LJUBLJANA, Slovenia - Slovenia is the jewel of the former Yugoslavia. Wealthy, developed, beautiful.
It emerged unscathed from the terrible violence and destruction that marked the end of Communist Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Slovenia lies in the shadows of the Alps, on Austria's southern border. A nation of just 2 million, it is one of the best-kept secrets in Europe, offering a great quality of life, if your government recognizes that you exist.
When Slovenia became an independent nation in 1991, about 200,000 non-Slovenians who were legal residents during the Yugoslav period, Bosnians, Serbians, Croatians and others, had to reapply for residency in the new independent Republic of Slovenia.
The 'Living Dead'
For many reasons, about 30,000 did not or could not reapply, and their legal status was erased from books. Some 5,000 of this group immediately left the country. The rest who stayed lived as illegal aliens.
They are known as The Erased. And after almost two decades, thousands still do not officially exist.
Some of the Erased have referred to themselves as 'the living dead.' They had no jobs, no pensions, no apartment, no medical care, no passport, and no nation.
"I was left without my apartment, health insurance, without everything. I was sleeping in basements, abandoned cars, parks," one of the "erased" Irfan Beširevic, told CBN News.
Beširevic, a Bosnian by birth, was in a coma and recovering from a bad accident during the period when he was supposed to apply for Slovenian residency. His old identity card was destroyed by a Slovenian official.
"She asked me if I had an ID card, and at that time my ID card was valid for the next 10 years," he explained. "She took it, perforated it and told me that I was erased from the register of permanent residents in the Republic of Slovenia."
A Great Deception
Nisveta Lovec, also a Bosnian by birth, didn't think she had to worry about applying for residency. After all, she was married to a Slovenian and her children were Slovenian. She would be terribly wrong.
"Everything turned upside down," Lovec said. "That's when the worst suffering in my life started. Something that I never thought I would experience."
Not only did Lovec lose her legal status, but her fourth child did as well.
Matevz Krivic is a former Slovenian Constitutional Court justice who now works full time on what he calls the illegal erasure of tens of thousands of people.
"Most of them lost the chance for a normal life, to earn a living, to raise children, to search for a job," Krivic said.
Cleansing without Guns
Krivic is a frustrated man working on an unpopular cause. The Erased have been cast as freeloaders or enemies from other Yugoslav republics like Serbia. And the public has shown little sympathy for their plight.
"It was a great deception of the population," Krivic said. "The population was and still is misled by the politicians of Slovenia, intentionally presenting them as this mass of people, 20 to 25,000 people as the enemies of Slovenia."
Among those without sympathy for the Erased is the president of the right-wing Slovenian National Party, Zmago Jelincicz.
"Actually there are no 'Erased.' There are people who tried to get an economic advantage for a better life," Jelincicz told CBN News. "People trying to avoid this or that. and a lot of criminals among them. They are not victims. The victim is the state and law abiding citizens."
Krivic says opposition to the Erased is fueled by "xenophobia and nothing more." He calls it ethnic cleansing without guns, and believes some of the Erased died because they were denied homes and medical care.
Irfan Beširevic, no longer able to provide for his family, saw his personal life disintegrate. His wife divorced him over his failure to be able to provide.
"I lost my family because I was embarrassed to look into my child's eyes as I had nothing to offer to him," he said.
"It is very hard to prove that your life has been taken from you, that you have the right to have your ID card which you no longer have," Nisveta Lovec said. "You had all documents in order and now you don't exist."
It's believed there are still some 4,000 erased persons living in Slovenia. It has become a political football by right and left.
Krivic, after years of battling the system, does not believe very many of the Erased will ever see justice.
*Originally published December 15, 2009