I studied in Zagreb, finished university here and then stayed. My regular role in society is that I’m a tour guide and tour leader. That pretty much means that this is my year off, ha! There’s not much work for a tour guide in 2020, so I’m trying to put my free time to good use. This is the first time I’ve volunteered through Zagreb Volunteer Centre.
My name is Vincent Matijaca. I was born in Split. I’m based in Zagreb now. We opened a company BioCro LTD in the United Kingdom a few months ago. What we’re trying to do is assist small producers and OPGs from this region to place their products internationally, including the UK and other countries in Europe. Why am I here today? Well, we believe that you can’t start promoting sustainability and help solely from the office, we believe our project to be more hands-on. By doing that we hope to be able to show what we’re about, and to set an example that perhaps others will follow. We’ve previously joined actions through other Croatian volunteer organisations and others internationally, but this is the first time we’ve done so through Zagreb Volunteer Centre.
Local people from Čučerje and the surroundings had prepared food to make sure the volunteers didn’t go hungry. This dish was made and donated by a local hairdresser. It is a local speciality called tenka gibanica. It was delicious.
My name is Tomislav Vlajčić and I’m from Zagreb. At the moment, my regular time is spent studying economy and training football. I’m the team leader of a faculty-related group Tourism Lab that’s interested in that area of our economy. This is my first time volunteering. I decided to come because it’s a good opportunity to help people who are in need and I’m really glad I came. The experience was really worth it and meeting new people, seeing a slightly different culture is priceless. I would recommend it to anyone because it all starts with us.
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