Željava airbase lies on the border of Croatia and Bosnia. This Yugoslav top secret military facility was abandoned during the Yugoslavia civil war. I went to explore the airbase this summer as my first urban exploration experience.
It was almost midnight. The weather was peaceful, without any wind. The sky was full of stars. What a beautiful night in central Croatia. Even though it was late, the hostel in Korenica still had a nice vibe. People were chatting and drinking on the terrace, enjoying the warm July night. People were excited about their visit of Plitvice Lakes – a large natural complex of lakes and blue lagoons and a UNESCO heritage site. A breathtaking place, but too crowded during the high season for my taste .
I was not part of this vibe, my thoughts were somewhere else. I came here for a different reason than the other tourists. Not many people know that this place is hiding a dark secret: Željava an underground military airbase, one of the largest underground military complex in Europe abandoned and destroyed during the Croatian war of independence.
I was already back in my room packing important things for my first real urban-exploration experience. I was feeling really nervous. There were many dangers I needed to face tomorrow: land mines from the war, dizziness from poisonous dust, never ending darkness, possibility of landfalls. The combination of these things with the fear of the unknown was giving me chills. The thing which freaked me out the most were the land mines. The whole area around the airport is full of them. These sleeping killers haunt me every time I put my feet on the grass in what used to be battlefields just two decades ago. I desperately googled “is it possible to spot a mine”, “what to do if you step on a land mine”. Of course the answers were not really satisfying. I was wondering if my travel insurance covers walking through the mine fields. The only thing that calmed me down was the supposition that there are no mines inside the base and previous explorers were able to get there without any harm. I was hoping that I will be able to find a safe passage to the entrance of the complex.
In addition, I was going in alone, so I knew that I only have myself to rely on. The staff in the hostel though I was crazy. I took it as a compliment. I fell asleep with mix of excitement and fear about what the next day would bring.
I woke up at 4 30am, and had a quick breakfast. The rise of adrenalin in my blood made me feel awake, even after just 4 hours of sleep. I did a last check of my equipment: a map, a respiratory mask, a headlight, a torch, water. I was really happy that I was able to find a map of the base. Having the map of the place made me feel much better and it helped me overcome the fear of getting lost.
Two good sources of lights were the bare minimum. When you go underground, there is total darkness and zero visibility. If you would just go with one light without any backup, a failure of your torch can have fatal consequences. I remember story about two teenagers who died in the Maastricht underground. Their bodies have been found just few meters before the exit. You don’t want to be in their place.
Željava airbase is situated on the border between Croatia and Bosna and Hercegovina hidden inside of the mountain. The whole airport is hidden behind the mountain that it could not be easily spotted from villages around. At the end, it was a super-secret military facility that only a chosen few knew about.
The construction of Željava airbase started in 1948 and was finished in 1968. This project cost Yugoslavia an enormous sum of money. Costs reached six billion dollars – three times more than the yearly military budged of Serbia and Croatia combined. It was one of the biggest and the most expensive military project in Europe.
This military facility was the pride of the Yugoslavian Army. It has four exits, all of which were able to launch battle-ready jets. The base was constructed to sustain a direct hit by a nuclear missile with the power of the Nagasaki bomb (20-kt), and it could be hermetically sealed. The population of the base was 1000 men. The whole size of the underground is around 3.5 square kilometres which makes the Željava the largest underground military airbase in former Yugoslavia and one of the largest in Europe.
The base was partially destroyed during the Yugoslavian civil war. In 1992 when Yugoslavian Army was withdrawing from Croatia, the commanders did not want that this secret facility fall to the enemy hand, so they have followed an old order of Marshal Tito himself to completely destroy the base before abandoning it. The massive amount of charges was deployed. Even such huge destruction power was not able to destroy the base completely. The base tunnels stayed standing, but the underground burned from the inside, destroying its functionality. Now the base lies there silently as a remnant of the former greatness of Yugoslavia, one of the most powerful countries in Europe, which was brutally torn apart in a bloody civil war.
Getting to Željava airbase is not easy, especially when you don’t have a car or a motorbike. The closest village Licko Petrovo Selo is approximately 7 km from the base. There is not a bus connection to this small village. My plan was to hitchhike there and then walk to the base, hoping that the path through the minefield is asphalted. Asphalt is your friend in warzones!
When I left the hostel it was already 5 o’clock. The sun was already up. It was still a bit cold. I needed to wear a jacket. I stood on the side of the main road to Plitvice hoping that I will catch someone who will drop me off the main road in the direction of Licko Petrovo Selo.
After 15 minutes of waiting, an old red Renault stopped next to me. The driver rolled down the window and shouted out to me “Gdje Ides?”, I answered to him with broken Croatian/Serbian “Ja idu Plitvice”. He opened the door and I jumped in. The driver name was Dragan and he proudly announced he is from Serbia on a way to Beograd. Dragan was in his mid-50-ties, the main feature of his face was his big mustache underlined with big smile, he was a really energetic person. We spoke in broken Serbian about his life in Beograd, his three beautiful daughters. He was really great guy, a good person with a big heart. I told him to drop me off at the crossroad off the main road.
I said goodbye to Dragan and wanted to catch another ride on a way to my destination. Unfortunately the road to Licko Petrovo Selo was completely deserted, just with a big truck passing by approximately every 15 minutes on their way to Bosnia. I had no choice, I needed to walk around nine kilometres along the road, down to the village. It took me around two hours to finally reach the village.
Licko Petrovo Selo is situated in small valley. It is a really small settlement just with about 100 inhabitants officially living here. The village was pretty deserted, giving me feeling that almost no one lives there. When I finally arrived to the village, my eyes stumbled on the first house of the village. The house looked like nobody has lived there for at least 20 years, the half roof was collapsed inside revealing long white chimney. It was not the only destroyed house, many other houses, was deserted with missing windows and doors. Many of them were just empty walls with the roof. It was a sign that Licko Petrovo Selo didn’t escape the turmoil of war. Abandoned houses are often a sign of ethnic cleansing, really popular war tactic during the Yugoslavia war.
I passed Licko Petrovo Selo and met a few older people giving me a weird looks – what the hell I am doing there? Apparently, walking around with my Nikon, made me an unusual visitor of this place. The settlement continued with a low density of houses along the road to Željava. I made a quick stop for a breakfast, studying a map and thinking if this decent asphalt road will continue right to the airport.
Luckily my predictions were right, the asphalt road stretched all the way to the airport. The last signs of civilization were a small village with the same name as the base. In the village, I came across three unleashed dogs that were aggressively barking at me – probably they were not used to visitors. The owner just smiled at me, without paying too much attention that his three little monsters were ready to tear me apart so I grabbed a stick. Better safe than sorry.
After I got rid of the dogs, I finally arrived at the Željava airbase. At the entrance stood a beautiful Dakota C-47B from World War II. The plane was surrounded by high grass that seemed to be abandoned for many years. I was afraid to come closer because of the potential threat of mines. Maybe this was the reason why the plane seemed to have escaped vandalism. It still looked good enough for a museum, except for the many bullet holes spread all over its fuselage.
I stepped on the road which heads to the runways where the underground entrances are. I got a warm welcome by a red sign about the high danger of land mines in the area. I told myself “Now the real fun starts”. The only way to stay safe was to stay away off the grass, keeping my feet on the narrow asphalt road. After some time, I have seen a car coming my way. It was Croatian police. After reading many forums, I was aware that the police monitors the area. I even took my passport. I was a bit worried that they would tell me to turn back. However, there were very nice – they just politely asked me if I am tourist and after seeing my Nikon they drove away. They were probably suspicious if I am not smuggler who wants to cross the border.
I arrived to my target around 11 00 am. Surprisingly I was not alone! I met a couple walking a dog on the runway. The strange place for a romantic walk. I had a quick chat with them. They warned me about poisonous gases inside of the base. I just needed to rely on quality of my respiration mask. The base has four entrances. Three entrances are situated close to each other on the Croatian side. Each entrance is followed by the runway. I just needed to choose one of them to enter.
My plan was to explore the base systematically room by room, tunnel by tunnel, according to my map. For that reason I chose to enter via entrance 1, the first entrance on the right. I had a quick brunch, double checked my lights, put on my mask, took one last selfie and was ready to go inside. I could feel a mix of fear and excitement pumping through my veins. I planned this expedition for weeks, gathered a lot of information and now finally I was finally there, completely alone, breathing the heavy air, heading into the darkness…