Photograph by Léopold Lambert

Bregana: A River Runs Through It

A report from the Walls of Fortress Schengen.


Bregana is a Croatian town of 2,500 inhabitants, situated in the Western part of Zagreb County. Its neighboring town, Obrežje, is even smaller, counting only 720 inhabitants. At first sight, nothing distinguishes the two towns from one another. However, Obrežje happens to be in Slovenia, and the narrow river that separates it from its neighbor delineates one of the most tightly monitored borders in the world: the boundary of the Schengen space. Both Slovenia and Croatia are members of the European Union — since 2004 and 2013, respectively — but Croatia has not yet been approved as a member of the Schengen space, which makes it a threshold of “Fortress Europe,” alongside Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus, sharing the same intermediary status.

Of course, the border itself is not new. In fact, for a portion of World War II, the two towns were at the intersection of three borders: the so-called “Independent State of Croatia” (a puppet state created by Nazi Germany), the Northern part of Slovenia, occupied by the German army, and its Southern part, occupied by the Italian army. After the war, the Socialist Republics of Slovenia and Croatia became part of the Yugoslav Federation — a territory with easily crossable internal borders — while operating as distinct entities. When both declared their independence in 1991, Slovenia suffered ‘only’ ten days of war with Slobodan Milošević’s army, while Croatia spent four years fighting Serbian aggression. These divergent experiences increased the symbolical width of the small river separating Obrežje and Bregana.

Slovenian side of Samoborska street in Obrežje

The Slovenian side of Samoborska street, Obrežje

Driving along the highway from Ljubljana to Zagreb, one has to cross the imposing border checkpoint separating the Obrežje and Bregana municipal territories, but as so often on highways, one doesn’t see much of the towns themselves. It is only when taking side roads that one realizes the quasi-seismic split constituted by the border. There is a smaller border checkpoint in Obrežje that allows local vehicles to pass from one territory to the other without taking the highway.

Much of the area’s peculiarity is concentrated in Samoborska street, which crosses the river, and in the Yugoslav era was just a regular street. A look at photographs from 2013 reveals concrete roadblocks allowing only pedestrians to pass, while on the other side of the river, a small stall suggests the discreet presence of a custom officer monitoring the movements between one country to the other. Only recently, in November 2015, did the border become the militarized line that we now know.

"The Back Door of Fortress Schengen." The fence is expecting its additional barbed wire layer on top of it.

The fence is expecting an additional barbed wire layer.

Undoubtedly pressured by other Schengen governments, and following the example of Viktor Orbán, who made the demagogic decision to build a barbed wire border between Hungary and Serbia in July 2015 to prevent the passage of refugees and migrants seeking shelter in Europe, the Slovenian government first deployed rolls of barbed wire on its border with Croatia, and is now enhancing them with a higher fence. Samoborska street now ends on such a fence, which, when I visited in late February, was awaiting its barbed wire topping. A small door has been integrated into the fence: the back door of Fortress Schengen. The fence’s military character stands in grave contrast to the domesticity of the calm street it stands on. Further, the fence runs through the middle of the neighboring gardens, bolstered by the claim that these measures are temporary ones, necessary to protecting Obrežje’s inhabitants from imagined “migrant hordes.”

It would be too easy to blame only the Slovenian and Hungarian governments for the construction of racist borders on their territory. Every citizen of the Schengen space is equally responsible for these measures. If these citizens are serious about their political federation, and don’t want it to project the violence of past borders into their new peripheries, they need to view the Slovenian and Hungarian walls not as the sum of local politics, but, rather, as the continuity of a common politics. For, the same forces manifest on their own borders, in Lampedusa, Mellila, Ceuta, Calais; externally, in Morocco, Bosnia, Serbia, etc, as well as internally, in the detention centers that dot their own landscapes — the walls within the fortress.

Barbed wire rolls along the Bregana river in in Obrežje.

Barbed wire rolls along the Bregana river in in Obrežje.

Every river is a border of a kind, one that blurs its exact demarcation, and thus resists the essentialization of one side and the other. In the case of Obrežje and Bregana, this essentialization isn’t so much based on the difference between Slovenian and Croatian identities, but, rather, on the difference between a supposed European identity and a demagogically-manufactured Oriental one against which Europe must steel itself. As mundane as Samoborska street appears, this crucial tension is very much at work in its midst.


All photographs by Léopold Lambert for The Funambulist (February 2016).