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Birth of the Settlements

Part I from the series “Roma in Bulgaria”

Sitting on a rug spread on the wooden planks of his two-room house, 73-year-old Lazar Asenov skillfully twists willow branches, finishing the basket he is weaving. He learned the craft from his father and grandfather, who were nomadic weavers and horse traders. Lounging on the two beds in the room — the only furnishings — some of his many children and grandchildren watch him work. Four adults and five children share this home in a dilapidated Kremikovtsi neighborhood of muddy streets and brick shacks on the edge of the town of Garmen in Southern Bulgaria

“Simpler and happier” is how Asenov describes his childhood memories of nomadic life.

Children play between the Kremikovtsi houses in Garmen.

The Kremikovtsi neighborhood, like many others, was established by the Communist government in the 1960s. During this period, the Communist regime forcefully imposed settled way of life on the small number of nomadic Roma who had traditionally led a nomadic lifestyle.

The majority of the Bulgarian Roma had already settled, says Professor Mihail Ivanov, who in the 1990s served as an advisor to President Zhelyu Zhelev on minority issues. He estimates that about 90% of Roma lived in settlements by the late 19th century.

A nomadic group called Kalderash, (Tinsmiths or Tinkers) settled in Bulgaria in the 19th century after the Crimean War, during the so-called Great Kalderash Invasion. Despite general mistrust of the newcomers, Ivanov says that court records from Vidin, a city in Northwestern Bulgaria indicate that at that time, crimes committed by Roma were few compared to the those committed by the rest of the population.

In 1958, the Bulgarian government adopted Decree 258, which prohibited nomadism. Roma travelers were banned from moving from one village to the next. Over the following decade, nomadic families were directed to settle on plots of land, often agricultural and municipal property, on the outskirts of villages. Gradually, many of them were assigned to work in the Communist-era system of the agricultural cooperatives

A 1991 Helsinki Watch report cited a 1959 Bulgarian Communist Party letter calling the Roma leading a nomadic lifestyle “the most backward part of the Gypsy population.” Party committees were instructed to find jobs for them because “every citizen can earn their bread by honest work.”

At that time, the family of basket weaver Lazar Asenov received orders from the authorities to settle permanently in what is now Kremikovtsi. He says that his father built one of the first houses there. They had their own home but they did not receive land ownership, a land use contract, or a building permit — eventually leading to legal problems and uncertainty.

After marrying, Asenov built his own home, harvesting wood from the nearby forest. Within a few months, the walls and roof were erected. Soon after, the two-room house was completed.

“We didn’t have any documents. They just told us we could build,” he says.

Asenov and his wife raised eight children. Over the years, his children got married and had children of their own. As the family expanded, so did the neighborhood.

When the Communist system collapsed, the Roma became poorer because of the respective collapse of socialist agriculture and industry. They had no land to be given back to them, and in the industry, because of their low qualifications, they were the first to lose their jobs, according to Professor Ivanov.

Kremikovtsi is now home to approximately 1,500 people. Most homes are simple one or two room structures which have no access to running water or city plumbing.

Growth of the Ghettos

Unpaved streets in a Roma settlement in Peshtera, Bulgaria.

Roma have traditionally occupied marginal space in European societies. For centuries they have been being persecuted, enslaved and even exterminated at different times, writes Isabel Fonseca, author of Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey. For them, Communist times were both a blessing and a curse. Many remember a decent standard of living and stable jobs.

In the Post-Communist period, however, the loss of jobs in agriculture and industry went hand in hand with the severe and widespread social collapse. Having lost their livelihoods in the villages, Roma often migrated to their relatives, moving to larger towns or cities. Ghettos began to grow — a process that still continues today.

Facing Demolitions

Residents gather materials after homes were demolished in a Roma neighborhood in Sofia.

During recent years, authorities have sped up the demolition of unauthorized buildings, without ameliorating any conditions for the newly homeless, who typically rebuilt and remain in the same location. Now, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, those neighborhoods are back in the public spotlight.

“Probably half of the Roma population in Bulgaria live in small, isolated settlements. Most of them lack access to sewage and hot water,” said Sarah Perrine, Director of the Trust for Social Achievement, which funds projects to strengthen Roma communities. Perrine emphasizes the difficulty of practicing social distance in the settlements because of the density of those living there.

Since Roma are already a scapegoat for many of the country’s problems, she worries that in the context of the pandemic “excessive media attention could fuel social tensions.”

In many settlements infrastructure is neglected. Oftentimes, there is no city plumbing or trash removal. In parts of a Roma ghetto in Sofia, flooding from broken pipes is a constant problem. Lack of hygiene and overcrowding present serious health risks, where infectious disease can quickly spread.

Ivan Chacarov, the district mayor said, “We cannot tolerate people living there,” explaining that there is no path to legalization of structures built illegally on municipal land. The last major demolition in that area of Sofia took place in 2018, when approximately 20 structures were bulldozed in a few hours.

For years, declaring someone’s house illegal by the state remained a sentence with no consequence due to the policy of issuing “tolerances”. In 2011 and 2012, the National Construction Control Directorate abolished the tolerance status, which means that illegal structures could now be demolished if an order was issued to this effect. For four years, however, no measures had been taken and, at the same time, illegal construction works continued in Kremikovtsi.

But in 2015, a conflict over the playing of loud music at a Roma celebration in Kremikovtsi raised complaints from Bulgarians coinciding with upcoming local elections. Over the next days, tensions rose, fights broke out and anti-Roma protesters gathered in the town center.

Next, town leaders decided to heed the protesters by bringing in bulldozers, who started to demolish “illegal houses.” By the time an emergency injunction was issued by the European Union Court of Human Rights, four families were left homeless.

According to European Court of Human Rights rulings over the years, if homes are demolished, even if they were illegal, their residents must be offered alternative shelter. Garmen, like other municipalities, has no opportunity to do this, so the demolition of the buildings in 2015 was halted.

Most of the houses in Kremikovtsi are illegal and should be demolished, Garmen Mayor Feim Isa says, describing the mood in the municipality as pre-conflict.

The municipality needs to sell the land to the Roma and change its status from agricultural to residential, he says. Only then could citizens apply for building permits and rebuild legally.

Saber rattling

Roma homes stand half-demolished in Voyvodinovo after a court ordered the municipality to stop the bulldozers.

A similar situation occurred in early 2019, after two Roma brothers from the village of Voyvodinovo brutally beat up a soldier. The situation became tense, pitting Bulgarians against the town’s small Roma minority. Political actors jumped on the occasion to organize anti-Roma marches and demonstrations, activating nationalists from nearby cities and towns.

In addition to demolishing “illegal” Roma buildings, [again several houses were destroyed before the courts intervened] the case also prompted a pre-election competition between the ruling GERB party and the Bulgarian Socialist Party as to which party would propose more severe cuts to aids for the Roma.

A woman holds a sign reading, “This is Bulgaria, not Tzingaria [Gypsy country]during a gathering in Voyvodinovo organized by right-wing political groups.

Uphill Battle

The issue of “illegal housing” has been problematic since the end of Communism, and although lack of documented and ownership is common across the country, many actions are directed against Roma settlements.

Rights groups have been working hand-in-hand with municipalities to help rezone areas where Roma live, hoping to eventually make squatters into land and home owners. Still, finding solutions is an uphill battle.

Sporadic clashes and social unrest provide fodder to extremists. Add to that the vicious cycle of the poverty, lack of education and adverse living conditions common among the people who inhabit Roma ghettos and the result is a recipe for a looming disaster.

Only when housings are legalized can people in the neighborhoods have guaranteed access to water, sewage and electricity, said Maria Metodieva of the Trust for Social Achievement. This would also make it possible to observe a different level of hygiene during a pandemic such as the current one.

Solving the problem of “illegal settlements” would allow people to access water, sewage and electricity, says Metodieva.

“Their lives would ultimately improve in terms of health care and in terms of better life chances for their kids.”

Roma families who tried to reoccupy their homes in Voyvodinovo were prevented from doing so by angry locals. Instead, they retrieved belongings before being escorted away by the mayor.

Written by Jodi Hilton and Dimitar Ganev
Photographs by Jodi Hilton

A version of this story originally appeared in Marginalia and has been translated from Bulgarian.




Longreads from Europe — Euphemist is a Medium publication that curates longform journalism about politics, tech, culture, and life in Europe.

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Jodi Hilton

Jodi Hilton

Jodi Hilton is a photojournalist who has been covering stories of migration from Asia to the Middle East to Europe and in-between.

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