International Women's Day - Real Empowerment

International Women's Day - Real Empowerment

Mar 08, 2021

In March 2020, Blažena Zrnić, moved from her home in Croatia to develop her engineering career in Ireland with GARLAND. Within days of starting work in Dublin, Ireland went into Lockdown and her home city of Zagreb suffered a massive earthquake.

To mark International Women’s Day 2021 we would like to share Blažena’s story. GARLAND are immensely proud to have women like Blažena Zrnić on our team.

“I was in Ireland for around a month when the news reached me that a devastating earthquake with a magnitude of around 5.5 per Richter scale hit Zagreb. I could not shake off the feeling that I had escaped it at the last minute. The move I just made to Ireland, took me two years to muster up the courage to do. If I had not made the move, who knows where I would be now.

After the initial shock of the news passed, I realized that I had to decide whether I would continue moving forward with the work I just started in Dublin, or would I go back. I was truly torn but looking back I think I made the right decision by staying. It was not an easy decision by any means, and it carried a lot of guilt, especially seeing the psychological effects the earthquake had on everyone I knew. The possibility of dying on that day shook equally those who understood the mechanics of an earthquake as it did everyone else. The latter now had their eyes set on anyone who could even remotely explain what happened. Juxtaposition of contradicting regulations regarding earthquake and the Covid pandemic made the situation even more confusing.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the role that the team from my alma mater, the Faculty of Civil Engineering from University of Zagreb played in this. They took it upon themselves to organise all the professionals who wanted to help and assess the stability of structures throughout the town, everything from our historically significant buildings to people’s houses near the epicentre of the earthquake. The biggest loss in the earthquake is certainly the life of a 15-year-old girl on whom a façade collapsed.

The reports my colleagues and friends gave me, left me heartbroken. I found that what helped them the most was when I simply listened to the experiences of their day filled with stories of people who had their lives turned upside down. I’m grateful that the distance, had allowed me to be there for them, to take in as much as I could through their lived experience, and at the end of the day it allowed me the time and space to study more about the phenomena. I found myself going through lecture after lecture, reading report after report in a hope that the theoretical knowledge I was trying to attain would make me a more a cautious engineer and that I would, moving forward, be able to design structures that had the required seismic resistance. That was my mindset for most of the year; educating myself as much as possible, gave me a sense of peace that I was at least doing something. Everyone in the profession from university professors to company owners went the extra mile in making their knowledge available to everyone.  

The months went by and the list of webinars, leaflets and works being published on the topic became nothing short of impressive. It was a natural unfolding of knowledge.  In autumn things started to quiet down and people were focused on rebuilding back their lives.

In December 2020, I went home for the first time in a year. A year that has been challenging like no other. God willing, we had a quiet Christmas, and the celebrations were beautiful in their simplicity, putting focus on the people instead of the shining lights of the Christmas Market Zagreb was famous for.

On 29th of December, just after watching the midday news I heard a bone chilling growl after which the building I was in started to shake. A bookshelf to my right fell and when books hit the floor, I could see my mother freeze. She just could not move, and it was my sister and I who, in a completely instinctual move, grabbed her by the hands and ran outside. The high rise we were in was 13 stories high and built in the sixties after the famous Skopje earthquake of 1963, which imposed strict laws for seismic resistance in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia. It went on for what felt like hours. In the following minutes we found out that the epicentre was in Petrinja, a town around 50 kilometers from Zagreb.

The feeling of helplessness was immediately replaced by sense of gratitude that I had an opportunity to study on the matter while in Ireland. The news of the earthquake made it to Ireland, and I was contacted by GARLAND to see if I and my family were safe.  In a heartbeat, they allowed me to stay and help. For that I am beyond grateful.

Again, the Faculty of Civil Engineering from University of Zagreb arose to the occasion and volunteers were again asked to help. I am proud to say that I was Volunteer No. 123. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into or what kind of work was expected of me. I knew Petrinja would be different to Zagreb because of the severity of war that went on in that area just some 25 years ago. I knew I would most likely go to people’s houses and assess if it was safe for them to stay there or if not, offer them temporary shelter in form of a tent or a mobile home. Like all great experiences in life words fail to describe the transformation that happens when a person is faced with something of this magnitude.  

The same friend who I used to listen to in the aftermath of Zagreb’s earthquake was now showing me where our headquarters were amid the sea of tents and flags belonging to various organisations, foreign government representatives, the military and the biggest of them all, Red cross.

It was surreal to see Prof. Josip Atalic who, just 5 years ago I hated for giving me a hard time in my Building Statics exam, now take the hardest job in the country for the second time in the same year.

After a short conversation he told me that he has a task for me if I wanted it, but I would have to go with a minesweeper because of fear that landmines remained form the previous conflict in the area. I agreed and, on that day, we inspected some 5 houses. It was hard terrain and progress was slow. Any houses with a red label were not safe to occupy.

My first encounter with a devastated house left me in tears because if the earthquake had hit that particular house just a few hours earlier the way the house collapsed would kill the entire family of 5 in their sleep.  

When I returned home the adrenaline and the flashing images of the ruined houses kept me awake for most of the night. This earthquake took the lives of seven people and injured more than 50.

The following day, I was assigned a colleague with whom I spent the rest of my two weeks service. He was freshly retired professor of the Department of Technical Mechanics from whom I have learnt so much in that short period of time. In the following days, the news spread in the surrounding villages that a Professor was inspecting houses and we soon became the most sought-after duo in the area. We inspected around 10-15 houses per day, which was a very demanding pace to keep, considering the terrain and the severity of the damage. The region in which the cities of Sisak and Petrinja are located has never fully recovered either economically or culturally from the horrors of war. The vast majority of houses that were most severely affected had many cardinal faults in the way they were built. It was because people built what they could with the resources they had. The help needed there is equally humanitarian and professional.

One of the most profound experiences for me is the comfort that the uniform we wore brought to the people and the trust they gave us, just by being “The Experts”. Many told me that the idea of not being forgotten and that someone cared enough to come and help, gave them hope. Houses can be rebuilt with bricks and concrete, but it is hope that rebuilds the community of people.

There were around 50,000 requests for assessment in that area and to date, around 37 000 requests processed. Volunteers to this day keeps showing up, even after the aftershocks that followed required some areas to be assessed more than once.

There were also cases in which the situation brought the worst in people, but I intentionally choose not to focus on those. What I do choose to carry with me are the smiles of children when unexpectedly given chocolate, the relief I saw in families when given a green tag on their houses, labelling their homes safe and the sound of the laughter we all shared after a joke that wouldn’t be seen as appropriate in any other context outside this one, where we were in this together, muddy, tired and grateful that we survived.

I would like to tell this story on the occasion of International Women’s day to testify how I personally found real empowerment when serving where I was needed. It is the real strength of womanhood and a lesson that I wish to carry with me both in my personal and professional life.”

Blažena Zrnić

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