One of the most remarkable and disturbing aspects of the Erasure in Slovenia was that it took nearly a decade before it became a public issue. After the country became independent, roughly 1 percent of the population lost their residency in the country practically overnight. Thousands were deported. Many were sent to detention centers. And they were practically forgotten, erased not only from the administrative records but from the consciousness of the Slovenian majority.
When Jelka Zorn was doing ethnographic research for her social work degree, she visited a Slovenian detention center with the intention to write about asylum issues. She was taken aback when the head of the center asked her, “Do you want to talk with our foreigners or foreigner foreigners.”
With that one visit, Zorn stumbled into a world that only Franz Kafka could fully appreciate. It wasn’t just a nightmare that issued from a bureaucrat’s pen – it was a nightmare that had been going on for nearly 10 years.
“The scene was really terrible at the detention center,” she told me in an interview in Ljubljana last October. “Some people there were on medication – no wonder. I had coffee with one man, and I asked him how I could help him. ‘You can cry with me,’ he said. This shows a state of resignation, that they had nothing to hope for. They told me, ‘We worked here for years. We gave our best years here. Now, look where we are? Six beds to one room.’”
She decided to switch her research topic to the Erased and do everything she could to publicize the issue. Around the same time, the Erased themselves were breaking the silence, starting organizations, and campaigning for their rights.
“It’s quite remarkable that in a small country like Slovenia something like this could remain hidden for a decade,” Jelka Zorn told me sadly. “When we started to tell students that they had to make interviews with Erased persons, they said, ‘But we don’t know any Erased people!’ In the end, though, it turned out that everyone did know someone. This shows the level of oppression. If the Erased weren’t so oppressed, they could have gone out and talked about their situation and journalists could have written about it. But there was such a heavy sense of oppression. Not everybody who experienced the Erasure wanted to talk about it. Some people believed that talking about it would make it worse.”
Talking about it eventually led to public campaigns, legal cases, and a European Court of Human Rights decision in favor of the Erased. It’s a story of a wrong that is now, finally, being righted.
I talked with Jelka Zorn about what brought her to the issue of the Erased, her involvement with the famous Ljubljana squat called Metelkova, and the economic challenges that currently face Slovenia. I’ve also included, below that, excerpts from an earlier interview from 2008.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
In 1989 I was in Ljubljana, but I don’t remember my feelings and thoughts about the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the 1990s I went to Berlin several times and I was interested in these immediate historical events.
The year 1989 I remember as a happy period. I thought that the political space was opening up. There were lot of discussions and a lot of public events going on.
You were quite young when things started to fall apart here in former Yugoslavia. Was there a point at which you began to realize that Slovenia was heading toward independence?
I didn’t think about it in terms of independence. It was not discussed in these terms. There was a lot of nationalism, that’s what I remember during the whole 1980s.
You could feel it in school. We were really rough toward people who were not Slovenes. I joined in. When I was eight or nine I didn’t have a sense that this was not right.
Later on, when I was 15 or 16, I already understood that ethnic discrimination was wrong. I even had a boyfriend from school who was Bosnian. When I told this to my parents, they were not happy. First, I was too young. Then he was Bosnian. Also, he went to a school for waiters, a vocational school. They didn’t like this combination of three things. In general, they were full of prejudice against Bosnians.
Do you remember what you did or what you said at that age?
When we were in the primary school we were already making ethnic identifications of Slovenes and non-Slovenes. There was one boy we particularly made fun of. We said all sorts of things. Not that he was from Bosnia. But that he was kind of crazy. But the fact is, he was also from Bosnia. The teachers weren’t particularly angry with us. Or they didn’t see or they pretended not to see.
Everyone who was not from here was Bosnian. Even though a person was from Serbia or Croatia, they were called Bosnians. Probably because there were more Bosnians here than other nationalities. So this nationalism was very present at least a decade before Slovenia declared independence.
Then, during the 1990s, the situation changed a lot. 1989 was a year of joy and happiness because there were a lot of public happenings, a new social movement for plurality and democracy. But the first half of the 1990s I felt as a period of depression. I remember how depressed I was when I watched the news on TV that snipers shot people in the marketplace in Sarajevo. I couldn’t believe that this was happening. The whole period from 1991 to 1997 was like this for me. I had quite a lot of friends who were from Bosnia, or Kosovo or Croatia.
I protected myself against the mainstream racist discourse so that I went to Metelkova exclusively. I went to the university and to Metelkova, and I had many friends from other parts of Yugoslavia. This was a comfortable environment. Outside of this there was a lot of racism. The Erasure also happened at this time, the beginning of the 1990s. It didn’t happen just in the administrative offices. It happened among neighbors, on in the streets. Everyone supported this mentality, “Where are you from?” they were asking. “Why don’t you return to where you came from?” they were saying.
What about your parents? What was their attitude? You mentioned that they were not happy about your Bosnian boyfriend…
They are the representatives of the mainstream discourse. Through them, I know what people think and the reasons for certain ideas. They felt happy about Slovenian independence, but they felt terrible about the war. I mean, everyone felt terrible about the war. How could you think differently? We saw this everyday, the news of how many people died or were injured or had to flee their homes.
There were a lot of refugees here in Slovenia. At first, people’s reactions were very welcoming toward the refugees. People were looking for different kinds of solutions when so many people came. But after a while this really changed. Politicians gave hostile speeches. Refugees were restricted in their movement around the town. They were kept in those centers, and only their basic needs were met. It’s terrible to treat people like this. For children it was a bit better because they were encouraged to continue their schooling.
What did your parents think of Metelkova?
They thought it was a terrible place. They still think it’s horrible! Their image of Metelkova rests on media representations.
They’ve never been there?
Of course not! They belong to another generation and have different experiences, values, and interests from my own. And Metelkova has never been a place of interest for them.
I met a lot of my friends at Metelkova. I met my partner there. It’s where we started the movement of the Erased. It’s where they had their place to meet prior to creation of the Social Centre (in the squatted old factory Rog).
How did you find out about Metelkova?
Did anyone tell you about Borut Brumen? He died quite young. He was an amazing person. In 1990, I bought a car from him so that’s how I got to know him. Then I went to an ethnographic camp and he was the leader of this camp, so I got to know him better. When Metelkova was squatted in 1993, he called me on the phone to see if I wanted to join the squat. I was a university student at the time. I couldn’t come that night, but I came a couple weeks later; squatting continued for years, of course.
It was really difficult to survive at Metelkova at the beginning. There was no electricity or water – not because there was no water and electricity initially but because the city of Ljubljana cut these off in order to win the fight over the place. It is a huge place in the center of the town, and it seemed that the city would prefer commercial use over an autonomous cultural setting. At the beginning people were living there to establish the place as a squatted place with its own autonomy. Nowadays cultural, educational, social and other activities are taking place there, but no one lives there any more. Unfortunately for the younger generation, it is just a place of fun and excessive drinking. Therefore one part inside Metelkova is called the Square without Historical Memory (Trg brez zgodovinskega spomina), because many people have obviously not grasped the conceptual and historical meaning of the place.
Did you think about living there?
I slept over a couple times. Maybe if I didn’t have a place to live, probably I would have stayed there. But it was not so easy. No electricity, no water. You had to figure out your own way to shower, to cook. We had to sit in meetings with candles. At the beginning it was fun, but after a while it was annoying. By 1996 or 1997, it was already a good place with electricity, water, and everything. It was full of activities for each day.
Where did you develop your political ideas or philosophy? Obviously your parents had different beliefs?
My parents had influence, but in a different way. They wanted to teach me about justice, about the need to fight for what you believe in, fight for your rights. But what is right and wrong, we had different ideas.
Because of your age, you’re in a special generation. You’re the first generation that was post-Yugoslav in many ways. Did you realize that you were a special generation?
We didn’t think of ourselves in that way. We were just happy to have Metelkova. My friends and I say sometimes that if we didn’t have Metelkova in Slovenia, probably a lot of people would have emigrated. I would have thought about doing this.
It might seem like a marginal thing, to have a culturally autonomous place in the middle of Ljubljana. But it was the main thing for the people who created this. What would Ljubljana have been without Metelkova in the 1990s, we sometimes ask ourselves? In this sense, we were thinking that we were lucky. We didn’t think we were special because we had experiences of socialism and neo-liberalism and could compare the two.
Did you have friends who went off on the non-Metelkova path and did you have arguments with them about that?
Oh no, I would never confront people like that. I went to university in the faculty of social work. Social work is also marginalized and looked down upon. If I went to some prestigious faculty like law or economics, it is possible that I would have had arguments. In my faculty it seems that people can accept other ways of living.
Also, at the university, we talked a lot about feminism. This was also something against the mainstream at that time. It fit well into my mental world. One of the first rights that the new government wanted to cut was the right to an abortion. This right — that a woman could choose for herself — is written in the Slovene constitution. Already in 1991, the government wanted to cut this. There was a big rally. We were quite active in preparing this pro-choice rally.
Then there was the war in Bosnia. And we were thinking about how to show our anger about this. But we were not successful. We tried to do some public things, but it was marginal. It would have been better to go to the refugee centers and develop some relationship with refugees, which we didn’t do.
During this period, how did you and the people at Metelkova think about Yugoslavia as a concept?
I don’t remember exactly. Around the time of the plebiscite, I didn’t have an opinion, I didn’t know whether to think the plebiscite was good or not. I was 19. My friends thought that it was a real pity that Slovenia would become independent. With the war in Bosnia, it became clear that independence was not such a good idea. Especially when state borders changed and this had drastic consequences for the lives of many people. They became constrained in their movements or oppressed as non-citizens inside the new state.
Also there would be no Erased if the country had stayed together.
How did you first get involved in the Erased issue?
Along with Brumen and other people at Metelkova, we were angry that the borders were closed and that asylum seekers were being terrorized and put in detention centers. Slovenia was becoming part of the Schengen system, so this oppression became more and more normalized. Every day there was news about how many “illegals” were caught by the border police, detained or deported. I felt terrible about this. I felt that we should be supporting migrants and refugees, not oppressing them. So, we tried to organize something about this.
I decided to do my Ph.d on issues pertaining to the asylum system, including detention centers. I was doing ethnographic research, meaning that I got involved with people whom I met at the asylum home and the detention center. When I first came to the detention center, well, I had some problems. The head of detention didn’t say, “Welcome, please do interviews!” They didn’t want me there.
When I first came to the detention center, the social worker asked me, “Who do you want to interview? Our foreigners or foreigner foreigners?” And I said, “What do you mean, our foreigners?” Then she introduced me to four people who actually spoke Slovene or Serbo-Croatian. I didn’t understand what was going on.
I got sick due to the stress I experienced in this mad situation. I had a temperature all the time. It is also true that I was stressed because I was worried that I would lose my job if I didn’t do the research within a certain period of time.
One of the first of erased persons I met during my research in detention centre said to me, “They are sending me to Montenegro. I was Erased. Look at these papers. I’m a sportsman. I ran a club here in Slovenia. Now they want to send me back to Montenegro!” The scene was really terrible at the detention center. Some people there were on medication – no wonder. I had coffee with one man, and I asked him how I could help him. “You can cry with me,” he said. This shows a state of resignation, that they had nothing to hope for. They told me, “We worked here for years. We gave our best years here. Now, look where we are? Six beds to one room.”
I also had a friend living here from Croatia. She had a terrible problem getting papers. She was not a refugee. She just wanted to move here for personal reasons. I helped her with the papers. This took five or six years! She moved to Slovenia in 1997, and she got Slovene citizenship last year (in 2012). This was such a struggle. She’s very good at describing her feelings. Through her, I got to know how it is to come here from ex-Yugoslavia how people were treated administratively and what consequences this had for their life. She could best integrate into Metelkova. All other places and scenes were full of obstacles (of an administrative or emotional nature, such as prejudice). .
Her experience helped me to understand the situation of the undocumented in general, among them the Erased.
During the research period I met Aleksandar Todorović, the initiator of the movement of the Erased, at a round table on European integration. Instead of talking about integration, I took “border” as a departure point. Some of the asylum seekers attended the round table with me, and we were talking about the conditions at the asylum home and detention center. That’s when I met Aleksandar Todorovic, who could immediately link their stories with his own.
One of the problems was also that 10 years after the Erasure still nobody knew about it. Only the movement of the Erased changed this cultural anesthesia and ignorance. The good thing was that Jasminka Dedić and myself got a Soros grant for research. We both applied for the same topic – exclusion from citizenship status. Jasminka worked on the legal side and I did interviews.
Also we felt a strong need and obligation to tell the wider public about the Erasure. The silence surrounding the erasure was terrible. One woman said to me that she tried to explain her situation to her friend one time, two times, three times, but her friend didn’t understand and at the end of the day “thought it was my fault.”
Somehow we had to let the public know. We tried to do as many roundtables as possible. The anti-racist community gathered around Metelkova immediately understood and started to act on issue. And so the movement began.
The word Erased – izbrisani — where did it come from?
First it was a technical term. The Erased went to the municipality office and they were told, “You are no longer here. You are erased.” It was an administrative term.
Then when Alexandsar Todorovic wanted to register his NGO, he was trying to come up with a name. He was very clever. He chose Erased Residents of Slovenia. It was a brilliant move. Because the term is really shocking. The Erased took it for themselves and changed the meaning of the word completely. It became a term of resistance and courage. To identify yourself as Erased, it means that you want to reveal the conditions of the Erasure, racism and xenophobia. So saying that you’re Erased became a very powerful statement in 2002 and 2003. People were really brave to publicly identify as the Erased. Initially the Erased were looked upon as the worst criminals ever. Because they didn’t take or get Slovenian citizenship, they were treated as criminals, aggressors.
What year did you begin your ethnographic research?
It was 2000-2001.
What’s incredible is that’s almost a decade after the Erasure!
It was on the tenth anniversary of the Erasure that Aleksandar Todorovic established an organization of Erased residents. It was a clever choice of dates. That was February 26, 2002. Each year since then there have been activities, hunger strikes, round tables, books issued, declarations written, films presented, plays performed, and so on.
The Erasure took place at an administrative level. But then, for a decade, it was also erased from the public scene. For a decade, nobody knew anything. It’s quite remarkable that in a small country like Slovenia something like this could remain hidden for a decade.
When we started to tell students that they had to make interviews with Erased persons, they said, “But we don’t know any Erased people!” In the end, though, it turned out that everyone did know someone. This shows the level of oppression. If the Erased weren’t so oppressed, they could have gone out and talked about their situation and journalists could have written about it. But there was such a heavy sense of oppression. Not everybody who experienced the Erasure wanted to talk about it. Some people believed that talking about it would make it worse.
Marko Hren told me that he was astounded that no journalist had gone to read the secret police archives until recently. There’s a legal case now involving a journalist who tried to gain access. If you add these two things together, the lack of interest in the archives and the 10 years during which the Erased were not the subject of conversation or journalistic investigation, there seems to be almost a willful amnesia about that time. People were focused on joining Europe, economic reform, leaving behind everything associated with former Yugoslavia.
Yes, you could say this.
One of the first challenges for the Movement was to determine how many people the term applied to.
The ministry first gave the figure of 18,000. Later on they said 25,000. This is one percent of the population in Slovenia. It also adds to what we said before that it’s amazing that it wasn’t discovered earlier because it was so many people. It is true that many people moved away. If they moved away, they couldn’t tell people here anything.
Do you think that today most Slovenians know about the issue and are sympathetic?
Yes, I think everyone knows about the Erased. Those that are more nationalistic still believe that the Erased are the enemies of the nation and of the state and that they only want compensation. But most people who have at least a little bit of interest know what happened and are sympathetic to their movement, to their resistance. I guess now the issue of compensation will come into focus.
Yesterday I typed the word “izbrisani” into Google, and you know what I got? A law firm, totally commercial: “Are you Erased? Do you want compensation? No fees to pay for procedures.” It seems this will become quite a business.
But I didn’t hear a lot on television or in the newspapers about compensation. They will probably do it quietly. People will otherwise get very angry about the amount of money that the government has to pay the Erased. .
Those who were really responsible for the Erasure, they will continue to enjoy their lives. They have their own resources. They are still known as distinguished persons. They did a lot for the independence of Slovenia. They are heroes. The question of responsibility will have to be addressed, sooner or later. It will not be possible to give compensation without someone asking, “Why do we have to pay this compensation? Are we all equally responsible?” Yes, in a way, because everyone supported it; but in a way no, because those in power are legally responsible.
You were involved in this issue for a decade.
I have small children now and really lack time to do anything. Also currently I don’t feel the need to be involved. The situation has changed, many people are now involved, the movement of the Erased is effective. Back then, I felt a need because nobody knew about it.
It’s very unusual for an academic doing research to realize that your research has immediate effect.
In 2003 when our first book on the Erasure was published, we thought that something radical would happen. But you know what? Nothing happened. Except that politicians grabbed the topic and misused it in official politics for their own promotional purposes.
Perhaps it didn’t change immediately at the high political level. But now the public knows about it. And now the government has to deal with it after the European court decision.
My friend Ursula Lipovec Cebron and her ex-partner found the lawyer in Italy to do the lawsuit pro bono. The complaint was filed in 2006. Then, this summer (in 2012) came the final decision in favor of the Erased, and also that compensation has to be paid. This was big news! Now, I think that the government stepped back a bit when it realized that it had to do something. It cannot continue its mantra that the Erasure never happened.
We talked at the beginning about the economic changes taking place here in Slovenia. Can you give me some examples?
Our salaries have been lowered by 8 percent at the university. This has been the case for the whole public sector, and also other cuts in the public sector took place. The quality and quantity of the public services have been jeopardized. What will happen to public schools and kindergartens? Also, people cannot find paid employment. I say “paid” because there is a lot of work that needs to be done, but nobody is willing to pay for it. For example, my partner has his Ph.d and he publishes quite a lot. But this money from publishing is really miserable. Without my parent’s help, we would be on the edge of starving.
Another example is subsidized food in schools. Before, more parents got subsidized food for their children in school. If they were poor, their children could eat in school. Now, because of the census, the definition of who is entitled changed. A lot of children, whose parents can’t afford to pay bills, their food will not be subsidized. So, children will go hungry?
People who were over 65 and met other criteria, if they didn’t have a pension from their own salary, they could get a state pension. The government totally cut off these pensions. They don’t exist any more. People can apply for social assistance. But social assistance is something you have to pay back. But because you are old, maybe you can’t pay it back. So your children will have to pay it back.
It’s a loan? And your children are responsible for paying it back after you die?
Yes. The government can sit on your children’s property. Imagine, elderly people will think twice about asking for social assistance since the government could sit on the property that they want to leave to their children.
The Erasure was just a preparation for everything. The Erased went without their rights, and now the wider population has come under the same logic.
Do you see any social movements working on these issues?
The Occupy movement here was quite recognized and positively accepted by the public. Currently – in December 2012 – all of Slovenia is up in arms: everywhere there are demonstrations, even in small towns.
Ljubljana, October 18, 2012
ON THE ERASED
In 1992, the newly independent Republic of Slovenia erased from the register of permanent residence 18,305 inhabitants (1% of the population) that until then had enjoyed full citizenship rights. Prior to 1991 these persons had been internal immigrants and citizens of the former Yugoslavia. After the secession from the federal state these persons did not became Slovene citizens. The punishment for not becoming Slovene citizens followed: by erasure from the register of permanent residents they were transformed into “illegal” person and deprived of basic human, social, and political rights. Without being notified, the Erased lost their jobs, pensions, health insurances, the right to purchase an apartment (in the period of property rights’ transition), and lived in constant fear of being deported. Many of the Erased were deported or left the country understanding that there is no future for persons with “wrong” ethnic belonging in the newly established “democratic” state. The majority of the Erased persisted in Slovenia, subjugated to everyday humiliations and arbitrariness of the police and other state or local officials.
Together with the Erased, we have been politically quite active in the last six years, since the establishment of the first Association of Erased Residents in Slovenia. I should mention one of our most interesting events, the Caravan of the Erased. This Caravan’s final destination was the European Parliament. Thus the Erased answered a call of European parliamentarians to inscribe the experience of exclusion and denial of citizenship rights on the agenda of the most acute European problems. The Caravan, comprised of more then 40 people, traveled by bus through Italy and France to its final destination in Brussels.
Firstly, in November 2006,the Caravan was invited to the Italian Regional Parliament (Venezia Giulia province) in Trieste,. Then we went to Monfalcone where we were received by the shipyard workers of the Italian Trade Union FIOM. In Paris we were invited to the French Parliament to present our case at the press conference organized together with the left wing MPs and Sans Papiers movement. We also shared our views with the Group of lawyers at the GISTI. At our final destination in Brussels we presented the issue of the erasure at the press conference and to the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). Also Franco Frattini received a small delegation of the Erased and promised a thorough investigation into the issue.
This Caravan was meant as political support to a collective lawsuit with the European Court of Human rights. The collective lawsuit prepared by the Italian law firm Anton Giuglio Lana, is based on the case of 11 persons who are still without any legal status in Slovenia and consequently barely able to get by. Unfortunately, one of them recently died.
Together with a friend, Uršula Lipovec Čebron, we are currently editing a Slovenian volume on the issue (Once upon an Erasure) that includes people active in the struggle, and not just academic perspective. For my contribution, I went to the archives of the Slovenian parliament and read the transcripts from when they were adopting the first law on citizenship. I wanted to look at their arguments. They were asking what would happen if not everyone received citizenship, so they knew what they were doing. Other articles in the volume will look at the health situation, the constitutional law proposal, the current media discourse, etc.
Generally there is no discussion here in Slovenia of the erasure, except for two moments – around the discussions of the draft constitutional law and around the anniversary of the erasure. The anniversary is something the Erased themselves initiated. It began for the first time in 2002. Each year, on February 26, there is a week of activities, and the media does cover these events.
For this anniversary week, my students were involved. Each student conducted three interviews with the Erased. We worked together for 5-6 months. I asked what human rights and citizenship rights meant for them. At the end of the semester they described how their opinion of the erasure changed and what they learned about issues pertaining to human rights. Everyone knew the word “erasure.” But they thought simply that these are people who want something. They didn’t understand the content. Afterwards, they wondered how the erasure could possibly have happened and how it was possible that they hadn’t known about this issue. They were somehow shocked by this gap. Nowadays they can understand the Erased and the need for constant research in human rights issues. They were touched by the stories of their interviewees. The students decided they had to fight with them and argue on their behalf. They talked to other students, friends and families, and organized a powerful event at our Faculty.
Now we have this for-and-against debate, which reduces the issue to sort of a competition contest. But a lot of people were involved in oppressing the Erased. And the issue is connected to other oppressions as well. Much broader questions should be answered –for example, why people performed this abuse and why so many participated in it. This issue of responsibility is not being addressed. If the state made this mistake, then they have to remedy it. But, then, who is responsible? If there is compensation to be paid, the taxpayers will want to know the answer to this question. Right now, many people don’t want to see Slovenian independence compromised. It is celebrated as a great moment in national history – therefore the government would rather solve the issue quietly. Or, if they could politically extract some political gain from the fierce discussion, they would lead it at the expense of the Erased.
In a symbolic sense, the Erased represent a piece of Yugoslavia that some would like to get rid of here in Slovenia. The main argument against the Erased was that they were not loyal to the Slovene state or nation, that they didn’t believe in Slovenia, that they preferred Yugoslavia, etc. And this was how they were punished.
ON THE ROMA
There have been a couple events here in Slovenia that escalated. For instance, some non-Roma parents in one Roma settlement outside of Ljubljana wanted the children segregated at school because they said that the quality of education for their children was not as good. In another case, a mob expelled a Roma family, the Strojans, from their home and the police intervened to protect the family. The government resettled the family in a refugee camp in another part of the country. No community has accepted them, so they are staying in houses provided by the Ministry of Defense in Ljubljana.
Roma are totally excluded from public life, and obviously their segregation and expulsion (demanded by the mob) is allowed in Slovenia.
The first thing that comes to mind when I heard the word “balkanization” is Maria Todorova’s book, Imagining the Balkans, and her argument that “balkanization” is a kind of simplified, stereotyped concept of the Balkans.
For students here in Slovenia, they have some exotic images and perceptions of the Balkans. Bosnia, Kosovo – these are regions of the former Yugoslavia and places they do not know. They think it’s really interesting to go there. They sometimes consider this area in exotic terms – in connection to music, food, holidays etc. On the other hand, the Balkans are often considered here in hierarchical terms, as something less than Slovenia – because of the war, because of the negative stereotypes present when Slovenia became an independent state. I don’t know if people here would consider Slovenia part of the Balkans. When Slovenia was becoming an independent state, it was definitely considered the opposite of the Balkans.