Anger on planet Earth – 55 years since the Skopje earthquake

Man and nature are in a constant interdependence and contradiction. Nature that has been and still is so generous to the living world, especially to human beings, can show its other face with its strength – to be merciless to life and material goods. When the land eradicates and the lives and health of a larger number of people are endangered and damage is caused to a greater extent, that is called a natural disaster. According to the findings from the world map on natural hazards issued by the world renowned reinsurer Municher Risk (in the form of a folding map, and since 1998 in the form of a globe as well) the greatest danger comes from storms and floods, but people have the greatest fear of earthquakes. The animals are also afraid of them, especially fish, sharks, snakes, dogs, pigeons that in their own way indicate the malevolent event. The Aztecs are considered to be the first to register earthquakes. The first trembling device was made in China by astronomer Zhang Heng in 130 AD.

Friday, on the hot 26th day of July in 1963, the Byzantine beauty, as they called Skopje in the past, suffered a natural disaster – earthquake. In just one moment, the spirit of the old city, built for centuries, was lost. As a silent witness, the destroyed train station and the clock that remind us of the dreaded moment stayed forever at 5:17 pm. Balance: 1,070 dead, about 4,500 injured, of which 1,200 were left disabled, and about 140,000 were left without roofs over their heads and many others were left traumatized by the merciless force of nature.

The captain of JNA Petar Jovic is considered the first messenger of the devastating news that has spread throughout the territory of Yugoslavia and the whole world at an incredible pace.

On July 26th in the early morning hours, Macedonian journalist Jovan Popovski – a permanent correspondent – sent a report (which he sent from a telephone pole) to the newsroom of “Politika”, published in an extraordinary issue entitled “Disastrous earthquake in Skople”. Journalist Popovski had been cruising through the city for months, he made notes, wrote, and mourned (for the three Skopje mothers – for the one who went on for three or four days in a row, holding two bagels bought for her son and daughter who were having breakfast at home and supposed to go to practice. The bagels were left in her hand, her children were gone), but also rejoiced for something nice that happened (from the ruins were extracted 6,000 buried citizens).
What gave Skopje a special strength and hope for overcoming and coping with the consequences of the terrible natural catastrophe was the inspiring speech of President J. B. Tito (who visited Skopje the day after the earthquake). Considering everything that was happening in favor of saving and a new life, Skopje was proclaimed a symbol of international solidarity. And, with a declarations dated 11.06.1973, it was awarded the Medal of a Hero of Socialist Labor. Instead of the obituary, Skopje started to rise like a phoenix. Twenty days after the natural disaster, on the summer stage in the park, the MNT organized a (part) of the opera “Cavalleria Rusticana”. The extent of damage from the Skopje earthquake is considered to be 16% of the national income of the SFRY for 1963 or 302.4% of the national income of SRM.
On the frontal line to rescue the trapped citizens were the people in the green-and-gray uniform – members of the JNA, miners, and members of the opposing world forces, so instead of attacking, they used their “weapons” to save human lives. On the first line, of course, there were the rescuers of human lives, medical personnel doctors, medical students, members of the Red Cross and everyone who could help.
The incredibly quickly organized approach to solving the numerous problems of different types – sheltering, accommodation especially for families with young children in shelters throughout Yugoslavia, setting up tent settlements, food supplies and everything that can help at such moments of horror. On July 2nd, 1963, a meeting for assistance to Skopje was held at Brioni, and among the participants was Trajko Stojkov from the Institute for Construction and Reconstruction of Skopje. Already on the plane, a concept for reconstruction of Skopje and construction of suburban settlements was being developed.
One must not forget the engagement of the UN and their agencies, the full engagement of the Yugoslav community, directly or through institutions from over 80 countries, especially from neighboring countries such as Bulgaria, Greece, as well as India, Kuwait, Libya etc. Numerous are the institutions in Skopje that were a donation from certain countries. On the renewal of Skopje, the UN Social and Economic Affairs Council sent architect Ernest Weissmann on August 12, 1963 to investigate all the ways to help Skopje.
Skopje earthquake was a challenge for the establishment of Institute of Earthquake Engineering and Engineering Seismology (IZIIS), which was founded thanks to UNESCO.
For the purpose of eliminating the consequences and renewal, building and removing the consequences of the devastating event with a federal law, the Fund for Reconstruction and Construction of Skopje was established as a federal credit fund. It was the first fund with the purpose of removing the harmful effects of natural disasters. With the participation of the entire Yugoslav community it operated until 1982. Among the funds mobilized on various grounds, the funds collected on the basis of a public loan announced by federal law on the principle of voluntariness should be emphasized by issuing bonds whose payment operations regime was regulated separately in relation to domestic and foreign entities, as well as in ratio of the currency in dinar assets or in any convertible currency. It is worth noting that the difference between the planned 30,000 million dinars and the paid 41,496 million dinars speaks not only of success, but even more so for the high degree of human solidarity that almost never happened again. A number of monetary measures were also undertaken.

The Skopje earthquake was a challenge for enriching the legal regulations in many areas, especially in the field of technical standards of building in general and seismic areas, as well as for remedying and mitigating the severe consequences of natural disasters in Yugoslavia. The preparation of the project “Urban Plan of Skopje”, a UN-funded project and the Government of the SFRY with director Adolf Ciborovski and parallel director Kole Jordanovski, is also of great significance. Already in August Skopje was divided into 18 districts, and in just 2 to 3 weeks a plan was prepared for 18 montage settlements with 14,086 barracks.
The fact that we live in a seismically active region does not mean that we need to settle with fate and grieve, but we need to prepare ourselves every day from early age to deal with the various challenges and risks that our everyday lives bring us.

After the 1963 earthquake in relation to buildings of public character kindergartens, schools, a large number of shopping malls were mainly designed and built for more stringent criteria, but it also requires control and continuous supervision for compliance with the established standards. In doing so, it is necessary to have special oversight of controlling the exits of the big shopping malls – an essential condition for fast evacuation. At the beginning of the school year, it is necessary to hold informative motivating lectures on life determination and study the disciplines in the field of earthquake engineering and seismology. If the system of preventive measures is better organized, then the harmful consequences will be far easier to overcome.
On the day of the earthquake, each of us will certainly be reminded of relatives of close acquaintances and strangers who died, but we will also think with great respect of all humanists who saved the city of Skopje.

Kiki Mangova-Ponjavic

(The author is a university professor)