Living in a tomb

February 12, 2013

Nis, Serbia

By Marko Djurica

Although graves are for the dead and not for the living, a man in Serbia’s southern city of Nis has chosen a tomb to live in.

Bratislav Stojanovic, 43, a Nis-born construction worker never had a regular job. He first lived in abandoned houses, but about 15 years ago he settled in the old city cemetery. Stojanovic says homeless life is difficult and that everything he owns and needs he finds in garbage containers and on the streets. He does not have much, but highly values whatever little he has.

“As other homeless people robbed me on several occasions, I’ve decided to find a place where no one would bother me, not even police,” he said.

Stojanovic said that the idea of the graveyard as a place to settle crossed his mind as he frequently collected candles to use in abandoned homes where he lived. While looking for candles he discovered the old cemetery where the last burial was held about three decades ago.

“I first slept in the open, but as it was cold I have decided to enter an open tomb. The concrete slab was open so I went in,” he said.

I asked him to show me his way of life. He first looked around for candles for the night, complaining that people aren’t visiting the graveyard as often as they used to, and that candles are getting difficult to find. “There’s also another woman, also a bum, who steals candles when I am not around.” Shortly afterwards he found three half-burned candles “that would do for the night.”
Stojanovic invited me to enter his underground home if I was not afraid. I had that awkward feeling. I have seen various things during my career, but it’s not very common for anyone to enter an open grave.

We squeezed ourselves through a small opening and inside I saw a concrete tomb with an area of less than two square yards and slightly more than a yard high. It was filled with garbage. Stojanovic showed me a makeshift bed he made from old mats. My overall feeling was not that I was in a grave, more like a concrete cell of sort. I started snapping photos.

“I am sorry, the place is a mess. I didn’t have time to clean it up,” Stojanovic apologized. Stojanovic’s mother whom he last saw six years ago, left him when he was a child. She has her own family now. His father died four years ago. It was raining last time when Stojanovic thought to visit him so he decided against that. Stojanovic is a lonely man. “I had a friend who also lived at the cemetery, but he left as his grave was damp.”

We went to downtown Nis to forage for food. He explained that the winter is a good time for food as many Serbs celebrate patron saints this time of the year. Stojanovic found a bag of stale cabbage salad. “Is that safe to eat,” I asked. “Oh, yes, but only from the center of the lump,” he replied.

During our walk Stojanovic, a chain-smoker, picked up cigarette butts and I thought I would have a smoker in each photo. “I have no major health issues, only tooth-aches. When it hurts I take some painkillers I begged for sometime ago and wait until the tooth falls out.”

Stojanovic is proud he is not a beggar. He finds everything on the street. The last time he had a bath was in the summer in a pond near Nis. “I feel clean when I find a new piece of clothing,” he said.

The main church is his favorite place to go after he completes his foraging for food. He never entered the church, but loves to watch people going in. “When someone I like enters the church I count the time he spends inside, no one spends more than half an hour, most often a couple of minutes.” On our way back, we passed several boutiques. Stojanovic loves window-shopping although he has no money. He smiled at the sight of a boutique for women.

“I had a girlfriend, also homeless, but “she’s gone,” he said. “Gone where,” I asked him. “She died, but it is nicer to say that she’s gone,” he said.

Stojanovic says he does not know the names of his “landlords” as the letters chiseled in the gravestone faded.

“I was afraid in the beginning, but I got used to it in time. Now I am more afraid of the living than of the dead.” Stojanovic wants to travel to Belgrade in March if he finds enough money for a ticket. He needs to go to the court. We ended our day together back in the grave where the atmosphere was truly bizarre. It was pitch black outside and there was a man with candles in an open grave.

“Whenever I want to crawl out I first check if there’s someone around, otherwise I could scare a person to death,” Stojanovic said.

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