In the early 1960s Skopje was the capital of Macedonia, then an integral part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the disparate conglomeration of ethnic groupings put together towards the end of World War II and ruled with an iron hand by Stalinist dictator Marshal Josip Tito.
Located on the Varda River in southern Yugoslavia, Skopje developed rapidly after the war ended – progress that was abruptly halted by an earthquake in July 1963.
This disastrous occurrence measured 6.9 on the Richter scale. It was particularly destructive because the epicenter was in the Varda River Valley close to the city, and the earthquake took place at the relatively shallow depth of 6 km (4 mi). The tremor lasted for only 20 seconds, but during that short period four fifths of Skopje’s buildings were destroyed or badly damaged. Over 1,000 people died and up to 4,000 were injured, while around 200,000 were made homeless in and around the city.
The Skopje earthquake made headlines around the world and the story captured public attention, partly because it was one of the first disasters to attract massive TV coverage. Nearly 80 countries offered relief supplies and humanitarian considerations outweighed political differences as the USA was in the forefront of the relief effort, quickly flying in a mobile field hospital to care for the injured. Temporary housing was supplied by a dozen countries, allowing new settlements to spring up outside the devastated city.
In an early example of musical performers getting involved in disaster relief, the violinist Henryk Szeryng staged a charity concert in France – an example that would be followed two decades later by the spectacular Live Aid concerts for Ethiopian famine relief. Pablo Picasso was deeply moved by the plight of Skopje’s people and donated his painting Head of a Woman.
When: July 26 1963
Where: Skopje. Macedonia (then Yugoslavia)
Death toll: 1,100 deaths with around 4,000 injured (estimates)
You should know: Skopje’s partially ruined old railway station serves as a haunting reminder of the disaster. Now the city museum, the large dock on the street elevation has not been touched since it stopped at 17.17, the precise moment when the earthquake struck.