NIS, Serbia – To Bratislav Stojanovic, the best way to cope in the world of the living is to descend among the dead.
The 42-year-old homeless man has been dwelling at a cemetery in Nis, a city in southern Serbia, for more than 15 years, turning one of the underground tombs there into a place of his own.
Stojanovic has spent many of his days — and nights — holed up in deadly silence among the human remains. He says he finds the experience strangely comforting rather than unnerving.
"It is quiet here," he explained. "I'm not afraid of the dead, they can't harm me. The living can."
Stojanovic has piled a mattress and blankets in the tomb, which has a concrete roof but is open on one side. It is how he slides into the tiny space, but the opening also allows in cold and rain. Scattered in the tomb are old plastic bottles as well as candles that he picked up from other graves and which he burns at night to see. There is even a skull lying around, he said.
The old cemetery is located in the downtown and has been closed since the mid-1970s, when the last of its dead were laid to rest there and authorities set up a new burial location away from the center.
The headstone of Stojanovic's resting place is partly broken but still bears pictures of the people buried below. Around the cemetery some graves have been opened and apparently robbed.
"Hardly anyone comes here anymore," Stojanovic said. "I am all by myself."
Stojanovic has been out in the streets since the mid-1990s, when his country got caught up in a swirl of ethnic wars, international sanctions and crippling economic crisis.
Formerly a construction worker, Stojanovic at one point could no longer hold down a job and found it hard to get along with his aging father, with whom he was living.
Over the years, Stojanovic found himself spending more time in the streets than at home. Two years ago, the family house caught fire and burned to the ground, killing his father and leaving him with nothing.
The local authorities in Nis have offered Stojanovic a place in a home for the elderly, but he has refused. He said there are people who help him from time to time, but he mostly gets by on what he finds in garbage containers, including food, cigarettes and clothes.
"I've been in and out of this place for fifteen years now. If I don't find an abandoned or an empty house somewhere that I can use, I come back here," he said. "This is my safe place."