Kristine L Ming

Escape from the asylum

The former asylum at Cepin

In Croatia, thousands of people with mental illness live in institutions. The process of moving patients out of residential care and into the community happened decades ago in many European countries. But Croatia has resisted change – except in one region in the east of the country, close to the Serbian border.

The paint is peeling, the ceiling collapsing, and bright shafts of winter sunshine illuminate the dust that hangs mid-air. In the closed, and now abandoned, asylum of Cepin, rooms open off a very long corridor.

“When we were waiting for our medication, we would squat here in this corridor until the nurse came to give us our pills. There were no chairs,” says Branka Reljan, who has schizophrenia and lived here for 12 years.

She is taking a trip down memory lane with her partner. Drazenko Tevelli was institutionalised after developing mental illness as a result of alcoholism. In Cepin, the couple conducted their romance in secret – this is the first time they have been back since they moved out in 2014.

In the room Branka occupied with three other women, a label with her name is still visible on the cupboard where she kept her few personal effects. Her bed is still here too with its hard, grubby mattress.

“It was a comfortable bed – good for my spine,” says Branka, surprisingly perhaps. “I was lucky – there were no cockroaches.”

Branka and Drazenko outside the Cepin asylum

Image caption

Branka and Drazenko outside the Cepin asylum, now closed

Drazenko was not so fortunate.

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