Building No 20

By • on November 29, 2010

According to official records, the building No 20 that has recently toppled, located in the town of Yambol, had 1260 registered residents, out of which 667 were children. Unofficial data place the number at around 1500-1800 inhabitants.

The birth of the residential complex in the “Rayna Kniaginya” neighborhood coincides with the beginning of Bulgaria’s democratic reforms that started after  1989. At that time, the beautiful building comprised 198 apartments, 145 of which were public property, while 53 were privately owned. The first signs of wear and tear began to show five years after the completion of the construction work. Nowadays, the building’s sorry state is probably due to the town hall’s utter lack of upkeep.  This means the authorities either did not know they owned a big portion of it, or simply ignored their responsibilities for maintenance. The current administration decided to tackle the issue and remove this ulcer from the face of Yambol.

We visited the building before the demolition.  A lot of people came out to greet us. The young and the old were enjoying the sun outside and some children were playing amongst the litter. When our car pulled up, elderly people, young mothers holding babies and youths instantly surrounded us. And the questions began to pour from all sides: “What will happen to us now?”, “Is there going to be a demolition?” “Why did you come here?”… We spoke with some of them. An elderly man said he has lived there for the past 12 years, together with his family and children, and that he has been unemployed for years. In fact, few of the residents ever had a job. They would spend their time looking through  trashcans and dumpsters for the  recyclables that they would resell at the town’s paper, glass and metal scrap centre. They would bring the materials to the apartment building to be sorted, and some of them would then be sold for mere cents, while the rest would be kept inside or simply strewn outside.

Who tore down entire walls, why there are no doors or window panes, nobody knows. When we reached the third floor, we found out that in the elevator shaft garbage was so compact it looked like it had been processed into pellets. The smell was terrible. A young man was following us with questions: “Brother, tell me what to do! I have a wife and child and this is no place to live in…the baby is always sick…no wonder, you cannot breathe in the dirt here…” When leaving, one of our reporters could not stop saying, as if to convince himself, “this can’t be true, this is impossible!”

In 2008, following a decree by the mayor of Yambol, a commission was formed, comprised of experts from all the relevant institutions, including the chambers of architects, engineers, and  the water and electricity supply companies. The commission had to ascertain the residential building’s technical condition and to acquaint itself with the social issues at stake. The latter turned out to be much direr than the facility under scrutiny. Along with the damage described above, the commission also found a completely destroyed plumbing and fresh water supply system, as well as non-functioning wiring and electricity networks. The flooring in the apartments was non-existent. The staircases were crumbling and had no railings. The few remaining parts of electrical wiring, eclectically patched up with ad hoc materials, posed a health hazard. Sewage water was draining down the basement walls and created a real danger of undermining the whole construction from underneath. The living conditions and hygiene in the building were beyond critical and the risk of epidemics of measles and Lyme disease carried by parasites (which make up 30% of registered infections in the region) was real. Other infectious diseases easily contracted by contact (20% of all infections in the region) as well as those that are airborne (16% of all registered) were also a high risk factor in the building. Various parasites were also prone to high concentration in such living conditions (36% of all registered infections). For the period 2003-2009, 26% of all viral diseases and parasitic infections in the region were recorded in the building in question, No 20. 100% of children contracted different types of measles, 50-70% of all inhabitants contracted viral meningitis, severe hepatitis A or salmonella. All 667 children living in the building are in risk – 13 have been placed in specialized institutions by the social services, 2 have been removed and placed with relatives. The record for most registered residents per apartment is held by apartment 117, shared by 29 people, 14 of whom children. Another apartment measuring only 43 square meters in size is inhabited by 15 people, 6 of whom are children. This is why the district authorities of Yambol consider it most adequate to demolish the building and treat the terrain in order to remove the ecological, hygienic and medical hazards.

The biggest problem, which the authorities are still trying to solve, is what to do with the residents of the hell of No 20 after it gets demolished. Will the new housing projects be converted within a couple of years into a new health hazard and breeding ground for more marginalized youth, or will there be greater  efforts to socialize and educate the current inhabitants?

Eventually, Yambol’s building No 20 was demolished. It would be ridiculous to criticize the mayor for this decision. But it would be even more ridiculous if no one defended the rights of the inhabitants who are now homeless. Both scenarios actually happened. Some even managed to use the case as a trampoline for publicity. Public opinion became even more radicalized. Human rights activists tried to argue with the mayor of Yambol about his responsibility towards his constituents. At the same time, they did support him as long as his actions seemed consistent and constructive. The mayor does deserve praise for the courage of the decision to demolish the building. Unfortunately, this is where he ended the matter. No further actions to redress the grievances and address the misery of the former inhabitants were taken. Fifty families set up tents near the site, while the mayor was making media appearances to explain that these people were violating the law. To be sure, this would be the case if the court had declared them as such. At that moment the court had not pronounced itself on the guilt of the inhabitants of hell’s circle No 20, because over all these years the public authorities had not been maintaining their property in the building. It is precisely these institutions who are responsible for the plight of these people. As always, however, the authorities are not to blame, the citizens are.

No 20 spurred numerous roundtables, expert groups and meetings. Unfortunately, all that was achieved was a pile of paperwork. The financing for this futile deliberation could have been better directed to the inhabitants of No 20. The case is symbolic for the Bulgarian transition and the Roma integration. Over those 20 years, building No 20 was quietly crumbling down along with the Bulgarian society. In such situations, Bulgarian politicians make wise statements and made pledges to deal with the problem. But it all ended there!