Slovenia border town navigates lockdown exit -- through a fence

by Bojan KAVCIC
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The fence was set up in March to prevent border crossings, but has whipped up memories of post-war barricades between Slovenia and Italy

As Slovenia emerges from the novel coronavirus lockdown, residents in the border town of Nova Gorica are still contending with a very visible symbol of the pandemic -- a fence that cuts their town in two.

The border with Italy runs directly through the town, known as Gorizia on the Italian side.

In recent years it had been rendered all but invisible, but then came the pandemic and the closing of national borders ordered by authorities in both Rome and Ljubljana.

The fence set up in March along the frontier by Slovenian authorities was drawing a steady stream of locals from both sides this week, disappointed that this symbol of division hadn't been taken down despite Italy opening its borders that day.

Slovenia has eased restrictions with some neighbours, but is wary of doing so with Italy until it is satisfied the spread of the virus has been safely brought under control there.

While Italy has been one of the countries worst hit by the pandemic, with almost 4,000 cases per million people, Slovenia has had just over 700 per million.

Slovenian media have also suggested that the government is reluctant to relax restrictions with Italy before Austria does, fearing the country could become a backdoor transit point for Italians.

But in the meantime, residents of Gorizia and Nova Gorica have had to adapt.

"The border here does not run across rocks and forests but streets and squares, it cuts through a unified urban reality and people's daily life," Nova Gorica's mayor Klemen Miklavic told AFP.

In recent weeks as lockdowns have eased, that urban reality has taken on new forms on both sides of the fence.

"People played badminton, volleyball, celebrated birthday parties, lovers met for their morning coffee," Miklavic explained, adding that even drug dealers had been conducting their business across the fence.

AFP witnessed more innocent transactions -- a waiter from a Slovenian restaurant delivering food to someone in Italy, for example.

Along one stretch of the fence, a framed window has thoughtfully been left for those who wish to kiss or embrace.

Slovenian pensioner Mira had come to pick up a plastic bag from her Italian cousin, containing a skirt that needed repairing.

"It's only a matter of days, a day or two before they remove this," Mira said hopefully of the fence.

For her cousin, the fraught new politics of border crossings has brought back bad memories.

"This is outrageous, like in 1947 when there was also a fence -- but much more solid, not only a wire fence," she says.

- 'Precious freedom' -

For decades after World War Two, the town was divided between Western-oriented Italy and socialist Yugoslavia.

The old "Gorizia wall" finally came down in 2004, the year Slovenia joined the European Union, and the two settlements quickly developed a web of connections which have been abruptly severed in recent weeks.

There has been particular frustration on the Italian side at not being able to cross, despite the border being open the other way.

AFP witnessed one man from Italy taking matters into his own hands and scaling the fence with the aid of two chairs mounted on tall ladders on either side, before sauntering off for a coffee in a nearby cafe.

"Right now it's difficult because many people are angry and say: 'Even when it's all open again, we won't go back to Slovenia'," says the mayor of the Italian side Rodolfo Ziberna.

"I try to explain to them that this is wrong."

He is urging patience in the face of negotiations between the two governments and, like many locals, hopes that a visit to Slovenia by Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio on Saturday might help produce a breakthrough.

Ziberna points to the importance of Italians to the economy on the Slovenian side -- including Nova Gorica's thriving casino industry.

He describes the separation of the town as a "trauma" but lauds the cooperation he has enjoyed from his Slovenian counterparts.

"I and my Italian colleague are optimists," says Miklavic.

"The very negative reaction of our citizens to the physical obstacle showed that the political decision to build a unified urban space... is the right path to take," he says.

A sign next to the kissing window is a reminder of the current divide: "The epidemic has shown that cross-border life cannot be taken for granted."

"The fence will fall soon. When it does, let us not forget how precious freedom is."

The fence was set up in March to prevent border crossings, but has whipped up memories of post-war barricades between Slovenia and Italy

Along one stretch of the fence, a framed window has thoughtfully been left for those who wish to kiss or embrace

Transactions are still taking place across the fence, including drug deals

Some people are ignoring the fence and have found ways to cross the border