Bulldozers of law and order in Bulgaria

As you are reading these lines it is already known that the Roma houses in the “Gorno Ezerovo” neighbourhood in Burgas, which were scheduled for demolition, are already gone. On the very day of the action the media exploded with sensationalist material on Roma uprisings, human chains, and stone throwing at bulldozers and policemen. Photos of angry and fainting Roma were circulated. And then it was over. The sensation died away. Nothing was heard or written on the next day as to where the people, who lost their homes, spent the night and what was to happen with them in the future.

Days before the bulldozers entered the Burgas neighbourhood, on the last sunny day of the summer, we talked with the head of the only functioning Roma NGO in the coastal city – Mitko Dokov.
“We are organizing the citizens of Gorno Ezerovo into an initiative committee. We are going to send an open letter to the city mayor, to the governor of the principality and to the Prime Minister. This reckless act, if not stopped, has to be deferred. So many people are panicking because of this” – were the words, with which the head of the local Roma Council greeted us.

In the Gorno ezerovo neighbourhood live around 2000 people. Most of them are local and not migrants, contrary to what the authorities claim. There are no more than ten families who came from other places to settle there, we learn from Dokov. The larger share of the land on which the neighbourhood is built is municipal, the rest is privately owned. None of the residents know what kind of land they built their houses on.

The Roma neighbourhoods were abandoned by the state and the municipal authorities after 1989. Their existence is only remembered before election time. And forgotten shortly after. What goes on inside, whether the law is enforced, how the people live, what the infrastructure is like, no one cares to know. The authorities’ reach generally ends where the Roma neighbourhood begins. They may do whatever they want, as long as they stay there, seems to be the philosophy of governance in this case. And so throughout the years, left to their own devices, the Roma have been taking care of their problems themselves. When the son of a family, which inhabits a one-room house, gets married, he attaches another one or two rooms to the house. There is no one to stop him, he knows all his neighbours, and the state is absent. This is the case in almost all Roma neighbourhoods in the country. And so the Roma live their own way until all of a sudden someone has a problem with it. Then the law comes down with all its force onto the heads of the people, who have been living in their illegally built homes for decades.

During the night after our meeting with Dokov the rain intensified and continued on the next day. In the morning we visited the neighbourhood. There was no one in the streets. At a café we found those who had been notified to demolish their own houses voluntarily or to wait for the bulldozers to do it on the next day, 7 September.

Among the crowd gathered in the café were the shaky 84-year-old Isako, who has been living in the neighbourhood for over 50 years, Guesa, 64 years old, Anguel, who has four children and promises to set fire on himself, Mirka, a mother of ten, Galabina, who wants to buy the land and keep her home. “The land is pricy and they want to drive the Roma away from it. They say we are migrants from Sliven or Kotel, but this is not true. I have been living here for 46 years” – an elderly man dabs his eyes. A young man says that he is 26 and was born here in the house that is going to be demolished. Mirka is clutching the notifying letter she received a couple of days ago and asks where she could possibly go to live when her two rooms are torn to the ground. The deadline in the letter is drawing close, which means that she and her children are going to be homeless. The elderly women are crying. The young are also upset.

In stages the families receive letters from the Regional directorate for building regulation (RDNSK) with a deadline for voluntary demolition. If this is not carried out by the deadline, what follows is forced demolition. The total of houses scheduled for demolition up to date is 54. No fewer than five people inhabit each house, which means that over 250 women, children, elderly sick, and men, are going to have no shelter for the winter. 

“Come see if the houses are rickety as it says in the letters. Come photograph them!,” a young man calls out in the rain. In the muddy streets we walked around the neighbourhood to the very edge of the lake. As in every Roma neighbourhood there are big solid houses as well as small shabby ones, built in a day or two. “This one is going to be torn down. The one next to it is not. That two-floor one is going, too. Look here, these people have changed wooden frames for aluminium ones…Come into this house…No need to take your shoes off…See how they have furnished here? See how clean it is, and their home is going down, too…Over there the shabby one is staying intact, and the nice house next to it is to be demolished. And now tell me how they decided which houses are to go and which to stay!” – our guide kept pointing and asking emphatically.

According to the letters received by residents, all houses scheduled for demolition are classified as structurally unsafe. Among the houses our guide pointed out to us, were rickety as well as solid one-and two-floor buildings. We also passed a house, which was partly demolished by its inhabitant: “they are afraid that if the bulldozers have to do it, they will be made to pay fines. And that is why they tear the houses down themselves” – the young man explains.

We go back to the café. They have already decided that four representatives of the neighbourhood, headed by Mitko Dokov and Rumen Cholakov, leader of the Burgas chapter of the political movement Euroroma, are going to ask for a meeting with the regional governor and request a deferral of the demolition. It turned out that it is hard to enter the building of the regional administration. After Mitko Dokov had spoken on the phone with the regional expert on ethnicity and demographics, only Dokov and Cholakov were allowed to meet with the deputy regional governor. The deputy Zlatko Dimitrov was not acquainted with the case as he had only occupied the post for a couple of months. However, he promised to direct the governor’s attention to the problem, to examine the situation thoroughly, to see what actions are possible and to inform the Roma leaders by the end of the day whether the houses are going to be torn down on the following morning or not.

Meanwhile at the city hall we spoke with the deputy mayor, responsible for land regulation, architecture and construction, Kostadin Markov. We asked what their position is and whether there is an alternative for the people who are going to be left in the street. “The position of the city hall is that the law has to be abided by. Targeted are homes, constructed two years ago. These people know that the procedure ends with eventual demolition. These are mainly people, who are not residents of Burgas, but of Yambol, Sliven and many other places. From now on we are not able to give special guarantees for them. The city hall offers social housing, but there is a special application procedure and a waiting period. For the past two years they could have at least tried to apply. This has been explained to them more than once. There is however no extraordinary housing procedure, or available housing for that matter, which the city hall can offer them. I specify that the Burgas city hall declares illegal construction, but it is the RDNSK state regulatory authority, which executes the demolition procedure. Tomorrow or today, when the atmospheric conditions allow, I suppose that the houses are going to be removed.” – he said.

 

The municipal administration’s only obligation in this case is to preserve the property from the houses after demolition, for which municipal storage has been provided. On the same day the Bulgarian Helsinki committee sent a letter to the media, in which it stated that if the Roma houses in Burgas are demolished, Bulgaria will be violating the European Human Rights Convention. It also called for immediate action on the part of the government and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, to either stop the planned demolition or find adequate alternate housing for the Roma.

Back in the neighbourhood people waited till the evening for a call from the deputy regional governor and hoped that their homes will not be demolished – in vain. The deputy governor called, but only to confirm the demolition.

On the morning of September 8th the electricity of the selected houses was cut. Bulldozers and police entered the neighbourhood. Desperate, the people tried to end this madness. But were left without a home.
Two weeks after that, again in Burgas, 19 more Roma houses were demolished in the Meden Rudnik neighbourhood.

The Sofia Bulldozer

On 15 October, a month and eight days after the demolition of Roma houses in the Burgas neighbourhoods of Gorno Ezerovo and Meden Rudnik, the bulldozer of law and order rolled in the capital, too.
When we arrived in the Sofia neighbourhood of Nadezhda we found the bulldozer working in a blocked-off space with police present on the Rozhen boulevard next to the tram stop. On the sidewalks in the rain were stacked up the baggage and possessions of the former inhabitants. Dismantled beds, mattresses, racks, tables, stoves, clothes in plastic bags, basins and whatnot drew the attention of early pedestrians and tram passengers. Those who had been residents until the night before were standing outside the blocked-off perimeter and sadly observed the demolition of their homes. Because of the early hour, the lack of information or other unknown reasons there was no media presence.

We approached Trajan and Magda. “Are you going to be housed somewhere?” – we ask. “Nowhere. We are staying in the street.” – was Magda’s curt answer. Trajan was more willing to speak. They have been living here for 19 years. 30 people were sharing a house with four rooms and two small additional units in the yard. Among them are women and children, pregnant and sick, who are now in neighbouring houses. They do not know where to spend the night. None of them have a stable job. “This man over there is our mayor. Let him tell us where to go” – Magda pointed. But the mayor of Nadezhda – engineer Dimitar Dimov – quickly got into his car at the sight of the journalist with a recording device, and drove away.

An old shaky man approached us; out of clod or emotion he had a hard time speaking. He explained that his children were standing on the opposite sidewalk by the traffic lights – his wife with the baby and his young grandchildren. They were up all night and brought everything they could to relatives. “A bag here, two bags there. There is no room for the rest. Here on the sidewalk.” – the 58-year-old father of six, Strahil, explained. “Why aren’t you wearing any socks?” – we heard a female voice behind us. A policewoman was talking to a barefooted girl. The child is the ten-year-old Gyula. She says she is not cold, although she has wrapped herself in her jacket. She is a student, but she did not go to school today, because her home was being torn down. She does not want to be photographed; she is shy. More children draw closer. Most of them have a bad cough. We tell them to go somewhere warm. They are puzzled.

Boncho has three children. He is holding the youngest one in his arms. He says they had no problems with the police in the morning. They just went outside when they told them to leave the houses. A woman came to them the night before and told them to take with them whatever they can before the bulldozers arrive at 6:30 am to tear their house down. What for? “I don’t know. Something from the administration…” – shrugs his shoulders the 23-year-old man and wonders what to do with the baggage and where to take his family.
We go back to Trajan and Magda, who are standing by their possessions on the sidewalk. Magda is now crying. We learn from Trajan that 19 years ago they moved into the house, which is municipal property. No one from the city hall reacted. They wanted to pay rent but were refused because they did not have a warrant for residency in the property. Five years ago the inhabitants won a lawsuit and continued to live there. And now all of a sudden the house was scheduled for demolition. “They say the subway is going to pass under here. But this is only a pretext. If it is so, why don’t they demolish the neighbours’ houses, too?,” asks Trajan.

The woman who visited them the night before was from the child protection agency. No one knows her name. She came to invite Donka, who has a baby, to live with the child in a temporary shelter. Donka refused. She preferred to stay with her family. “Now we are worried that the social services are going to take our children away. And they are still only babies” – the young mother adds.

More inhabitants of demolished houses showed up. Some of them brought plastic covers to cover their belongings stacked on the sidewalks. Others gathered around us and wanted to talk to us. They did not see a warrant. In the morning the police came, woke everyone up and told them to leave the house. They hardly gave them time to bring their possessions out before the bulldozer began to demolish. They were told they were not residents of Sofia and must go back to where they came from, even though they are local. The daughter of the 45-year-old Veska is pregnant, her granddaughter has seizures, and her son is deaf and dumb. Dimitrina had wrapped her child in a blanket and was staring with eyes wide open. Some were crying, others blamed the mayor and the government, and cursed their fate.

Finally the bulldozer finished and rolled away. The policemen got into their cars and headed for their next task. We also left the people to their lot. Jordanka Bekirska, a lawyer from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee appealed on behalf of 14 former inhabitants. Before the houses were demolished she had conversations with city officials to tell them that throwing those people out in the street is a violation of European laws. The answer was that the authorities were observing Bulgarian laws, and that the European ones do not matter. We decided that talking with the municipal authorities was futile. The answer would have been identical to the one we received the previous month in Burgas – that the laws must be abided by and enforced, that the administration cannot offer an alternative, that there is an application procedure for social housing, etc. 

On the same day at a hotel in the capital a conference was held on the topic of “Realities and perspectives in the integration policies for the Roma.” On the conference were debated the main priorities and policy measures to go into the government’s four year Roma integration programme. It was chaired by deputy Prime Minister and minister of the Interior Tsvetan Tsvetanov, who is also leader of the ruling centre-right GERB party. We asked Mr Tsvetanov how many more demolitions of Roma houses were to be expected. We mentioned the demolition on the same morning and added that there have been court appeals which are probably going to reach the European Court, which is not good for the country. He answered that this is a problem of the municipal authorities, which have an obligation to enforce the law. And the law is the same for everyone in the country.

One of the presentations in the conference was on living conditions for the Roma. It included the following suggestions for the government: “to unite, direct and coordinate the efforts of state agencies, local authorities, citizens’ committees, the Roma community and every concerned institution in the country for the bettering of Roma living conditions and modernization of the neighbourhoods they inhabit.”
Hence, while Roma living conditions are being debated and discussed, the bulldozers of law and order are going to continue tearing down only those buildings inhabited by the Roma. Claims are still going to be made that the law is the same for everyone and that everyone is equal before it. It seems that the public at large is getting tired of this because internet forums contain comments such as “better stop playing busy with Roma shacks, and begin regulating the illegally built palaces of the newly rich.” Or are they more equal than the rest before the bulldozers of law and order?

No bulldozers in Montana, Yet
In the town of Montana there are two Roma neighbourhoods – Ogosta, with approximately 1800 inhabitants, and Kosharnik with around 2500. They are on the two opposite ends of the regional centre. At the beginning of the 1950s the Roma population was concentrated in Ogosta, which sprawls the banks of the Ogosta river. Floods destroyed many houses and bungalows at the time. A big part of the population was evacuated and placed in temporary shelters outside the town.

In 1972 a municipal project lay the foundations of the new Kosharnik neighbourhood, outside of town. Currently it is inhabited by many people who moved there from other towns in the last couple of years. In the grazing commons around the neighbourhood they built family houses out of bricks and without construction plans or building permits. The municipal authorities did not react to the illegal construction, even though local residents complained. Children are born in these houses and families grow in numbers, hence the need for land grows. More and more illegal houses and bungalows turn up, inhabited by new families.

Ogosta neighbourhood faces similar problems. It borders on railway tracks on one side, the river on another, and the E-79 road. The population grows every year, but territorial expansion of the neighbourhood is impossible. Few people manage to buy homes outside its territory – in the town or the neighbouring villages. The majority of the population remain in their old homes. This gives rise to more floors and adjacent units, which chip away from streets and sidewalks and violate regulations. Some of the inhabitants only have ownership papers for the land taken up by the old houses; others have no papers at all. But they all live with the conviction that these are their homes, passed down for four generations.

The state is powerless to stop these processes. The town does not have enough social housing available to answer the needs of the growing families. How long this is going to last for is unclear. What is going to happen to the inhabitants of illegally built houses, when the local authorities decide to follow the Burgas example and the bulldozers of law and order enter the Roma neighbourhoods of Montana?

The efforts of Roma NGOs to solve the problems with regulation of Roma neighbourhoods and finding alternative housing got only as far as to include those issues into the “framework programme for Roma integration into Bulgarian society.” The same issues were included in the international treaty that Bulgaria signed as part of the Decade of Roma inclusion.

Local strategies have been adopted on the initiative of the Roma Civic Movement, but the existing institutional discrimination on local and national level causes such policies to remain only on paper. Power-holders have no interest that those programmes become part of the budget. Ignoring Roma representation in the executive leads to ethnic, local, social and religious conflict. The insubstantial social contract between the Bulgarian citizen of Roma origin and the state with its institutions leads to regulatory problems in the neighbourhoods and their infrastructure. For these reasons there are no clear conditions between consumers and suppliers of services such as electric energy, water and sewage. The Roma neighbourhoods are usually situated in the suburban areas, which makes them strategic for big storage facilities, gas stations, factories, etc. This brings up a new problem between the Roma and business, where the state suddenly moves to regulate the status of those neighbourhoods, while at the same time securing the land for big business at a low price.

Representatives of nationalist parties in local councils tip the decision-making process in favour of certain citizens and usually to the detriment of the Roma. Maybe the goal of governments so far has been to keep the Roma population in uncertainty, unrepresented and open to manipulation during elections.

To cap it all, household energy meters have been placed on top of electric posts, but the measurement of energy consumption has not become more precise, usually to the disadvantage of the Roma. Roma mistrust consequently has turned into silent protest. The protest becomes passive helplessness, verging on irresponsibility for their own future and that of their children.

Varna Awaits the Bulldozers

In the sea capital of Bulgaria the bulldozers have not taken any victims yet. At the very entrance of the city to the left is a big Roma neighbourhood. For the most part the dwellings in the Maksuda neighbourhood have been constructed without building permits, which automatically makes them illegal. In our conversation with Nikolay, who works in the NGO sector dealing with issues in Varna and the region, shares the rumour that the piece of land where the illegal houses are built has been bought by two brother businessmen. In fact the location of the Roma neighbourhood is exceptionally convenient: next to the very sea shore, and any businessman would have an appetite for it. “We hear that in two maybe three years they are going to start tearing houses down. There will be blood spilt. People there have nice two-floor houses and have been living there for a long time. They will fight for what they consider their own. There will be blood,” says the embittered Nikolay.

In fact the rumour about the two businessmen brothers in Varna is exemplary of the current impasse on Roma residential problems. Unfortunately, the state in the face of the municipal authorities does not succeed in finding the right approach to the solution of these problems. In order to wash its hands and make a profit the state sells the problematic Roma neighbourhoods to big business, which on its turn tries with all available means, including bulldozers, to clear up its newly acquired terrain and prepare it for development and investment. Thus the state shirks its responsibility and the Roma clash with big business to save their homes or to lose them, as happened in Burgas and Sofia.