Željava Airbase: A Yugoslav Labyrith Beneath Croatia

First things first: Željava Airbase is enormous.

The subterranean complex was built inside a mountain, on the border between Croatia and Bosnia-and-Herzegovina. It was once the largest underground airport in Yugoslavia – and one of the largest in Europe. Its tunnels stretch to a total length of 3.5km, with exits on either side of the border; the mess hall could feed a thousand people, with supplies for 30 days; while the design of the base would have enabled it to survive a direct hit from a 20-kiloton nuclear bomb.

Zeljava Air Base-10Built between 1948 and 1968, the base was abandoned after the break-up of Yugoslavia. In 1991-92, during Croatia’s war for independence, the Yugoslav People’s Army detonated explosive charges intended to render the base inoperational. Locals living in nearby towns reported that smoke was still coming out of the tunnels six months later.

Exploring this place was a daunting and somewhat disorientating experience. It would have been easy enough to get lost down there – and not lost in winding passages and narrow tunnels, but lost rather in a network of vast chambers and subterranean highways, spaces that seemed impossibly large and yet continued one after another, deep inside the mountain. At one point we accidentally crossed into Bosnia: we nearly exited into the light of day before consulting a map, and realising how close we were to smuggling ourselves over (or rather, under) the border.

Getting lost wasn’t the only danger at Željava, though. We had plenty more surprises to look out for in those tunnels: mines. Hibernating bears. Radioactive contaminants. Taken individually, each one of these dangers could be reasoned away (it is believed the tunnels were never boobytrapped, whilst bears tend to prefer smaller, warmer spots) but taken all at once, these invisible threats built up to make for a rather nerve-racking experience.

Even simply documenting the space proved to be harder than expected. My torch beam could barely reach the far wall – let alone light the full length of these tunnels. I’d leave my camera running for a five-minute long exposure, while the three of us painted the walls with six flashlights between us; and still, the darkness would swallow it. These titanic tunnels seemed to devour light, so that we rarely saw more than a few feet ahead of us at any time; only sensing, but never fully seeing, the true size of the space around us.

I’ve got plenty more to write about Željava Airbase, and I’ll get to it soon enough. For now though I just wanted to share these pictures, and give you a taste of what’s to come.

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An abandoned Douglas DC-3, left rusting near the entrance to Željava Airbase.
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Signs around the entrance to Željava Airbase warn of unexploded landmines.
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The main entrance joining the airbase to its external runways.
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The first chamber inside Željava Airbase – look at those door frames to get an idea of scale.
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Aircraft-shaped passages leading deeper into the subterranean airport.
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Five-minute exposure, six torches, and still the light barely hits the walls.
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A collapsed toilet block inside Željava Airbase.
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A small shrine set into a wall alcove. Previous explorers, perhaps?
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Deeper into the airbase, piles of rubble warn of collapsed areas of tunnel.
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What looks to be the remains of a generator room.
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Bulkhead doors lead into a more secure area of Željava Airbase.
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The remains of machinery and winches inside an engine room of the airbase.
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With most of the fittings long-since removed, the base is little more than a skeleton of its original design.
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Again, larger than it looks. Check that step-ladder for an idea of scale.
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Broken ceramic mixed with strewn gravel in the old generator room.
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One of the main aircraft taxi corridors inside Željava Airbase.
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Daylight at last! It was quite a relief to make it back here, after several hours in the dark, stale tunnels.
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Another entrance to the airbase – this one human size.
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The abandoned runways surrounding the entrance to Željava Airbase. We actually ran into border police here, on the way out… but more about that later.

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