Homeless Bratislav Stojkovic, 40, leaves on January 10, 2013 a grave, he uses as a shelter during winter time at a cemetery in Nis, 200 kilometres south of Belgrade.
AFP PHOTO / Sasa Djordjevic


The image of a man, a live man, looking out from a grave – his mustard-colored hat, blue coat and partially-concealed plaid red scarf contrasting the dreary greys of a snow-covered cemetery – jumped out at me.

I was scrolling through "topshots ", a ‘best of’ category on AFP’s ImageForum databank. Many photographs captured great moments, but this one looked as if it might contain a great story. Reading the caption only whetted my appetite: “Homeless Bratislav Stojkovic, 40, enters a grave which he uses as a shelter during winter months in a cemetery in Nis, 200 kilometers south of Belgrade... The last 15 years he has lived in a tomb beside the caskets of his decedents.”

Oh my gosh.

There was no more information, but I had a feeling that Stojkovic's story, if we could get it, would make a great entry for the photo-driven platform "Behind the Image " on AFP’s Correspondent blog, where I have been interning. My editors agreed, and so I contacted the bureau chief in Belgrade to see if we could get in touch with the photographer.

Part of being a journalist, I have discovered, is dealing with that uncomfortable limbo – it can last seconds or hours, days or weeks – between the question and the hoped-for answer. Sometimes one is confident (I always feel at least a twinge of doubt) that the reply will hit pay dirt – a great story, some great details, a great quote. This was one of those moments. When the answer finally came, two days later, it exceeded my expectations.

The story is best told in the words of photographer Sasa Djordjevic, an AFP stringer who took the initiative on this shoot and wound up spending many hours with Stojkovic and another man who shares his ghoulish lodgings. Here’s is Sasa’s account, translated from Serbian.

- Rachel Rogers

Homeless men Bratislav Stojkovic (R), 40, and Aleksandar Dejic, 53, sit on January 10, 2013 inside a tomb at a cemetery in Nis, 200 kilometres south of Belgrade.
AFP PHOTO / Sasa Djordjevic

At Home with the Dead


By Sasa Djordjevic


Earlier this month, I saw a news report on a local TV station and could not believe what I was seeing: a story about two men living inside graves in a cemetery. Because the report was not very professional and lacked lots of elements, I decided to check it out myself.

I knew the men were living in the old, largely abandoned municipal cemetery that had few visitors. I spent two days there, but could not find them. Finally on the third day, I saw someone walking around the tombstones.

It turned out that he knew the men I was looking for, and sometimes brought them food. He escorted me to their “neighborhood” and we waited from them to come home. After an hour, the two men arrived.

Homeless men Bratislav Stojkovic (L), 40, and Aleksandar Dejic, 53, warm up on january 10, 2013 beside a fire at a cemetery in Nis, 200 kilometres south of Belgrade.
AFP PHOTO / Sasa Djordjevic

I expected to see men in rags, but they were dressed in clean but old clothes that somebody probably had thrown away. They were carrying bags with leftovers they had picked up from garbage bins, along with a pack of store-bought coffee.

As we exchanged greetings and began to talk, I realized that they had reflected on their lives and their unusual situation. This also surprised me and was far from what I imagined when I heard about the grave dwellers.

I decided that I had to make a photo essay, but did not take any shots that first day. We just talked for an hour or so. I told them what I wanted to do and that the photos would be published.

They accepted, and we agreed for me to come the next day for a photo shoot.

Homeless Bratislav Stojkovic, 40, stands on January 10, 2013 beside a tomb at a cemetery in Nis, 200 kilometres south of Belgrade.
AFP PHOTO / Sasa Djordjevic

Bratislav Stojkovic, 40, has been living at the cemetery for 15 years. He told me that he finished high school with a specialization in the construction business, but only months before graduation his father died in a fire that destroyed their house. “I lost both my home and my father,” he said, visibly hurt by the memory. He went to live with relatives.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t find work after graduation. The timing was bad: Serbia was transitioning from communist state to a prolonged period of war that was to ravage the Balkans in the 1990s. And then came international sanctions to punish Belgrade for its role in the conflict.

After a falling out with his relatives, Bratislav began to live on the streets. For a couple of years, in his own telling, he suffered at the hands of both fellow citizens and the police. Even other homeless people gave him a hard time.

And then, one day, he heard about the forgotten and neglected municipal cemetery, and had an idea. As he was searching for a grave where he could settle in, he met Aleksandar Dejic who had already been living there for years. They quickly became friends.

Homeless Aleksandar Dejic, 53, sleeps on January 10, 2013 in a tomb he uses as a shelter during winter time at a cemetery in Nis, 200 kilometres south of Belgrade.
AFP PHOTO / Sasa Djordjevic

Aleksandar is 53 and has been living in the cemetery for two decades. His father – also homeless – brought him there, and they lived together. One day Dejic senior fell ill and his son called the ambulance from a house near the cemetery. His father died on the way to the hospital.

Both Bratislav’s and Alexsandar’s fathers are buried at the cemetery. The costs were covered by the state.

Aleksandar lives in a grave walled with bricks. Bratislav’s grave is smaller and partly damaged. There’s still a coffin with a corpse in it. Aleksandar says he doesn’t mind, but he has covered the coffin so that he doesn’t see it all the time.

Both men say they are "at peace" in their funereal lodgings. Visitor to the cemetery are very rare, and nobody disturbs them. It is much warmer inside the grave than outside, which is very important for them during the cold winter months.

Homeless men Bratislav Stojkovic (R), 40, and Aleksandar Dejic, 53, sit on January 10, 2013 inside a tomb at a cemetery in Nis, 200 kilometres south of Belgrade.
AFP PHOTO / Sasa Djordjevic

Although they had agreed to be photographed, things were tense when I first starting taking pictures. It was an awkward moment.

Bratislav was sitting in ‘his’ grave, when I decided to climb in with him and start shooting. He looked at me, startled. "You dare to come down here?", he asked, as if I might be put off by the idea. I told him that the couple of minutes that I would spend there are nothing compared to years in which he had been, well, entombed.

Neither Bratislav nor Aleksandar has ever worked. They do not receive welfare assistance because they cannot get identity cards for lack of a regular residence. Only once did they receive money from city authorities, around 75 euros each.

The men survive by picking up garbage, searching for leftover food and discarded clothes. They do not beg on the streets of Nis. Residents in the houses around the cemetery also help them, bringing them food, clothes and sometimes small amounts of money.

Another formerly homeless man named Vlada, who now lives in a community flat, also helps out. In summers, he works on nearby construction sites or in agricultural fields, and gives Bratislav and Aleksandar a little money from his wages. When the three men get together in the cemetery, they share coffee and conversation in front of an open fire.

As far as Bratislav and Alexandar know, they are the only people to have ever lived in the cemetery. They have no families, no relatives and have come to rely on each other.

But they still hope for something better. Their dream, they say, is to find a flat with the help of the city or social services so that they would qualify for welfare assistance. They’ve tried many times, but just get the run around.

Homeless Bratislav Stojkovic, 40, sits on January 10, 2013 in a grave, which he uses as a shelter during winter time at a cemetery in Nis, 200 kilometres south of Belgrade.
AFP PHOTO / Sasa Djordjevic

While I was working, I only thought of how to make the best – and truest – possible photographs. I was looking for angles, details, facial expressions and, oddly, did not for a second think about where I was. Five hours flew by, and I took a lot of pictures. I could hardly wait to get back to my computer to check them out.

And now their wish is mine too: that my photos might help get their story to those in a position to help the two men fulfill their dream of a warm room to live in.