Yugoslavia: When a Country Actually Is Wiped Off the Map

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Irfan Besirovic

Irfan Besirovic

You are born in a country. You are a citizen of that country, and you don’t give it much thought. It’s like the air that you breathe.

And then the country disappears.

Everything that you took for granted has vanished. The ground beneath your feet has shifted irreversibly. Your national identity is up for grabs.

When Yugoslavia fell apart in the early 1990s, most people simply became citizens of what had once been constituent republics: Croatia, Bosnia, and so on. But for some, it was not a simple process at all.

In Slovenia, for instance, a significant minority of the population did not successfully make the transition. After the country’s independence, citizens of other former republics living in Slovenia had six months to file for citizenship. More than 25,000 failed to do so and, through an administrative decision, were denied residency in the land where some had lived virtually their entire lives.

They had once been Yugoslav, and they were not deemed Slovene. They fell between the stools, and the fall was a hard one.

Eventually, this group of people came to be known as the Erased. They are a diverse group. Many were born outside of Slovenia; some did not have personal documents; some did not know about the option to file for citizenship; some felt that they should not have to do so.

Irfan Besirovic was born in Bosnia and came to Slovenia when he was only a year old. Slovenia is the only land that he remembers.

This is his story.

The Interview

When did you first come to Ljubljana?

In 1963.

You were quite young.

I was five years old. Before that, our family lived in Pivka, a small Slovenian town. I came to Slovenia when I was one year old.

How was your early life when you were in school? Was it generally a happy time?

Until the breakup of Yugoslavia, it was generally a happy period. I finished school, made a family, had a job. My life was generally stable until the breakup of the country.

I went to a Slovenian school. When my family came to Slovenia, we were one of the first families to come from the south. There were not so many people coming to Slovenia from other parts of Yugoslavia in those days. In my primary school, there were only two families from Bosnia. The school was in Trnovo, near the Ljubljanica River. I didn’t have any problems because of my origin.

You didn’t experience any discrimination growing up?

From time to time we were called “Bosnians.” But everyone was a Bosnian in those days: the Serbs, the Macedonians, the Bosnians. The word didn’t have a bad connotation until after independence. After independence, they called all the people from the other side of the Kolpa River (a river bordering Slovenia and Croatia), from the republics south of Slovenia, they called such people “chifuti” or “chefurji.”

What does “chifuti/chefurji” literally mean?

It comes from “Chifuti”, which is another word for “Jew.” But here in Slovenia the word means Bosnian.

How did you think of yourself in those days: as Slovenian, Yugoslav, Bosnian?

We considered ourselves Yugoslavs. We didn’t know about republican citizenship. Whenever you were asked, you responded, “Yugoslav.”

Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I was in Ljubljana. It was in the media a lot that the Berlin Wall fell. We said, “Finally, the Germans have joined their nation together. It’s great that that happened.” But then, all the other countries around here fell apart.

Was there a point at which you were worried that the situation in Yugoslavia would end up as a war?

No, never. When a Slovenian came to Bosnia or a Bosnian went to Slovenia, they were accepted. There was eating and drinking, and everyone did it together. I never imagined that a war would happen here in Yugoslavia.

What did you think when Slovenia declared independence?

I was not surprised. Everything had already started in the 1980s. There were signs, like the young people in Slovenia boycotting the shtafeta — when young people carried a baton in a relay race through all of Yugoslavia and gave it to Tito on his birthday, on May 25. Later, the Slovenian Communist Party left the party’s Central Committee. So, it was not a complete surprise. But no one thought it would end in this way.

Do you remember when Tito died?

I remember it well. I woke up with a terrible toothache. I went to work and told my boss. He told me to go to the dentist. On the way to the dentist, I heard that Tito died. So I went to the café bar Slon. There was really sad music, and all the people there were crying. The whole moment was really sad. Everyone was on the street in Ljubljana. Everyone was crying, regardless of nationality.

Were you sad too?

Tito meant something to us then. So, yes, I was sad, I had been a soldier. I had carried the shtafeta. I watched his train leave when he went to Romania. I was part of youth brigade when Tito visited along with an African president. It was 1976, and I was able to say hello to him.

Do you feel the same way about Tito today as you did back then?

I still respect Tito. But my feelings have changed a lot. There is too much nationalism — not only here but all over Yugoslavia.

Can you describe the moment that this process of erasure began and how you felt about it?

When they made a hole in my identity card, I didn’t know what that meant. They told me that I was erased from the registry of permanent residents, and I had to arrange my status as foreigner. I didn’t know what the extent of the consequences would be, not until I had health issues and I couldn’t go to the doctor because they wouldn’t treat me, not until my domestic situation worsened and I had an argument with my wife because I wasn’t earning any money and I couldn’t be an equal part of the community. Only then did I realize what the consequences would be. Without documents I couldn’t go to the doctor. Without papers, I couldn’t get a job.

I went to the Red Cross, and they said they couldn’t help me because I wasn’t a refugee, I wasn’t anything, I wasn’t entitled to any help. And then all my problems started. I broke up with my partner. I was homeless.

A couple years later, I met a person and made arrangements to stay at his place. I worked as a waiter at his restaurant. But I didn’t get a paycheck. I also took care of his baby and his grandmother. I roasted pigs. I cleaned. I did everything. But I wasn’t paid.

Before the erasure, I worked as a waiter. After I finally got citizenship in 2004, I got work in a construction company. I had to get a job quickly. But after a month at that job, the vein in my leg burst, so I was on sick leave.

Your health is better now?

It’s better, but it’s not okay. I still have problems with wounds on my legs. Some are healed, some are still open. They can’t discover where the veins are blocked. But even if they do, and they do the operation, there’s a risk that I could be an invalid. So the health consequences are long-lasting.

After the erasure, you knew very few people in the same situation.

Until 2002 when I joined the Association of Self-Organized Erased, I knew a couple people. I wasn’t aware that there were thousands of Erased. Only through this association did I learn about this. At the beginning, the official number of Erased was 18,000. Then the government admitted that it was 25,000.

What was your reaction when you learned there were so many people in the same situation as you?

Personally it was easier to know that the number was so huge. It was a relief that the public was becoming more aware of the Erasure. If we were fighting together, we could get something done about this issue.

It’s been nearly a decade of activity on this issue. How would you evaluate this work?

It’s been quite hard. There were a lot of provocations from a lot of people But overall, I would say that it was a success. We proved that it was the state’s fault, not our fault. And the European Court of Human Rights has proven/confirmed that.

Can you give an example of a provocation?

From the ordinary people, it was: “What do you want, you Bosnian? Just go back!” From the side of the politicians, they spoke of aggressors against Slovenia. They said that these illiterate cleaning ladies should just be put on trains and sent back.

These were provocations in the media or said to you personally?

Ordinary people said these things to me personally, but politicians said this in the media.

What did people say when you told them that you’d been in Slovenia since you were a baby?

When they heard the stories of me and others, the reactions changed. There is quite a lot of support now. When I meet someone who saw me on television, they tell me, “Good job, this is how it should be done.” So, it has changed on an everyday level. But some politicians haven’t changed.

Has this movement inspired other Slovenians to fight for their rights?

Yes, more and more people are fighting for their rights. The most important message is that if you don’t fight for your rights, if you stay at home and don’t fight, nothing will happen. It’s a really important part of this movement that it’s been inclusive. We weren’t just struggling for the Erased. We were fighting also for the rights of Roma and the LGBT community.

You’ve taken on a leadership position of the movement. How has that been?

I took over the function of president of our association two years ago. The public is quite fond of me, I think, because I choose my words carefully. I don’t attack ordinary people. I only attack the politics. So, it’s been a good experience to gain some recognition from the public. At first, when I took over this job, I was afraid of what would happen. There wasn’t so much support in the public. But now, I’m swimming in it. It’s no problem.

Was the decision of the European Court a surprise for you?

In 2010, when the first verdict was issued, I was really surprised. Then when the Slovenian government made a complaint, I was hoping that it would be positive in the end. When the court issues something positive the first time, it’s a bigger surprise if the decision isn’t positive the second time around. So I was more surprised after the first verdict in 2010 than the more recent one in 2012.

Do you think the Slovenian government will abide by the decision?

The Slovenian government must abide by the verdict. It has until June 26 to come up with a plan for compensation. Otherwise, the court will decide what kind of compensation will be made for the Erased. And just yesterday, a new commission was announced to come up with this compensation plan. The chief of the commission is the general secretary of the ministry of the interior. So I’m quite sure that they’re working on it. I just don’t know what the final result will be.

Will there be a representative of the Erased on the commission?

For now, I don’t know, because this is new information. But there should be a representative from one of the two associations of the Erased. We should decide our conditions. It’s not good when someone else decides that for us. Someone who was not erased cannot know what it was like to be Erased and what the compensation should be.

Are there major differences of opinion between the two associations of the Erased?

There’s a difference of methodology. The other association is fonder of negotiating behind the table and taking the legal path. Our organization is more for actions, demonstrations, and a more public way of struggling, though of course we also support the legal path. If we didn’t do demonstrations and hunger strikes, I’m sure that the European Court decision wouldn’t have been made. The legal case at the European Court was also a result of the actions of our association.

Using your own example, can you explain how the compensation might work?

I always say that there is no money in the world that can compensate for lost health, for lost work, for lost contact with my child. There should also be moral compensation. This would be punishment, prosecution, for the people guilty of the erasure.

Do you think that will happen?

Not in Slovenia. Compare the situation of the tycoons in charge of privatization who drained the companies before they went bankrupt. If they have not been punished for what they did, then the people responsible for the Erased will not be punished either.

Do you think the Slovenian public will accept the compensation? Or are they saying that Slovenia just doesn’t have the money for this?

I think that the people are divided. There are forums where many people speak against the compensation. But many people say, “Finally the situation is resolved and people should get compensation.”

The biggest problem is that the politicians are inflating the amount of money for compensation. Then the people are afraid of such a high amount, such a big hole in the budget. We need to know that not all Erased had equal damage. Some were erased for a year, some for five, some for 20. If we don’t give the same compensation to everyone, if we do it case by case, then the compensation won’t be so high. Also, some Erased are prepared to receive a certain amount of money each month – maybe 300-400 Euros per month — for the rest of their life. So it doesn’t mean a lot of money at once.

This may take years to figure out, especially if it’s case by case.

Of course it will be a complex process if it’s case by case. And each person must prove the damage.

There is also a large number of Erased who never asked for permanent residency. The opportunity to get permanent residency is open only for another year. And I’m worried that many people will not get that status. So it’s not clear whether they will get compensation.

And then there are all the people who died. I don’t know what will happen with them and their families.

But Slovenia will have to make the compensations. If it doesn’t, there will be a sanction. The government can’t say it doesn’t have the money. That would be like if I have to go to the prison and I say that I don’t have the time to do that!

In addition to compensation, what are the other unfinished tasks for your association?

If Slovenia provides compensation, it would be the end of the fight for the Erased. The only thing left would be maybe punishment of the guilty. The official statutes of our association say that it will function until the violations are corrected. Compensation would mean that the violations are corrected. But we can still go on with the struggle — just not within the association. We can struggle on behalf of other peoples’ human rights.

What do you think of the current political and economic situation in Slovenia — the economic crisis, the corruption trials?

There is corruption everywhere in Slovenia, in all spheres. We all know that this corruption has been happening for 20 years. Only now is it coming out in public. We also know that without this corruption the economic crisis wouldn’t be so big.

In terms of the political crisis, one huge problem is that the opinion of voters is not respected. The prime minister is on trial and still his situation doesn’t change. Other people in parliament have been accused of various crimes but they don’t leave their seats. They simply don’t respect the will of the people.

Until this generation of politicians passes, nothing will happen.

Many of the services that Slovenians have enjoyed over the last decades are being gradually taken away. Someone told me that they thought that the average Slovenian is now beginning to feel what the Erased felt.

What’s your opinion of that?

It’s not just a reduction in public services. It’s also fewer jobs. So, people in this situation will face something similar to the Erased, though it will be a bit better for them since they will receive some social benefits. But it is quite obvious that this policy is ruining the state. I can’t remember before, in former Yugoslavia, when so many people were unemployed and hungry. In a year or two, there will be more homeless people who can’t afford electricity, rent. I think that the future is bleak.

Ljubljana, October 18, 2012

Interview (2008)

I came here when I was one year old, from Bosnia. I’ve lived all my life in Slovenia. I’ve never really had any connection with Bosnia again.

I was erased 30 years later after I came to Slovenia. This is how it happened:

There was a period of time when the government was accepting applications for citizenship. Just before this period, I had a major car crash. It was on December 31, 1990. I was in a coma. I’d broken my pelvis. I’d bit through my tongue. During all of 1991, I was in hospital and undergoing rehabilitation. In April 1991, I received my identity card without a problem. I needed this for the health insurance. The term for applying for Slovenian citizenship lasted from July to December 1991. During this period, I went to apply for citizenship. But the employee at the unit told me that I’d already missed the term.

Then, in March 1992, I got an invitation from the administrative unit saying that I must go there and arrange things. The clerk asked me if I had Slovenian citizenship. I said no, but it’s being arranged. The last time they told me I’d missed the term. This clerk said that I must give her my ID card. She took it and made a hole in it so that it wasn’t valid any more. It was like this for many people: all the documents of the Erased just expired. But for other citizens of Slovenia, their old passports were valid again. Anyway, she gave me back my ID.

I was living at the time with the mother of my son, who was born in 1991. We broke up after the Erasure. In March and April 1992, I had no place to live. I was homeless. I had no papers, no documents. All the Erased at that time were hiding and were afraid to tell anyone that they didn’t have status. I knew that there were other people like me because my brother was also Erased. I heard from him from time to time, but not regularly, because we were all afraid. For almost one year, I was homeless. Sometimes I slept at my friend’s, but this was not a permanent solution. I was also sleeping outside. I spent the winter in basements.

I had surgery after the car crash, and they put a piece of metal inside my pelvis. But they made a mistake and cut the nerve. Later they were afraid to take out the metal because there might be something wrong with the nerve and I might become paralyzed. But the problem was that my body was rejecting this metal. In the early 90s, I began to get open wounds all over my body. Also in the 1990s, I survived thrombosis. I didn’t have health insurance. One of the side effects was that I almost lost sight in my right eye. I still don’t see well on that side, but it’s better than it was before.

I had been a waiter all my life. I knew many people and many people knew me. In 1993, I ran into a man that I had known before. He took me home. He gave me a job as a waiter in exchange for shelter and food, but I didn’t get any pay. This lasted for two years. Then in 1995, inspectors closed down the restaurant, and I was again on the street. This lasted for a few months. But it was the summer, so sleeping on the street was easier. Then I ran into another person and arranged to work as a waiter under the same conditions: in exchange for food and shelter. This restaurant was in a poor part of Ljubljana where many Erased lived. I was in contact with people in the same situation as me but we didn’t know it.

My first problem with the police came in 2002. They came to the bar at 7 a.m. and started to ask for documents. I didn’t have documents. They asked me for my name. They asked for my ID card. Since it was not valid, they took me with them to the court. They wanted to deport me. But the judge said that there was no need to deport me. The police put me in a detention center anyway and told me that they were going to deport me to Sarajevo.

“I have no connection to Sarajevo,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” they said. “We’ll leave you at the airport there.”

I stayed overnight at the detention center. I talked with the social worker, who told me to call a lawyer and the restaurant owner. They came and signed a guarantee that I will stay at a friend’s house. But the police still wouldn’t let me out of the detention center. The next day, the social worker came and said, “What are you doing here?” She called the police inspector. After two more hours of waiting, they released me. For the next two years, I had to go back monthly to get a stamp at the detention center. I could move around in the area of the city where I was living.

After two years, the police returned. They told me that my staying in Slovenia had expired and they were there to bring me back to the detention center. In 2003, the law was passed for the Erased to get Slovenian citizenship. It was easy for some, and not for others. If you could prove that you had stayed in Slovenia between 2003 and 2004, you could qualify. I told the police that I’d applied for citizenship. They said, “We will check,” even though I had confirmation from the ministry that I’d applied. I had to call the lawyer again. We went to the Ministry of Interior to get the original confirmation that I’d really applied. They said that until the procedure was approved or not, I could stay in the country. And then they left me in peace.

On October 13, 2004 I finally got Slovenian citizenship. I could finally get health insurance, but my problems were far from solved. I could move around freely, and I could get treatment for my health problems. I also could get a proper job. I found a job in construction. I worked for one month. Then a vein burst in my leg because the job was too strenuous and the veins could not take all the pressure. I lost almost a liter of blood on my way to the hospital. I didn’t have supplemental insurance on top of the basic insurance that doesn’t really cover anything. They just cleaned the wound. After one month, after I arranged for the supplemental insurance, I was able to get proper treatment. But I was in and out of hospital for the next few weeks. I had a problem with my eye. I was told my kidneys and lungs were weak. I spent two years on sick leave. After that, the construction firm couldn’t find me any work. The unemployment office couldn’t find me any work.

I’ve been part of the Erased movement since 2002. I’ve been in all the actions, demonstrations, and hunger strikes. It was not clear at first that the situation was so terrible, that there were so many Erased. After I was first on TV, all these guests that I’d been serving at the restaurant started to tell me that they were in a similar situation.

In the beginning our goal was to get back our status and our permanent residency. Some have gotten this status, some have not. Personally, if they would recognize all those years of my being Erased, I could accumulate enough of a working period so that I could retire. But I have this hole in my biography.

As for compensation, even if I get 5 million euros, that will not bring back my health. The only thing I wish for is that the people responsible for the Erasure, and for prolonging the Erasure, are convicted, that the Erasure is recognized as a crime.