Winter bites for Croatia quake victims

Sibic (Croatia) (AFP) –


"Winter shows its teeth," sighs 75-year-old Bara Vrbanac as she slowly climbs into the snow-covered camping trailer where she is living after her house in central Croatia was badly damaged in an earthquake last month.

She is among hundreds of families who have squeezed into vans, containers and other shelters after their homes were made unsafe by the quake that killed seven people.

Winter is already tough in Croatia's interior, one of the country's poorest parts, which still bears scars from the 1990s independence war.

In Sisak county, where the quake struck, unemployment is nearly double the national level.

Like many in the region, Vrbanac, who lives in the small village of Sibic, is still on edge due to aftershocks that keep rattling homes, weeks after the December 29 earthquake that cracked open buildings, schools and farm structures.

But she does not want to leave her land and farm animals, which include six sheep, two goats, cats and a dog.

"I'm constantly scared," said the elderly woman, who uses a wooden cane.

During the day, she occasionally enters her cracked, red-brick house, but she sleeps in the tiny, donated camping trailer, covered with a plastic blue tarp to protect it from the snow.

Inside, she has an electric heater tucked next to the bed.

"Unfortunately I've been through many things -- war, surgeries -- but this is the worst yet," she said.

- Food trucks -

Nearby in the hard-hit town of Petrinja, recent snowfall has also covered the collapsed rooftops and piles of tiles and bricks still littering the streets.

Snowflakes also blanket the flowers and candles laid on a slab of a building that fell and killed a 13-year-old girl in the town of around 20,000 people.

The tremor also claimed the lives of five men from the same village -- including a father and son -- and an organist killed inside a church.

After the quake struck, aid poured in from around the country, including many of the vans donated by those who live along the coast where camping is popular.

In the centre of Petrinja, dozens of people have been queuing daily for warm meals prepared in food trucks by Croatian chefs -- some with Michelin stars.

About a hundred restaurants from across the country joined the effort, said the project's initiator Marin Medak, who leads the national caterers' association.

Only four hours after the quake, they managed to deliver 800 meals.

Since then, they have made more than 150,000.

"It's minus two degrees Celsius (28 degrees Fahrenheit) now and these people have to eat something warm," Medak, who runs a restaurant in Zagreb, told AFP.

Stevo Borota, a 75-year-old retiree in Petrinja, has been bringing the hot meals home to his wife and son, who are now living out of the family's basement to stay safe.

"Of course we can eat bread, cans and similar food, but eating 'with a spoon' is something completely different," he said, as he took the day's offering, rice with peas and chicken.

- No bathrooms -

In total, some 50,000 people suffered damage to their houses or farms in the zone around the earthquake's epicentre, according to officials.

The extent of the damage has raised questions about possible wrongdoing and construction failures during the area's post-war reconstruction.

The national anti-corruption bureau said it would seek an investigation.

In Sibic, the vast majority of homes are unsafe now, said Josip Likevic, a 41-year-old mechanic who lives in the community of around 60 people.

Inside his pink house, the walls have cracks while debris is strewn across the floor.

After spending the first few nights in an open-sided gazebo, Likevic, his wife and three teenage children crammed into a donated mobile home parked outside.

"We have no toilet or bathroom," Likevic lamented.

Others are moving into hundreds of containers that have recently arrived in the region, while some families are sheltering in a military barracks and in schools.

"Houses should be repaired and constructed immediately so that people do not leave for good," said Likevic's 63-year-old mother Kata.

The area already suffers from high emigration rates.

Their family, like many in the region, was displaced during the 1990s war and has gradually got back to normal life since returning.

But that normalcy was shattered in just a few seconds last month.

Kata and her husband are now staying in a camping trailer, while their pigs and cows shelter at a farm 50 kilometres (31 miles) away.

She travels every day to check on the animals -- only the chickens and cats stayed with them at home.

Despite the hardship, Likevic says she is grateful that no one from her family was hurt.

"Lives were spared and material things will be compensated somehow."