Croatia

The Balkans - Part 2

Date October 2010
Posted June 2012
The huge underground airbase at Zeljava, Croatia
The closer we got to the mountains, the more the roads narrowed until we were following a concrete track flanked on one side by disorganised-looking farmland and on the other by thick vegetation. A final sharp bend and our rough navigation proved a success: we could see aeroplanes. We had arrived at the abandoned Zeljava airbase on the Croatia-Bosnia border.

Zeljava Airbase, Zeljava, Croatia (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Zeljava Airbase, Zeljava, Croatia (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Two hazards in particular awaited the four of us as we bumped along the track and parked by the nose of a decaying DC-3. The lesser threat was from the border police who are known to check the area for illegal migrants and who may not take kindly to people hanging around there. More importantly though we were well aware that the area is ridden with landmines. I remembered wise advice: stick to the concrete.

Five minutes later I trod 'carefully' through the grass to reach the two F-84 fighter jets. I'm not sure quite how I thought trying to tread softly would keep me safe from the wrath of the mines, if they were there, but it seemed to add some kind of comfort to this display of foolishness. The aircraft, all ex Croatian airforce, were probably defunct and not airworthy when forces withdrew from the base, and so were left behind.

Zeljava Airbase, Zeljava, Croatia (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

The planes and the various concrete runways tucked behind the trees were the topside remnants of something much more impressive. Codenamed Objekat 505, the airbase had been finished during the late 1960s with the safety of its aircraft in mind. For that reason a 3.5km network of underground tunnels had been bored into the mountainside and lined with concrete, built to withstand a hit from a 20-kiloton nuclear bomb. Inside were housed three squadrons of Mig-21bis jets, communications facilities and maintenance workshops. The base could survive a month without resupply, and was fed fuel via a 20km pipeline. It was, all in all, pretty well thought out. And a snip at $6 billion.

Zeljava Airbase, Zeljava, Croatia (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

There was nothing to stop us navigating the outdoor parts of the base using the car, so we did just that. Having sought out one of the entrances (there are four in total, all of which were once protected by 100 ton pressurised doors) it was time to see what remained inside. Unfortunately there was no way to get the car in, so we had to continue on foot. Within the darkness we found that little remained other than the vast concrete halls.

At various times attempts have been made to destroy the base: in the early 1990s the Yugoslav People's Army let off vast quantities of explosives inside the tunnels. The Military of Serbian Krajina turned up in 1995, and promptly wheeled in an additional 56 tons of their own explosives. The nearby village shook and smoke emerged from the tunnel complex for months afterwards but still the tunnels remained. The damage though is plain to see - charred rooms, smashed concrete and exposed steel re-bar tell the story.

Zeljava Airbase, Zeljava, Croatia (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Interestingly the blast walls reveal the original purpose of the facility - they were specifically designed to reduce the damage inflicted by a shock wave whilst still permitting fixed-wing jets to be moved around underground. Alas no jets or parts remained underground.

Back outside we ran into a large group of questionable looking people who, by their accents, sounded fairly local. Behind them a minibus stood parked, and it turned out that they had similar motivations to ourselves. As it turned out we didn't run into police in the end. Signs throughout the base mark the border area between Croatia and Bosnia, a region we were fairly keen to keep out of. Not least because of all those landmines.

Zeljava Airbase, Zeljava, Croatia (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Naturally before leaving the base we had to take the car for a couple of blasts up and down the runway. In the event the 1600cc engine wasn't up to much. Combine this with the uneven, bumpy concrete and it was hardly surprising that we barely made 100mph before running out of airstrip. Still, the car survived, and so did we. Now it was time to cross the border into Bosnia and make for Sarajevo.

Zeljava Airbase, Zeljava, Croatia (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net
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