An Ex-Yugoslav Underground Airbase Inside a Mountain

Yesterday’s post mentioned the fabled underground airbase of Željava, located now on the border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. I said it would be worth a post of its own. So here we go. Why delay it.

It’s a very cool site, especially in terms of ‘urbexing’ and it’s visually extremely appealing, provided you like it dark, dank and even a bit scary 😉

As it happened, though, a different blog, run by a friend of mine, who’s also a better expert in all things Balkan than I can ever hope to be, recently featured a post about the same place. Now, rather than compete with that post (which I couldn’t really anyway), I give you the link and urge you to have a look. That’s especially worth doing because that post also features numerous historical photos from the time when the airbase was still active and intact, some charts/maps, as well as photos from deeper inside the complex than I ventured on my visit. It also gives you more historical background information and figures. Instead of repeating any of that here, I’ll rather complement that post with a series of 20 photos of my own that I took at the site. There are unavoidably certain overlaps in the imagery, but also differences.

Just the very briefest of info on the background: Željava was an enormously ambitious and excruciatingly expensive project of the Yugoslav era: a whole airbase for dozens of fighter jets, hidden inside and protected by the mountainside it had been dug into. The underground base had fuel tanks, weapons storages, supplies of food, its own water source, and space for thousands of personnel. It’s primarily a Cold War relic. It also served as an early warning centre, all in anticipation of a possible nuclear war. (Although you have to wonder what the point of having squadrons of fighter jets, nice and safe hidden inside a mountain, would have been if the runways outside had been rendered useless by bombing …)

While nuclear Armageddon never came, the base may have seen action in the early stages of the Balkans Wars, as mentioned in the previous post here. It’s not easy to find hard evidence, but at least the Homeland War Museum in Karlovac claims that its piece of a downed wreck of a MiG-21 jet is originally one that was based at Željava. The airbase was abandoned by the Yugoslav Air Force in 1992, and they made sure the runways were destroyed. The rest of the damage that is in evidence inside the tunnels today, however, stems primarily from the time when it had fallen into the hands of the Republic of Serbian Krajina – who planted high explosives in the tunnels before abandoning it, to make sure the Croats (or anybody else for that matter) could not make use of it.

I went to Željava with a tour guide from Zagreb at Easter 2018, and the weather was atrocious; it was hammering it down with rain, which made the residue snow that was still lying on the ground in many places even more slippery. So when we finally got to the entrance to the underground system we were glad we at least got into a dry shelter.

And though we didn’t have as much time for more thorough explorations inside (we also had a second tour later that day at another abandoned place), it was still one of the highlights of my Croatia trip (certainly on the urbex front!) … although “highlight” seems an odd metaphor in this case, as it’s rather extreme darkness (physically) that characterizes this place.

Here are my photos, well 20 of them:

tunnel entrances 1 and 2 and the mountain that the airbase is inside of.

 

getting closer to entrance 2, the mound of earth is to block access for vehicles.

 

yes indeed, there are still landmines in the area, so no straying off into the undergrowth here!

 

a first peek inside. The shape of the concrete lip of the entrance echoes the front silhouette of a MiG-21 jet that could pass straight through; the colour is from faded camouflage painting.

 

as far as daylight reaches – and some evidence of destruction.

 

mangled metal from one of the blast doors inside the tunnels that was deliberately destroyed by high explosives.

 

once you get deeper into the tunnel system daylight disappears and you have to rely on torches … the ghostly shape on the right, by the way, is just my wife walking into my long exposure photo.

 

the last rays of natural light, beyond this point pitch-black darkness reigns.

 

the tunnels are so huge that even strong torches struggle to really illuminate much.

 

in a side tunnel, I managed to take this photo with the help of multiple torches and a tripod; these side chambers and tunnels feature lots of debris, like this piece of machinery, maybe it was once part of a generator.

 

occasionally, totally harmless objects pop out from the darkness.

 

more mangled rusty metal, I believe where the blown-up fuel tanks used to be.

 

There’s plenty of graffiti inside, though I don’t believe you could really find Tito deep inside this site; he went to the great politburo in the sky in 1980, and even if he were to be resurrected and came back to Earth, I doubt Željava would be his first choice (more likely Brioni!)

this way to Tito (or not).

 

eventually there’s light at the end of a tunnel again, in this case tunnel entrance 3 (tunnel 4’s exit is out of bounds as using it would constitute an illegal border crossing into Bosnia!)

 

looking back towards tunnel 3’s entrance/exit, it too has been blocked for vehicles by a mound of earth.

 

in the snow and muck we find what looks like a fake bomb made of concrete – it was possibly a kind of practice bomb for fighter jet pilots learning how to drop such things effectively.

 

the surprisingly wobbly-looking ex-runway (well, one of them, there were several).

 

a last look back towards tunnels 1 and 2 … try to imagine rows of gleaming silver MiGs taxiing out of these, ready for take-off …

 

a classic stopover nearby is also this abandoned Douglas C-47 Dakota wreck; lots of visitors left stickers and graffiti (why do people feel compelled to do such things?). Btw. Yugoslavia did not only purchase Soviet-made military planes, it also had some American ones like this, and even manufactured some of its own design.

 

symbol of the Yugoslav Air Force still clearly discernible.

 

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