03/11/2013 09:00 am ET Updated May 11, 2013

Becoming Erased

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

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?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.