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Covering a Desperately Long Walk Through a Small Slovenian Town

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Anka Vucajnk, 32, stands at the edge of her property in Rigonce, Slovenia, with her 18-month-old son, Lovro, as migrants walk past. Her family's home abuts the field where the migrants were being held.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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