• November 23, 2015

Covering a Desperately Long Walk Through a Small Slovenian Town

Ciril Jazbec

As a flood of refugees and migrants pours into Europe from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, photographers from all over the world have converged to document their journeys. Slovenian photographer Ciril Jazbec was initially drawn to the Serbia-Croatia border to document the crisis, but then decided to turn his lens on his own country.

In mid-October he traveled to the small village of Rigonce, Slovenia, where tens of thousands of refugees funneled through the town—population 176—over the course of about ten days. After photographing the story for National Geographic News, Jazbec here shares his experience as a Slovenian, a journalist, and a witness to history in the making.—Mallory Benedict, Assistant Photo Editor, News

Picture from Ciril Jazbec's story on refugees
Refugees and migrants wait for the bus at Camp Opatovac in Croatia. Jazbec was inspired to turn his lens on his own country, Slovenia, after photographing refugees at the Serbia-Croatia border.

I had never thought or imagined that I would be doing a story involving war refugees on my own doorstep. I had been following reports on Syria and the tragedies in the Mediterranean, where hundreds of refugees drowned after their boats sank. In the past few months, however, the wave of Syrian refugees took a different course: across the Balkans; through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia; and now into Slovenia, my homeland.

Picture from Ciril Jazbec's story on refugees
Young men wait in Serbia before entering Croatia.

In September I traveled from my hometown of Naklo, Slovenia, to document the situation on the Serbia-Croatia border. I was shocked by the first scene I witnessed: a pregnant woman, visibly exhausted, with her husband and child hurrying alongside a train. Only later that day did I begin to realize the horrible reality and scale of it all. Every day, hundreds of buses arrived at the border, full of people from different countries—from Syria to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

Picture from Ciril Jazbec's story on refugees
A resident sweeps her driveway as she watches refugees walk down the main street in Rigonce, Slovenia.

A few weeks later a new wave of refugees hit Slovenia after Hungary closed its borders. In a single day, over 13,000 people would enter my country. A colleague and I traveled to the village of Rigonce, which is about 93 miles from my hometown.

The scenes were shocking—as if from another planet. The village that was once declared the most beautiful in the Brežice municipality, a village where people tend their farms, raise livestock, and lead peaceful lives, was suddenly faced with a massive influx of refugees.

Picture from Ciril Jazbec's story on refugees
Migrants and refugees sit by fires fueled by found items, such as trash and discarded clothing, to keep warm in a camp in Rigonce.

At the camps, refugees made fires with whatever was at hand—trash, plastic, tree branches, and clothes discarded by previous groups. I walked around the families, sat down at the fires and watched these faces from faraway lands now gathered in this tiny country underneath the Alps. The fire colored and warmed their faces, bringing to my mind scenes from Bethlehem.

It’s impossible to understand the refugee crisis from the safety of one’s home—the images seem so foreign and distant. When you find yourself, as a reporter, among the cold, exhausted people and their children, you’re simply a human being touched by the suffering.

Picture from Ciril Jazbec's story on refugees
Left: Antonija Ogorelec, a resident of Rigonce, was overwhelmed by memories as she watched refugees walk through her town. She was 20 years old when she was a refugee taken to a labor camp in Germany during World War II.

Right: A young refugee is seen while passing through Rigonce.

After the first few days, I started asking myself how the villagers of Rigonce must feel—being on the front lines of a wave of refugees and migrants. I started stopping villagers and, after talking to them, acquired a new perspective on the issue: how the refugee crisis was experienced by Europeans.

I took portraits of the people of Rigonce in front of their houses and listened to their side of the story. Some of them were living in fear and barely sleeping at night as helicopters flew over their roofs in constant search for the refugees. Others were unable to go to school or work, as the road was closed and flooded by people.

Picture from Ciril Jazbec's story on refugees
Left: A limping refugee mother and her son were unable to keep up with the rest of the group and fell behind. Jazbec carried the young boy’s heavy backpack until the family was eventually picked up in a car by a volunteer in Rigonce.

Right: Tina and Antonio Vogrinec and Monika Kocbek stand behind a fence in Rigonce. “We are victims of this. We can’t sleep at night because of the helicopters,” said Kocbek (right). Antonio, 12, said he was unable to go to school for three days because the roads were closed.

These are moments when I don’t tend to concern myself with ideological and political questions—I simply try to document everything in a consistent manner. This was definitely a case of contrasting cultures, religions, and customs, which will demand a lot of work and a joint effort between European countries to provide satisfactory conditions for the refugees.

Picture from Ciril Jazbec's story on refugees
A group of newly arrived migrants plays soccer in the early morning, despite the cold and foggy weather in Rigonce.

I experienced the migrant wave firsthand as a journalist among the frightened and the exhausted, surrounded by the smell of burning plastic in the cold nights. I was pleasantly surprised by Syrians whose gratefulness, friendliness, and kind-heartedness were immediately apparent in their words as well as in their eyes. I was also surprised by the people of Rigonce, many of whom were very understanding and trying to help as well as they could. However, I certainly understand their fear and unease as the masses of thousands rolled through the village, leaving trash in their wake.

Picture from Ciril Jazbec's story on refugees
Left: Villagers from Rigonce tried to keep the road clean, as every group of refugees left trash behind them, causing worry about the spread of possible disease and illness.

Right: Dalia, Mohnad, and their dog, Ivo, walk through fields toward Dobovo, Slovenia. They were forced to flee from their home in Iraq, where they worked as journalists for the television station Al Sharqiya. Since leaving Iraq, they’ve passed through six countries.

After I had spent a week documenting the refugee crisis on the Slovenia-Croatia border, the Schengen border rules were finally changed. Instead of walking through Rigonce and waiting for hours, the refugees would be taken into Slovenia by train. At that time I felt it was time for me to go home, as I needed to rest and think. My return was difficult and emotional, as I was quite shaken by the whole situation—I felt disappointed by, and angry at, those responsible for all the hardships and injustices.

Picture from Ciril Jazbec's story on refugees
Refugees entertain a child as they walk through Rigonce.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to pack your life in a suitcase or backpack and leave on such a long and arduous journey. I keep updated on the refugee crisis and hope I soon get a chance to document how the families who had gone through Rigonce and my home country are doing in northern Europe.

Picture from Ciril Jazbec's story on refugees
Police take one of the last groups of refugees from Rigonce to the nearby camp of Botovo via bus. The following day the Slovenian government made an agreement with Croatia to start taking refugees to Slovenia by train, so the migrants no longer had to walk.

Ciril Jazbec was born in Slovenia in 1987. See more of his work on his website and Instagram.

More from Ciril Jazbec on National Geographic:
What’s It Like to Have Refugees Stream Into Your Town?
How Melting Ice Changes One Country’s Way of Life
Ciril Jazbec’s Cinema on Ice

There are 8 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Celia
    December 2, 2015

    Thank you for these photos – in Australia we are not exposed to seeing this….the more I know of the world the less I understand

  2. RisingBD
    November 30, 2015

    Let there be light…

  3. James
    November 29, 2015

    Wonderful photography demonstrating the human crisis unfolding upon us all.
    People are well dressed; After all if you escape what these folk are fleeing you would be unlikely to select your most worn out clothing. Wear what will be most useful to you in the future.

  4. Lê Đại Dương
    November 27, 2015

    Fabulous and real pictures, thank you so much. Help me deeply understand the current situations in these countries.

  5. witahana
    November 26, 2015

    it’s heart wrenching, especially women & children refugees. but what can we do? the decision is on the EU government. we as ordinary residents just can help for standard needed such as foods and clothes

  6. Olga Blacanin
    November 26, 2015

    These are amazing pictures. You are doing important work. Keep it up.

  7. Kyle
    November 26, 2015

    The people in these pictures appear as clean, well fed, well dressed and healthy as anyone I would see on the streets of my town.

  8. Silas S
    November 23, 2015

    Your pictures convey truths about displacement, dignity, and responsibility.

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