National Geographic grantee Riley Arthur is documenting the Erased of Slovenia- 200,000 non-ethnic Slovenian residents who were not automatically granted citizenship after the country split from Yugoslavia in 1991. A decade later, the community is still fighting for documentation. These stories are about the Erased and the places they live.
Expedition Journal: Izbrisani
I was invited to be a guest speaker at a conference called Generation Peace: New Media Technologies for Central Asia, in Issky Kul, Kyrgyzstan. While I was reluctant to halt my research for a week in the middle of my fieldwork, I was eager to learn about Kyrgyzstan. I had never been to Asia before. Upon arrival, those whom I met were more than puzzled that it would be Kyrgyzstan to lure me there.
I was eager to compare the young men and women from the region, who were relatively young when the Soviet Union broke up, to my friends of the same age in Slovenia, who had also experienced their countries independency at a young age. Each evening there was a culture performance of some kind, which led way to familiar songs being sung by the conference attendees.
At first I thought they must be popular songs from the region, but then I realized that only those over the age of thirty were singing. These were Soviet era propaganda songs and those who sung were nostalgic. The younger attendees didn’t know the songs, and showed little sentimentality for their recent history as they looked indifferently at the singing elders.
In Slovenia, many of the Yugoslavian songs are still widely known and sung. While Slovenes are quite reminiscent as a whole, there were several people I met who still identify as Yugoslavian. This was the case with many of the Erased I interviewed — some of whom still use the word “genocide” to describe their loss of identity.
Many young Slovene citizens, who were toddlers when Slovenia seceded, discussed their Yugoslavian identity. They sometimes spoke longingly of a Yugoslavia- nostalgia they no doubt acquired through stories rather than first hand experiences.
The conference was co-sponsored by the local Fulbright Alumni chapter and the US Embassy of Bishkek. I had prepared my lecture, but was thrown by seeing my slides now in Cyrillic.
As I spoke, my lecture was translated into Russian simultaneously. The conference was open to journalists, students, activists, and local NGOs of Central Asia. The attendees came from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Several hopefuls from Uzbekistan were unable to acquire visas. These were some of the nicest people I met. Many spoke excellent English, were well educated, worldly, and eager to take their learnings back to their respective organizations. Many had studied in America on Fulbright Scholarships. They were interested to hear about my fieldwork and proposed future research topics in their region.
Issyk-Kul is the second largest mountain lake and second largest saline lake in the world. In the warmer months it is a popular destination for those who seek relief from the desert heat. The lake’s volcanic sand is said to have therapeutic properties, swimming in the waters supposedly reduces radiation levels in the body. There must be something to that, because former residents of Chernobyl frequent the lake. Regretfully, I only managed to brave the waters ankle deep, as it was quite cold when I was there.
On the final day of the conference we were taken to a migrant eagle hunting demonstration. These were not actors; these migrant eagle hunters do not typically show their skills for an audience.
First, a group of ten or fifteen men on horses played a game that consisted of trying to ride to the opposite team’s side and throw a dead sheep into their goal basin. Think football. An opponent can tackle you, but on galloping horseback where the horses are as liable to buck their riders as the opponents are to push them off their horses in an effort to grab the aforementioned “ball,” which is a decapitated black sheep.
Next, the horsemen displayed their precision by running at a full gallop, bending down from the moving horse, and skillfully picking up a dollar bill.
Finally, the eagle and hawk hunting commenced. The birds proved lethal to the unfortunate pigeon and rabbit that stood no real chance. I was impressed by the relationship between the eagle and his master. As the eagle began to feast on the rabbit, it knew to drop certain organs into its trainer’s hand, who set them aside. The liver and other organs are toxic to eagles so it was trained to avoid everything but the meat and bones.
My trip to Kyrgyzstan was brief, and had I not had my work to return to, I would have been tempted to extend my trip. Newly independent countries– countries that were once part of a larger country– fascinate me. Learning more about Central Asia, its history and peoples share interesting parallels to those I’ve met and studied in the Balkans. I will return to Central Asia, but first I must finish what I began here in Slovenia.