I could say that these are the best years of my life. My life story has been enriched by 44 years of life experience. I enjoy the smoky atmosphere and a piece of chocolate in my mouth, and I also like to boast that I’ve read many books. Today my life is orderly. I have foreigner status, a permanent residence permit, a permanent work permit, and right now I’m registered with the Employment Service. I got a permanent residence permit in 2003, and in March this year I got the supplementary decision. Perhaps I was the first one, but it has no significance for me. The certificate of something that is well known, that the whole world knows … Nonsense. My wife and children are Slovenian citizens, I’m a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Since 1996, my wife and I have been sharing a household. I have two children: my son is thirteen and my daughter is eight.
A short while ago a colleague at work asked me to explain to him what the term “erased people” meant. In reply I told him a story: “You and I are brothers coming from Bosnia-Herzegovina. We unregister in Bosnia-Herzegovina, come to Slovenia and register permanent residence here. We work in Slovenia for several years, and then Slovenia becomes independent. You apply for Slovenian citizenship but I don’t. Until 26 February 1992, we are equal. On 27 February 1992, you’re a Slovenian citizen and I don’t exist. I’m erased.”
They say I haven’t been erased. Of course I haven’t. I haven’t if I’m here. That was an act that a normal person cannot understand or imagine. It’s on their souls now.
I gave him the red passport, and his evil eyes stared at me: “This is no longer valid!” He punched my passport. I then asked him, “Can I now get the certificate?” “Be off with you, it’s the police that you can get!” was what I could hear as I was leaving. I found myself in the street with my punched passport. Where now? I couldn’t leave the country without documents. To say that this feeling is horrible is way too mild!
I was born in Doboj, in the north of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the northern part of Republika Srpska. I’m a Bosnian Serb. There were four brothers and sisters in my family. One brother and one sister live in Sisak (Croatia), I have two more brothers in Croatia, one sister is in Canada, the older sister lives in Slovenia. I’m on good terms with all of them. Family ties and the maintenance of good relations, not only with the family and relatives but also with the wider environment, are very important. Why should we quarrel? Because of these lunatics?
I first came to Slovenia in 1980, to visit my sister who had been attending secondary school in Strunjan since 1975; she completed elementary school in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She took Slovenian citizenship. At that time, I used to tease her that on taking Slovenian citizenship she’d not have problems with anyone but me.
I came to Slovenia for the second time in 1987, for economic reasons – I was looking for a job. I’m a traffic technician. I had problems when looking for work, since nobody wanted to give me a job, because they said I’d work for two months only and then try to find something better. But I was not after a good job, I was looking for any job. My sister’s husband got me a job with the poultry company Jata Zalog. I received my first salary on 20 April 1987. In 1992 my boss told me that I had to arrange my status. What status? What? You don’t understand that you don’t have status, because you have permanent residence here, it’s logical. You work, you pay taxes, contributions, everything, and then they say you don’t have status. You don’t understand it because it’s impossible. People at my company told me that I needed a visa, a work permit and a certificate of a clean criminal record. Without certificates there is no
work permit, and without a work permit there is no job. I asked my workmates about arranging documents at the administrative unit. They told me that they punched personal documents there. I called my brother in Bosnia-Herzegovina and asked him to advise me how to get the certificate of a clean criminal record. He told me that I needed only the document proving that I had unregistered my address there. I thought to myself, “I came here and here is where I will stay!” I went to the administrative unit in Ljubljana together with my sister’s husband. The attitude of the employees at the Mačkova Street office was unbearable. Those were unfriendly clerks sitting behind the plexiglass. There were fifty people crowded into this small space, and three hundred more waiting outside. Their attitude towards us, people in the line, was contemptuous. What can you do? You cover your ears with your hands and keep silent. I told a burly man with a “very malicious look in his eyes” that I was registered here and I wanted a document to prove that. Since my workmates had already warned me that they were punching documents, I showed this gentleman only my Yugoslav passport but left my ID card in my pocket. I gave him the red passport, and his evil eyes stared at me: “This is no longer valid!” He punched my passport. I then asked him, “Can I now get the certificate?” “Be off with you, it’s the police that you can get!” was what I could hear as I was leaving. I found myself in the street with my punched passport. Where now? I couldn’t leave the country without documents. To say that this feeling is horrible is way too mild!
Who will help you if you don’t help yourself? I knew someone who travelled on business to Trieste where there was a Yugoslav embassy. This gentleman arranged for me a Yugoslav passport that was valid until 1995. It’s interesting that the Yugoslav passport was valid in Italy although there was no Yugoslavia! I couldn’t get another passport, since there was a war raging in my country. To register residence in the RS, I needed a certificate of a clean criminal record from my home country. It was also required for children born in Slovenia whose parents hadn’t taken Slovenian citizenship. How could someone who never was there get this certificate? How can I get it if I cannot cross the border knowing that nothing good awaits me on the other side? I come from the Serbian part; I knew that whatever certificate they might have issued would be in Cyrillic and the country of issue would be Republika Srpska. My brother from Bosnia furnished this certificate. I took the certificate to the administrative unit in Ljubljana, and they asked me if I were in my right mind, said that such a country didn’t exist. It’s true that it didn’t exist, it wasn’t recognized, but I couldn’t get any other certificate. This was the original and the only true certificate. But there was a way out. Fortunately I knew a man in Ljubljana – a man with many stamps. He made fake documents in the Latin alphabet. It wasn’t important where you came from, the man with many stamps faked for you any document you needed.
I went to the administrative unit in Moste to arrange a visa. A kind lady who worked there asked me why I didn’t take Slovenian citizenship. “Why should I take it if I can work as a foreigner?” I replied. She said that it would have been easier for me, and that you could obtain citizenship for the price of one kilo of potatoes. This made me angry. “Madam, that’s not true! If you wanted citizenship, you had to have permanent residence. And why should I take it? I have the right not to take it!” I fixed my papers, found a job and paid regularly for work permits.
When I lost my job and learnt from my employer that I had to arrange my status, I set to fix these bureaucratic issues. I also had encounters with the police. During the period that followed my recognition that I had become a man who did not exist, I lived mainly in dormitory worker units. In 1992 I lived in one such unit at Vojkova Street. It was better than having a private apartment. You took care of yourself, no obligations. There were no restrictions apart from the observation of house rules. Like in a residential block. You had a key to the main entrance and your room. There were two or three workers sharing a room; sometimes there were six or eight of them, but these rooms were huge and they had balconies. I don’t remember any police supervision in this worker unit at Vojkova Street. But the story at Topniška Street in Bežigrad, where the workers had to move, was quite a different one. At least four times a week, thirty police officers would come, and they’d check residents’ work permits and provoke them. They probably caught some of them and expelled them. I used to meet my mates in the corridor every day. Then suddenly, in the morning, when I went to the bathroom to wash up or do some other thing, or to the kitchen to make a meal, I didn’t see them any more. They didn’t leave voluntarily because they didn’t have anywhere to go. In 1993, the policemen checked the identification of my workmate. Since he didn’t have a temporary residence permit, they put him on the bus to Split. He was a Bosnian Serb, like me. The bus driver knew what fate was awaiting him if he took him to Bosnia-Herzegovina. The police officers stood guard until the bus left. When they started off towards Postojna, the bus driver immediately turned off Tivolska Street, stopped the bus and said, “Run away, I cannot have you on my conscience.”
I don’t blame police officers and administrators for their unfriendly and insulting attitude and the lack of respect towards me and other erased people. They got such instructions. Was it police officers who came to their workplace in the morning and said: “Are we going to fish for Bosnians today?” Of course not. There were police raids four times a week! They came to the rooms. They’d hit you in your head, I mean, not literally. If it were literally it would be okay.
I too had dealings with them several times. I didn’t have problems because my documents were in order; once I paid a fine because my work permit expired. The police officers wanted to check my identification several times when I didn’t have documents. Without your documents in order, nobody wants to employ you; without employment you can’t get a work permit, and without a work permit you can’t get a work visa. I was lucky because many times I came across reasonable people. When I explained my situation to them, they told me to arrange my papers as soon as possible. I also remember how the police stopped me at a bus station in Ljubljana, but it was after I had arranged all the papers. Since I had forgotten my passport at home, the law enforcement men came with me to my home where I showed them the document that testified to my existence.
You don’t exist, you’re here but you don’t exist. The state knew that we didn’t have status, but we ourselves didn’t know it. But when it came to taxes, they took it off regularly. During the time I was erased I had to pay for health insurance, social contributions and so on. I also worked illegally – construction work; I found work, as is common today, under democracy – through acquaintances. In 1996 I met my current wife, and that same year we started a household. I was not burdened by the erasure, but my wife lived in fear. In 1997 our son was born. When registering paternity, a registrar came to the maternity ward and talked to my wife. She told her, “You can give any name and surname to your child.” Fortunately, this was not meant seriously. But I know a family who had problems when their child was born. This child was born in 1991 in Ljubljana to parents who had been born in other republics of the former Yugoslavia. When she was born, the registrar told them to come up with some address in Bosnia, although the child was born in Slovenia. The girl was without citizenship for two years; today everybody in that family has citizenship.
Last year in October I was in Doboj, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I visited my mother and brother. I’ve visited them several times since I put my life in order again. My contacts with them have increased since July 2000. Before that I hadn’t left Slovenia for eight years. On 30 Mach 1992 I was probably one of the last persons who went to the Serbian territory via Bosanski šamac and came back.
I light a cigarette, lean back in my chair and think. At that time the problem was serious, but how could I know that it was a problem? I didn’t do anything wrong, why were they persecuting me? And now, when I listen to others who really had it hard in that situation, I think to myself, what if I had it like them? But thank God, I didn’t.