Knin is a city in the Dalmatian hinterland near the source of the river Krka and has acted as an important traffic junction between Zagreb and Split for centuries. As such, history has not always been kind to Knin. The city suffered greatly during the Homeland War and in the decades since, as families leave in droves in search of a better life.
Knin was a strategic stronghold for the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina led by rebel Serbs during the early 1990's. It was also the focal point of Croatian military operations during the Homeland War, which eventually ended in Knin on August 5th, 1995, with Croatia's victorious Operation Storm.
Now Knin is on the front line of another battle: demographic decline. The city and surrounding area has lost one-third of its citizens to emigration and are now left with an aging population. For this reason, people are beginning to lose hope.
"For all the years that I've lived here in Knin, life was ideal. It was as good as we wanted it to be and as good as you made it. Unfortunately, 90 percent of the people left as soon as they got any inheritance or had an apartment to sell," said one local woman.
"We lack smarts and respect," said another man. How will it improve? "When every last person moves out."
Ivan Ozun, the principle of the local elementary school, said despite government promises, enrollment dropped by almost a quarter compared to last year: "At the beginning of the last school year, 80 students signed up for first grade. This year, we had 63 sign up. That's quite a large difference, almost 25 percent."
The mayor of Knin, Marko Jelić, has taken it upon himself to prevent more young families from leaving. And ironically enough, the lack of success abroad for some people has convinced others to stay and work to improve the situation closer to home.
"The young productive members of society, including those who have or should be starting young families, are leaving and taking their children with them. And that is the big problem. At the same time, a positive indication is that some people are returning. All the expectations they had of the countries they moved to were not fulfilled. So, it's their poor experiences that have stopped others from leaving too," said the mayor.
But still the situation for many is bleak, as 2,700 people rely on government handouts to survive; while 800 people in the city center are unemployed, and a further 1,600 in the surrounding area are also without work.
Mile Bičanić, the president of the Knin small business association, said most business owners continue to focus solely on the bar and restaurant industry, which has saturated the area with cafes. "For now we've got around 284 registered small businesses. Of those, only five produce some kind of goods, the rest are in the service and hospitality industry."
At the same time, the picture of the future is changing thanks to a special program for areas affected by the war which has awarded Knin with 23 million euros of EU money. The money is going a long way to help transform the area into a tourist destination. Plans are in the works to redevelop of the old fort, for which the town is known.
"We have collected and put together a lot of documentation for several projects. For now, we are applying for eight projects. One includes the building of a restaurant in the fort. We are taking things step by step. If you look at the whole city, we do have a specific economic zone where many businesses are interested in opening, but we simply don't have the infrastructure in place to accommodate them. And that's what we're working on," said Mayor Jelić.
In terms of tourism, the possibilities are enormous. Specifically, activities related to the Krka National park along the picturesque river of the same name. There are also many former military buildings which are being converted into use by the tourism sector, but like most things, the going is slow.
"The plans regarding the military base at Krka, which we want to convert and use for tourism, have been stagnant for over a year now. We have this compound which continues to crumble, but we have a very attractive location and a government decree. And still, nothing is happening. We're running out of time," said the mayor.
Knin was once known as the city of youth; maybe one day that nickname will make a much-needed comeback. So far in 2018, 100 babies have been born - an increase of twenty over the previous year. Furthermore, 400 students are enrolled in the local college - 80 of whom are living at the newly renovated student dorms.
Despite the setbacks, the city has produced some top athletes, including three-time Croatian junior taekwondo champion Josip Tesker, who's preparing for the junior Olympics. "I qualified for the games in Argentina which will take place from the 6th to 18th of October. I am the first male Croatian taekwondo athlete to qualify for the games. And there are six of us from the city who have received athletic scholarships.
Meanwhile, Marko Čeko is the Croatian junior champion in the long-jump: "I'm the junior long-jump champ and the junior champion in the 200-meter dash as well. I'm also the third in the senior competition in Croatia. This small city can accomplish a lot, all you need is talent, effort, and lots of hard work."
At least in this regard, the government agrees that there's a need to support the region's young athletes, as 1.5 million kunas has been allocated from the state budget for the construction of a world-class athletics center.
Knin will be at the very center of Sunday's holiday celebrations, as the nation marks Homeland Thanksgiving Day and the Day of Croatian Defenders. And when the dust settles, let's hope the city can use some of the momenta and turn towards building a better future.
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