Željava Airbase, Croatia
The ordnance survey map was wearing thin along the creases. It had been folded and unfolded in a dozen different configurations. The scrawled pencil marks and highlighter lines were now fading after a long week and our journey of several thousand miles traveling around Croatia with little more than a hire car and a couple of tents.
Our final location before returning to Split, to hand back the car and fly home, was the most exciting of the trip. After lakes, forests and mountains, abandoned hotels and bombed out buildings, all in an incredibly diverse country, this was the prize we had been leaving until last.
Less than an hour from the Plitviče Lakes National Park, hidden down perilous country lanes, Željava Airbase was the pinnacle of our trip. I served as a soldier with the British Army in Bosnia and my return to Yugoslavia has been partly motivated by a need to revisit in peace time, but for Walt and I traveling had always been about adventure; about finding those ‘off the beaten track’ locations. It wasn’t just about urban exploration, but about experiencing places that few people ever have or will see.
Željava Airbase fulfilled that requirement wholeheartedly. On the border between Croatia and Bosnia, built under a mountain, it was one of the largest underground airbases in Europe. Built between 1948 and 1968 it was designed to withstand a direct hit from a 20 kiloton nuclear bomb. The airbase was used extensively during the Yugoslav wars and was partially destroyed in 1992 to prevent re-use.
The lonely shell of a disused Douglas C-47 (Dakota) airplane introduced us to the criss-cross of unused runways. There was a surge of adrenaline and excitement as we drove onto the cracked and overgrown concrete and found our way to the main entrance of the airbase. The area is still heavily land mined even twenty years after the war, so we were careful not to drive or tread anywhere that was not solid concrete. A few years earlier someone was blown up and killed while picking mushrooms at the airfield. We never admitted to each other our apprehension as we looked into the gaping darkness, a beckoning mouth in the side of the lush green of the mountain. Loaded down with camera equipment, torches, batteries, more torches and a gas stove for mandatory tea stops, we moved slowly and carefully into the tunnel system.
It was dark. Even within feet of the entrance the light quickly faded into black. The darkness seemed to consume the light from the numerous torches we were carrying and the aftermath of every tacky eighties horror film I had ever seen began rampaging around the inside of my head. The cool air was thick with dust and the smell of cordite and concrete lingered in my nostrils. As our eyes began to adjust we could see that the cavernous hangars were precisely carved into the rock; huge rooms that arched above like windowless cathedrals. The airplane shaped blast doors which had been blown by the advancing Serbian Army, were now silent rubble and twisted metal reinforcement.
Using our cameras on tripods, slow shutter speeds and careful use of torches to illuminate the concrete, we painted images with light. We moved from room to room, careful not to fall down the gaping access holes where cables had been stripped in the past.
A couple of hours in and our first cuppa. Standing in the dark, in silent contemplation. Complete silence, no traffic, no people, no noise at all, with the exception of the occasional drip of water. It was like the most extreme version of getting away from it all. In the middle of nowhere miles underground, nobody even knew we were there. Completely at peace. That is until the nineteen eighties horror films start to play on your mind again.
We negotiated rubble and boulders that had fallen from blasted ceilings and trenches filled with water, taking time to get the best angles and lighting we could. Each room was different, some filled with rusting pipes and cables, others with long seized generators, many with old machines with no way to identify what they once were. Some rooms were littered with user manuals and log books or unravelled rolls of aerial photographic film. We continued our slow journey in the dark until our cameras and torches were on the final dregs of battery life. Exhausted we exited the tunnels twelve hours after we entered to a sun setting over the Dakota at the entrance.
These images were produced by ‘painting with light‘ during a ten hour exploration of the airbase. Using LED torches and a three minute exposure at ISO 400/800, we painted in light to what was otherwise complete darkness. The photographs of the entrances were taken using a combination of ambient and torch or ambient alone.