If you happen to have been born or spent a considerable length of time in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, you were likely raised on a diet of stories surrounding the city’s 1963 devastation at the hands of nature. Back then, a staggering 80% of Skopje was razed to the ground, so strolling down almost any present-day street or reaching a landmark means you have witnessed its subsequent re-building. Having jointly experienced a crisis of a massive scale and several stages of re-inventing the city, it is no wonder that its citizens are eager to tell its tale. Every experience of collective crisis has as many faces as the people who lived it. For my entryway into this particular experience, I tap into the memories of my Grandfather, now in his 80s but during the ‘60s an employee of the city administration. I then turn towards modern-day resonances of the turbulent past. A series of young street artists have in the past few years re-imagined Skopje’s legacy in contemporary vibrant urban murals and I select a few for analysis.
Wherever these stories set off from, in my mind they all merge into one:
At 5:17h on the hot Sunday morning of 26 July 1963, the denizens of Skopje were violently shaken awake when the ground beneath the city decided the time had come for it to restack its layers. I imagine a giant bibliophile, not too deep beneath the surface, spurred in the morning by a feverish compulsion to reshuffle books on the shelves. It began moving them vertically, diagonally, and horizontally, tragically oblivious to the undulations this caused to the human and other kinds living in the dust on the top book’s hard cover.
What ensued on the surface can only be described as the rush of thoughts in each person suddenly realising that they’re caught in an unstoppable, and largely unpreventable, catastrophe. Within seconds their mind shifts from comfort to survival, and they run out of a building that until a moment ago was giving shelter. Only for the average Skopje citizen of 1963, the transition from the reckless abandon of sleep to blind haste and the switching-on of life-preserving mechanisms must have felt like a particularly long journey. The feeling of panic amid a dreadful natural disaster may be universal, but there is a type of suddenness endemic to the experience of earthquakes; they arrive with an immediacy untypical of other natural calamities: they leave no time for evacuation, packing of essentials, or securing of vertical objects. The women of Skopje are said to have escaped in their nightgowns, over-night rollers in their hair, the men half-shaven, half-clothed, all walking out of dreams into a daymare.
At the time of the Earthquake, my Grandfather was employed in the Municipality of Kale, and actively involved in the distribution of humanitarian aid and the subsequent city reconstruction, which rose to a historic achievement of world solidarity. As The Spomenik Database reports, the United Nations set up a Special Fund that pooled enormous resources from all across the globe, when the East and West were still recovering from the rift of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Apart from coordinating the immediate recovery aid from across the world, the UN also helped devise a Master Plan for reconstruction through forging an international collaboration between the City of Skopje and Greek and Polish architects.
As my Grandfather reports that 200,000 survivors lost their homes in the devastation, my mind dwells on their immediate reactions of stupefaction. How long it took survivors to come round and regain their sense of action, I ask him. “Until noon people were shocked, they were frightened,” he tells me. “In fact, there were two shockwaves, the second following closely after the first. During the first earthquake the building rocked violently but didn’t fall down, and we ran outside, leaving our daughter, your mother, inside. I ran back for her immediately and, as I took her in my arms, another earthquake hit and the chimneys collapsed.”
However, it didn’t take long for the sense of paralysis to dissipate. My Grandpa continues: “Around noon we started receiving all kinds of help from all over ex-Yugoslavia. Volunteering was common at the time and labour brigades sprung up quickly. I wanted to be useful so I went to work, and soon we received instructions from the City administration on how to arrange help. They set up open-air accommodation points and started erecting tent settlements in parks. The largest one was in the City Park. Each citizen who didn’t have a roof over their head would be handed a tent from the current military and other reserves.”
In parallel, food distribution points were established at primary schools and bread and other foodstuff rationed on a first-come-first-served basis. Thus, conditions for survival were in place within a day and a half of the immediate aftermath. I marvel at the speed with which people seemed to come to terms with fate. My Grandfather has an answer at the ready: “There was a strong sense of solidarity, no one was left lacking. The whole world rose to the occasion to help.”
Indeed, much as the story of the city’s ruination looms large, the tale of its transformation through solidarity transcends it. Within hours the first aid packages arrived from neighbouring countries. Within days multiple cities across ex-Yugoslavia (Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana, and others) offered their hotels for accommodation of surviving women and children. The ex-Yugoslav army deployed its troops and machinery to clear the city that was drowning in rubble and search for survivors. But aid responses extended from the farthermost reaches of the world. For example, packages of children’s toys sent from Mexico filled an entire warehouse of the textile plant “Kuzman Josifovski-Pitu.” Hands and goods arrived too from the US and Russian armies, who were instrumental in the removal and rescue missions. “We had a running joke that Skopje was the place where Russians and Americans first became friends,” Grandpa recalls.
Rehoming the citizens who were left without shelter was of prime importance, but the ground was too unstable to allow for excavations and solid constructions. “The aftershocks continued for an entire month,” and with summer drawing to an end, pre-fab houses were landed on as the most expedient solution. In the autumn, new settlements mushroomed within as few as ten days. Quarters like Butel and Taftalidze were built in this way, and all with foreign help: “Countries would even bring their own workforce, and we only provided the space where there used to be empty fields. Butel was built by Bosnia and Herzegovina, and prefabs in Taftalidze were erected by the Czechs, Finns, and others. This is why Skopje was dubbed ‘the City of Solidarity’,” Grandpa’s voice rings proud. A testament to the latter is the toponymy of these neighbourhoods, as streets were named after the capitals of the countries that constructed them and/or made generous donations to: Stokholmska St. (an homage to Sweden), Oslo Street, Budimpestanska St. (a hail to Budapest, Hungary), Briselska St. (after Brussels), etc.
The Past Refracted in Urban Murals
Ever since, Skopje denizens refer to this turning point in their lives, and the lives of their offspring, simply as “the Earthquake.” Given that a significant portion of the city configuration, its public and private architecture and toponymy, bear witness to the disaster, one need not be an octogenarian in order to commemorate it. Thus, for the 55th anniversary in 2018, the central City administration joined forces with the City Mall or GTC (Gradski Trgovski Centar), the Youth Cultural Centre, and the international city network CreArt and organised a street art and graffiti competition. The Mall, the oldest in the city, is itself a post-catastrophe construction of 1969, adjacent to the Park of the Woman-Warrior. For the 2018 street art & graffiti open-air gallery it offered the retaining wall of its underpass marking the boundary between park and structure. Situated below street level, and connected to the mall’s souterrain, which had largely grown neglected, the long wall was the perfect site for urban revival through art.
Rather than evoking nostalgia for the city that was ruined, the goal of the contest was reportedly to celebrate the city that phoenixed through reconstruction. The contest yielded twenty works of young artists and soon afterwards the gallery entitled ‘The City Beautiful’ was opened. A particularly notable piece is the one painted by Davor Keskec. It is painted as a patchwork pop-art tribute, its centrepiece a concrete-gray rendition of the now iconic vestige of the Earthquake, the clock of the Old Railway Station. As it happened, the force of the shockwave caused a part of the Railway Station building to collapse and the clock hands to stop. Since then the clock has been frozen at 5:17h as an emblem of time’s flow suspended. The artwork depicts it as a fragment emerging from beneath layers of peeling wallpapers, echoing the layers of stone debris left in the wake of the shocks. Patterns of lines, ranging from zig-zag stripes to isograms, and dots at various scales communicate with each other through juxtaposition. A striking interruption is the dent in the wall, likely an emergency exit door or walled-in passage, cleverly rendered to resemble a barricade tape fencing off a hazardous site. With its physical depth and colour palette it adds to the mural’s fragmentary dynamics. Its pieces thus create a stratified texture on a seemingly smooth surface, suggesting that even the flux of time is susceptible to violent disruptions.
A fitting complement to Keshkec’s mural, the one painted by Sanja Simovska [first image high above], encapsulates the spirit of solidarity and the common battle for survival and re-building in a single, poignant image. The clenched human fist rising triumphantly from the ground is a recognisable embodiment of joint determination and action, especially in the face of calamity. Against a backdrop of a gray palette and a star-spangled sky, hosts of human figures in vibrant colours celebrate their new lease on life, some even depicted as ascending the upright arm like a monument to fellowship. To emphasise this monumentality, the author has playfully deployed scale, making the size of the fist on par with that of the moon, shining its light on the celebratory crowd. Thus, the mural conveys an unquestionable sense that the post-earthquake esprit de corps, uniting nations and cultures in the building of a single city, exhibits a planetary power, and invariably proves greater than the sum of its parts.
The final gem in the triptych I’ve selected is one that reads ‘Skopje Dreams’ and corresponds with the themes and techniques of the preceding two, yet inverts or employs them in a way that, rather than remembrance or jubilation, invokes a dreamscape. It paints another nightly sky, yet spreads it out in turquoise, contrasted with a smooth, creamy yellow disc of a moon and likewise dotted with stars. Its shapes and font are decidedly geometric, angular, yet they grant the mural a simplicity that foregrounds its colour scheme and evocation of an Arctic landscape. In it, a sole polar bear, the only element granted textural intricateness, is poised to ascend a massive, protruding iceberg symbolically reaching towards the moon, where a flock of birds disappears in its warm glow. In the iceberg, however, visitors to and citizens of Skopje may recognise the impressive white building of the Macedonian National Opera and Ballet (formerly Macedonian National Theatre, or MNT), an epitome of brutalist architecture, designed and erected in the post-earthquake era in the 1970s (see image below). In this way, the iconic sloping building is transposed from its orderly urbanised milieu into the wilderness, dreamed up as the dwelling place of a species threatened by extinction. Still, on this moonlit Arctic stage, the bear, standing for the city, or the dreamer viewing it, is yet to begin its climb up the incline.
It bears mention that few, if any, of the artists painting for the 55th Earthquake anniversary open-air gallery witnessed the disaster first-hand. Like mine, their experiences of it are inherited, of necessity, through our emplacement in the sites that were frozen in time, those that turned foes into friends, and the ones sketched with the eye of a dreamer and the pen of a writer. Regardless of the vicariousness that fuels the art, it signals a shared awareness of the enduring traces left by tectonic shifts, made tangible by my Grandpa’s concluding statement: “I still wake up at 5.17h almost every day.”
Photo credit for title photo: Gjurgica Ilieva, private archive. All other photographs, unless otherwise specified, belong to the author’s private archive.