I was born in Velika Kladuša, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1958. That’s where I completed elementary school and two years of a typing course. In 1978, when I was 18, I moved to Ljubljana. I didn’t have anyone here, no uncles, no grandma, no friends or acquaintances. I had to find my way around on my own. I immediately went to work as an assembly line worker, and I worked and I was not interested in anything else but work. If I hadn’t worked, I’d not have found my way around. I wanted to be independent, to have my job, my income, to earn my livelihood. I worked from six to six, my hands were calloused; I earned my wage honestly. Nobody can accuse me of coming to Slovenia at the expense of the Slovenes. I worked hard for every bite I ate. And today, too, I don’t want to live at anybody’s expense, not even at the expense of my adult children, nobody. As long as I can move about I’ll earn.
My first job was in Semenarna, in the production unit. After three months in a temporary job, my boss told me to register a permanent residence in Ljubljana because they were going to give me a regular job. I went to my birth place, Velika Kladuša, to unregister. I registered my permanent address in Ljubljana.
Soon after that I met my husband, now my ex-husband; we aren’t married any more. We first lived in a shack without heating. My husband got a civilian job with the military at that time. Three months later we were visited by some army officer who was on a committee that allocated apartments. When he saw how we lived with two small children, he intervened and in less than one month we got an apartment. At the time when Slovenia gained independence, in 1990, I filed for divorce. My husband and I were too different, we saw the world differently. I got custody of the children and the apartment, so he had to leave.
In 1991, when they offered citizenship, I didn’t apply. It was said that you could apply if you wanted, but it wasn’t obligatory. This is what I thought at the time: I’ve lived here for so many years, I had permanent residence registered in Ljubljana, my children were citizens and Slovenes through their father, and I was part of that family, the mother of three children and I had a regular job. In my mind I connected this offer to take citizenship more with the fact that Slovenia was a small country and that, from the international perspective, it was better for a country to have more citizens than fewer. I didn’t think that I was obliged to take citizenship. As a child I could see our Bosnian people going to work in France or Germany. They were foreigners there, but they had jobs or permanent residence – they lived like equal members. My father lives in Germany even today, but he doesn’t have German citizenship. I couldn’t know that I was going to lose my rights if I didn’t take citizenship. And how many rights I lost! All the rights except the right to work – I was able to keep my job.
While I was without documents I thought that one day it had to come to light. I was convinced that it was a mistake. But I didn’t know that so many people had been erased; well, I didn’t even know that I was erased. I thought there were some complications which involved me and perhaps some tens of others.
It truly didn’t occur to me that the state could invalidate my legal resident status without any explanation, any notification. In 1993 I went to Mačkova Street to get a certificate concerning a shared household which I had to submit to the center for social work. The clerk asked for my personal document. When I gave her my ID card, she took it, punched it and instructed me to go to the office for foreigners. When I wanted to get the certificate and didn’t get it, I knew that something was seriously wrong. But it wasn’t clear to me what was wrong; they only told me: “You aren’t here.” “How come, if I’m here?!” I couldn’t understand what had happened that I was suddenly left without permanent residence. Until then, I had obtained and extended all my documents in Ljubljana, but when the country became independent this stopped. My passport and driver’s license, both issued in Ljubljana, had already expired by that time. Only then did I begin to realize that I no longer had legal status in this country.
It was very important that, after my divorce, I managed to obtain the right to remain in the apartment with my children. However, because of the erasure the purchase of the apartment became very complicated. Since I didn’t have citizenship, I didn’t have the right to purchase the apartment. I could purchase it and put it in the name of my children, who were citizens and were registered as the users of that apartment. Well, when I realized that it was a problem, I applied for citizenship in the summer of 1992. I couldn’t purchase the apartment, not even on behalf of my children, for two reasons. Since I didn’t have any valid document, I couldn’t get a loan from the bank, although at that time I still had a permanent job. The other reason was that the Ministry of Defense, the new owner of the apartment, sued me for unpaid rent. However, this rent was not my debt, but my husband’s, who was the previous leaseholder. I became the leaseholder in 1993 when I got the apartment and I paid the rent regularly. The court procedure lasted seven years; the Ministry lost the case, but in the meantime they attempted to evict me. This was in 1998, when they sent me a resolution stating that I had to move out. I immediately filed a complaint with the higher court. The higher court established that the debt was incurred during the previous period and that the debtor was my ex-husband. When it was resolved and when after thirteen years, that is, in 2003, I got citizenship, only then could I go on with the purchase procedure. This procedure is still ongoing, I’m still a tenant and I still pay the rent.
I was lucky that I retained my job despite the erasure, and that it was a permanent job. My company never asked for a citizenship certificate. I lived illegally but I could work. In the company they knew that I was without status. The awkward thing was, that without a personal document, I couldn’t withdraw my wages which were paid to my bank account. Until 1995 I didn’t have problems because I withdrew money from ATMs. The problem emerged when the bank card had to be replaced, and, naturally, I had to submit a personal document. I gave my old ID card, but they didn’t consider it a valid document. How could I get my wages? I told the people in my company that I had quarrelled with the people in the bank, and from that time on I received my salary cash-in-hand.
The problem was that the salary was very low; I still remember the sum: 35,000 tolars. But I had a three-room apartment and three children, and the expenses were almost 50,000. No wonder that I fell ill; the psychological pressure of living on the edge and without valid documents was too great. We didn’t have enough money for food even, that’s how modestly we lived. My youngest daughter at least didn’t know what she didn’t have, but the older one felt the shortage seriously. All the time she made comparisons with others – what they had and what she didn’t have. And my boy, for example, when he was growing up, his feet grew so fast that before the end of three months his toes were poking through his sneakers. Where could I get that money to buy him new shoes every few months?! We both cried as we walked from one shop to another to find inexpensive sneakers for him. Delayed payment, in instalments, was the only option for me.
The shortage affected the two older children too; they couldn’t concentrate and learn like other children. The older daughter was really hurting because of this; she quarreled with everyone, she was angry with the teachers, she went totally berserk. Her marks were bad, she barely managed to complete elementary education, and she couldn’t enroll anywhere after that. It was difficult for her; she wanted to be like her friends, her schoolmates but she couldn’t. When she was in the eighth grade she reproached me, saying that I wasn’t able to take care of her, that she didn’t need me, and that it was my fault that she couldn’t enroll anywhere. For example, she’d tell me that our neighbor was also a single mother but her children had everything they needed for school. But in addition to child benefits and her salary, she could also get social support, unlike me who didn’t have permanent residence. I was blamed and regarded as guilty by the state, by my children, and by my relatives and neighbors.
Fortunately, my children were Slovenian citizens through their father, so they received child benefit. But as a single-parent family we couldn’t get social aid, although we would have been entitled to it, given our modest income. My salary and child benefit did not suffice for normal living. However, the center for social work could not give me this benefit, or social assistance, because I didn’t have the status of a foreigner with permanent residence. When I brought the shared-household document, one member of the household was missing, so there were fewer people to support. My salary was taken into account when they added up the total income of the household and divided it by the number of persons. But it was not evident from the papers that I lived with my children, although everybody knew what the real situation was.
In 1997, my second partner moved in to live with us. He too was erased. He worked as a construction worker illegally. He had a little girl, his wife had died. We helped each other. We all lived together in our apartment. For some time everything was okay, and we had a baby. Since we were both erased, my youngest daughter didn’t have status, and for many years had no father’s name registered.
My health record is full of descriptions of health problems. The doctor advised several months of sick leave. But the commission rejected it, stating that nothing was wrong with me. Then I lost my job and registered with the Employment Service. In fact, they dismissed me because of frequent sick leaves, which I took mainly to take care of my child. The document said that I was dismissed because of the surplus of workforce, since this was supposedly better for me than if it said that I was dismissed because of frequent absences. They introduced a robot to perform my job, to arrange magnets, so they didn’t need me any more. Since that time, when I got registered with the Employment Service, I haven’t had a job. It was in 2003. At that time my condition was truly bad: the entire right side of my body was blocked, my leg, my hand, half of my face – everything was so stiff that I didn’t feel anything. For several years I was in a catastrophic physical condition. I couldn’t sit on the assembly line, I couldn’t meet the standards; I simply wasn’t as quick as you must be to perform such work, even before my daughter was born. All these horrible things affected my nerves. It’s a wonder that they didn’t take me to a madhouse, since I was so depressive, so impossible. The only fortunate thing amidst these misfortunes was that I had paid life insurance, so when I was dismissed I got quite a bit of money from the insurance company. I went to a chiropractor for treatment, to unblock me, and it helped a lot.
My acquaintances didn’t know, and they didn’t believe that I had such problems because of the erasure – the measure I didn’t bring about myself and I didn’t know how to explain initially. My father, with whom I had telephone contact, dressed me down several times, saying that I was stupid because I didn’t have a Slovenian passport. He lives in Germany where he receives a disability pension. My father didn’t provide any support, not even moral support. My brother used to say similar things: “But how come you don’t have a passport? It’s your fault, you could have arranged it. They offered citizenship but you didn’t take it!” People don’t understand that citizenship is something different from permanent residence, and that I could have lived normally even without citizenship had not I been erased.
At home, my relationship with my children steadily deteriorated. In such a depressive state as I was in, I found friends and support among the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They visited me at my home and we talked a lot about religion, God, Jesus, but not about the erasure. I studied their explanation of the Bible. Their company somehow calmed me down. They came to my place every week and I too went there for meetings. But during the three years of our socializing, I too was supposed to begin to disseminate the religion actively from door to door. This was the point where we couldn’t come together. In addition to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I also had several neighbors, friends, who helped me several times and were really good to me. For example, when it was the hardest on me, this neighbor invited me for lunch several times. We are still friends. She knew that my daughter was sick and she’d call me: “I made soup for your baby. Bring her!” So I took her and she gave me soup for my daughter. That was really a kind gesture and welcome help. Others, on the other hand, avoided me, precisely because they knew that I was in trouble.
In 2000, I applied for permanent residence in accordance with that law after they said on television that people without documents and permanent residence who had been living here at least from the plebiscite on should go to the Office for Foreigners. I responded to that invitation. I went to the office with my child, I told them who I was, where I lived. I filled out what they gave me, submitted it and got the receipt that I had submitted it. I waited for a year or more. When I finally got a permanent residence permit, I could apply for a Bosnian passport at the Bosnian embassy. They put my permanent residence permit into this passport. I got the ID card for foreigners in 2002 from the Office for Foreigners. I still have it at home. I was so glad, as if I had been born again, so happy and relieved I was.
While I was without documents I thought that one day it had to come to light. I was convinced that it was a mistake. But I didn’t know that so many people had been erased; well, I didn’t even know that I was erased. I thought there were some complications which involved me and perhaps some tens of others. My workmates talked about people who didn’t have citizenship and had serious problems because of it. These were mainly people in mixed marriages: a Bosnian and a Slovene. However, in 1991 I didn’t apply for citizenship so I thought it was better for me not to talk about my situation. Another reason why I didn’t want to talk about it was that I didn’t know what actually happened to me.
One day I heard on TV about the Association of the Erased Residents and some guy called Aleksandar Todorović. I saw him speaking on television and there was a telephone number. I quickly jotted it down. I was mulling over what to say, how to introduce myself and register with that association. I had no idea that there were so many erased people. Oh dear, when we started to talk, and Aca is such a candid person. I felt like I had wings. As if the stone fell from my heart. Pains literally began to peel off my body, I could feel life, health, the future, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Here, it came to light. Now it’s common knowledge what actually happened and who was responsible. And it was not only me that was erased; it was not I who messed things up. I thanked God, I don’t know how many times.