Just before Christmas 1997, T.D. drove to Austria for some shopping. With his pregnant wife and two daughters, they wished to decorate their home. The border police discovered that his documents were not valid. T.D. was taken to court, where the judge ordered his deportation. The police took him home to pick up some clothes and say goodbye to his family. He was deported to Croatia.
Almost six years earlier, on 26th February 1992, the government of Slovenia had erased 25,671 people (1.3% of the population) from its register of permanent residents. In doing so, these people had all their citizens’, economic, medical and social rights taken from them. The following day they woke up as illegal immigrants, living illegally in the country many of them had called home for most of their lives. None of them were informed about this. Their lives didn’t change until the time they needed to renew their expired documents, were stopped by the police for speeding, or needed to visit a doctor.
1992 and the erasure
The break-up of Yugoslavia was long and painful. President Tito died in 1980 and in the decade that followed, nationalist ideologies were strengthened. Most obviously in Serbia with Milošević, but also in other parts of Yugoslavia, including Slovenia. In 1991, Slovenia declared its independence and gave foreigners half a year to apply for citizenship. These ‘foreigners’ were never informed of this in writing and, in fact, nobody knew for sure who was classed as a foreigner – it was never entirely clear what the actual criteria for ‘foreigners’ were. Most of them had been born outside Slovenia, in other parts of the former Yugoslavia. If you were born in Vienna, however, you were not classified as a ‘foreigner’.
No such exemption existed for a lady who was born during World War II in Serbia, where her Slovene parents had been expelled to by the German occupiers. After the end of the war, they moved back to Slovenia and she lived there all her life. This lady most certainly didn’t pay much attention when she heard on the radio that the government was preparing a law on foreigners. In the end, she wasn’t deported because her children, all Slovenians born in Slovenia, were able to financially support her – thus removing the burden from the state – while they started the lengthy procedure to reclaim her Slovenian citizenship. Not all of the erased have been as lucky.
War was raging throughout the rest of the Balkans at the time of the erasure. Of all the states that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia, Slovenia borders only with Croatia. If the erased deportee was of Croatian origin, the Croats were happy to accept them and enlist them into their own army. If, however, the Slovenian police handed them over a Serb, this meant they had got their hands on an enemy. Another person remembers: “In 1993, the police asked to see the ID of one of my colleagues. [...] He was a Bosnian Serb, like me. The bus driver knew what awaited the lad if he was taken to Bosnia. Policemen stood guard next to the bus until it departed. As they were driving towards Postojna, the driver suddenly turned off Tivoli Street, stopped the bus, and told the guy: ‘Get out of here, I can’t have you on my conscience.’”
The kindness of strangers
Take a look at your wallet with your documents, and you will discover that you can call all kinds of institutions in an emergency – the police, banks, roadside assistance, etc. If, however, you don’t exist, then you are entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers.
Edin was involved in a traffic accident. When he got to the medical centre, he was informed that he did not exist and that they would not even take a look at him, even though he was bleeding from the head. Fortunately a waitress in a nearby café took pity on him, disinfecting and bandaging his wound. This story might be comical if it wasn’t so tragic. The doctor and nurse refuse to help an injured man, and the waitress then tries her best. Kindness, it seems, is not linked to level of education, profession, or the Hippocratic oath.
Simply the fact that you are unable to call the police fuels the imagination of people who want to take advantage of your predicament and benefit from your property. While the erased were out, neighbours broke into their flats and changed the locks. You cannot call the police, so you are suddenly also homeless. They might also covet your body; there is the testimony of at least one woman who was raped, as she could not report it to anyone. One worker speaks of how he had to work 270 hours a month for his boss to pay him for 160. In other cases, the employer realized that the workers didn’t officially exist and immediately cut their pay by half.
Even just leaving one’s flat was dangerous. A family was on a walk through the centre of Ljubljana when the police requested to see their IDs. They ended up being deported to Croatia. One of the erased thus decided to lock himself in his flat and stayed there for three years, eating tinned food and stale bread, something that didn’t help many others as the police came knocking at their door.
The reasons for the erasure were never given. “We’re Europe, not the Balkans”, said one of the leading politicians back then, and we have to understand this statement in the prevailing thinking of the times. One of the very popular theories was that we are not Slavs anyway, but descendants of the ancient Veneti people – so we don’t have anything to do with the rest of Yugoslavia. The other theory was promoted by the esteemed Slovene psychologist and theologian Anton Trstenjak, who published a lot of works about ‘Slovenian honesty’ (the actual title of a few of his books). He wrote and lectured what every nation wants to hear: Slovenians are the most honest and hard-working people in the world. But Yugoslavia has put some rotten apples among us, importing workers from the Balkans, and now the Slovenian nation is rotting, too. He didn’t ask, but everybody understood: Why not clean it, if there is a chance?
Let me put it frankly: the reasons for the erasure were racist at their core. And when we read about the consequences, sadistic, too. Above all, totally unnecessary for any other reasons, from the political to the economic.
In fact, it seems that political conviction did not prevent anyone from either initiating or continuing with the erasure. The first government of independent Slovenia, under the premiership of Lojze Peterle, was right-wing orientated, but it fell in May 1992. It was followed by the left-wing government of Janez Drnovšek. Lojze Peterle went on to become a Member of the European Parliament for a number of years, Janez Drnovšek became the President of Slovenia, and as a spiritual awakener published several successful new age books about love.
Mould that spreads through the house
The erasure was commenced by those on the right and then upheld by those on the left. This means that all Slovene politics became muddied and dishonoured by it. In 1999, the Constitutional Court ruled that the erasure had been illegal. But nothing happened.
The erasure occurred in the pre-internet era. When society excludes us, the first thing we think is that it must be our own fault and that we are the only ones to have such a misfortune befall us. Aleksandar Todorović was one of the erased. Just an ordinary guy, except that he dared to demand an answer and speak loudly. Nobody wanted to hear, all the doors were closed, so he sat down in front of the entrance to Ljubljana Zoo (!) and started a hunger strike. In 2002, he established a civil initiative for the erased. They began to appear in the media for the first time and, more importantly, documents were finally exposed which confirmed that the erasure was a deliberate act. Previously, those in government had found excuses in mistakes and confusion. In 2003, the Constitutional Court reconfirmed its decision about the illegality of the erasure and... once again, nothing happened.
Citizens also wore their own crown of shame. In 2004, politicians called a referendum on settling rights for the erased. A mere 31.45% of those eligible participated and the motion was rejected with a majority of 94.68%. Responsibility spread like mould through a damp house: the decision of some party was confirmed by one government and then the next, presidents of the state remained silent, and through the referendum the guilt eventually became collective.
Unsurprisingly, the erasure is something that is still not talked about in Slovenia and something that nobody wants to have anything to do with. The erased won their case in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in 2012, but had to be represented by Italian lawyers.
Aleksandar Todorović comitted suicide in 2014.
The tireless work of Matevž Krivic
A few non-governmental organizations did try to help the erased, and at least three books were produced dealing with the subject. A number of documentaries were made and in 2013 the Croatian theatre director Oliver Frljić, who likes to move around countries poking at sore wounds, directed a play about the erased in Slovenia.
A single name, though, truly stands up for the nation’s honour. Working pro bono, the former constitutional judge Matevž Krivic actively supported the erased and stood by their side, running a marathon through the various institutions on their behalf. Sometimes he managed to intervene just before their deportation, on at least one occasion taking a deportee from an aeroplane. He also tried to break the media silence by sending readers’ letters to newspapers – every time a politician claimed that the erasure was just an imaginary problem, he was there to rebuke them.
A novel and a film
I cannot remember when it was that I first heard about the erased. Once I realized what successive governments had done, I was certain that half the writers in Slovenia were already writing novels and film scripts on the subject, so I would probably not need to bother. The years went by and these novels and films never appeared. I realized that they clearly would not happen. Slovenia is a very small country, with a population of only two million, everyone knows everyone, and culture is state funded. Obviously, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. It was not why I studied computers, but it turned out to be very useful, allowing me to earn money as a computer expert and not be dependent on the Slovene cultural establishment.
It took me a long time to find the right story. Reading the testimonies of women who were pregnant at the time and about the dangers they faced, from giving birth at home to going to Germany where giving birth is free of charge (crossing the borders without documents!). I also came across cases where a maternity hospital wanted to keep the child until the mother had paid all the costs of the birth. What if this woman refused and argued with them, and the hospital called the police? The mother would be taken to the asylum centre and face deportation.
This became the basis for a novel called Erased, whose main protagonist is the 30-year-old Ana. She gives birth at the local hospital and everything goes well. There is only a small, bureaucratic problem: Ana’s file is not on the computer. A software glitch, probably nothing serious. Within a few days, Ana is entangled in a web of Kafkaesque proportions; not being in the computer means no social security, no permanent address. All of a sudden Ana is a foreigner, even though she has lived in Slovenia all of her life. Legally, she doesn’t exist. So her child is an orphan. And orphans are put up for adoption.
I wrote the script for a feature film. The first working version was completed in 2010. Of course, it emerged that there was no chance that the state film centre would fund such a theme. After a few years I gave up, and in order not to waste all the research and preparation decided to write a novel. According to the statistics, it was widely read, but did not provoke a public debate.
A few years later, a producer called me with a possibility for a film and I wrote a new version of the script. Amazingly, we actually shot the film, again under the title Erased. German associate producer Christoph Thoke exclaimed that this film would be a turning point in the Slovenian silence. Just like in France, which had ‘forgotten’ all about the North African people who fought on their side during World War II, but was ‘reminded’ of this fact by the 2006 film Indigènes – the film prompted the government to bring the military pensions of surviving veterans from the former colonies in line with those of French nationals. I said to him: “Christoph, Slovenia is a small nation. And the best survival strategy for a small nation is to look the other way.” He disagreed. We made a small bet. Sadly, I won.
The only breach of silence happened when Erased was shown on national television in Slovenia in October 2020. The Slovenian Minister of the Interior tweeted about it for two consecutive days, saying it was a disgrace for the Slovenian Film Centre to fund such a film, A DISGRACE! This means that the film deeply affected him, something I take as a compliment.
But, thankfully, this was not the only type of reaction to my film. After the premiere of Erased in Slovenia, a woman was moved to approach me with a story that encapsulates the absurdity and injustice of what happened in 1992. She used to live with her husband in a small town near the Croatian border – except at the time, there was no border at all. After she got pregnant, she was told that the hospital on the Croatian side was bigger and better, so she went there to give birth. And that was it – life in Slovenia as normal – until her son turned 14 and wanted to enlist into the local high school. But owing to his birth in the next town along, he didn’t exist as a Slovenian – he was erased, the illegal immigrant biological son of two Slovenian parents.
The film “Erased” is currently available on HBO Polska, as well as other local streaming services. The novel “Erased” was originally published in 2014 in Slovenian and has subsequently been published in Serbian, Macedonian, Italian, Polish and Hungarian. Read an excerpt from the novel in English here.
Translated from the Slovenian by Gregor Timothy Čeh
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