Asparuhovo district in Varna, Bulgaria, was the hardest hit area during the June 2014 floods. The tragedy is enormous; entire streets and houses have vanished. A total of 14 people were killed, including 4 children. I visited the area weeks after the disaster and the scenes remain apocalyptic.
Nikolay Nokolov, a survivor of the floods, shared with me his uncertainty about the future: "Half of the roof of my house has fallen apart. The walls of the house are cracked. I received only an order to leave. The municipality offered me social housing but I refused because I have two children and living conditions are very poor.
Asparuhovo is home to a variety of minority groups, including nearly 1000 Roma and 5000 Millet (Turkish for “people”; some Roma in Bulgaria consider them to be Roma, but others consider them to be Turks). The district’s tragedy tells the story not only of a natural disaster but also of longstanding social segregation in Bulgaria.
The Blame Game Begins
The amount of rainfall on June 19 was unprecedented. Asparuhovo was flooded by a one-meter wave of water and mud. There was no way the 4.5 km-square ravine in Asparuhovo could take so much water. To make matters worse, over the last decades many houses, most of them owned by Roma and Millet families, had been built on the ravine, usually without a permit. The municipality of Varna keeps quiet about this fact.
Following the flood, the municipality noted that 122 addresses were affected by the floods and asked families to evacuate their houses. According to Lili Makaveeva, director of the Roma-led civil society organization Integro Association, at least 60 percent of these destroyed houses belong to the Roma and Millet.
“Are your houses illegal?” journalists repeatedly asked members of the Roma community on live broadcasts on the most popular TV channels. It was the “Gypsy tree felling” and “illegally built houses” that had caused the disaster, they claimed.
“Bulgarians would not enter the mahala,” Roma residents told me. “Reporters do not come here. Television does not show the reality of what happens here.”
Such one-sided reports sparked anti-Roma sentiment and shifted public attention from those who were really responsible: the Bulgarian government and local authorities. Why had local authorities allowed for such houses to be built on the ravine? Could they have prevented this tragedy? The media scapegoated the Roma instead of highlighting the government’s inability to address the problems of minority groups in Bulgaria, especially in relation to housing. Over decades, houses were built outside an industrial plan and on a dangerous ravine. No one had warned the residents of the risks.
The Day After
The majority of the Roma and Millet were evacuated and currently live with relatives or in social housing provided by the Varna municipality. At the request of the community, the mayor visited the Roma families for the first time, on June 30. He informed them that seven houses would be demolished and asked residents to evacuate the properties immediately. At the time of this writing, three of seven have already been demolished. Most residents complain about the lack of timely and regular communication from the municipality.
Like many others, 55-year-old pensioner Ibriam Muharem’s house was identified for demolition by the municipality but without any guarantees for its future rebuilding and for his eight-member family:
The police and excavator came today [June 30] at 11am to demolish my house. I asked them if they have an official municipal order, and they said no. So I asked them, ‘Why have you come to demolish my house?’ The policeman told me to shut up. I own this house and I have papers for it. I have an ID with my address, I pay electricity and water but they came to demolish my house without an official order.
The mayor promised compensation to the residents of the seven houses: 250 leva for three months’ rent or temporary social housing.
“I am secure but only for three months; after that I do not know what I will do,” explains Nikolov, who also received an order to leave his house. “The mayor said today that he will compensate us, but we do not have written evidence or an order for what he says. Tomorrow he can say that he did not promise that.”
“No Bulgarian volunteers came to help us,” says Muharem. “There is discrimination from the police and local authorities towards us.”
Even though solidarity funds to help the victims were collected by volunteers throughout the country, it seems that on the ground victims were not all treated as one. Bulgarian volunteers helped only the flooded parts where Bulgarians lived. The Roma were forced to make separate arrangements.
Integro Association and the National Network of Health Mediators organized Roma volunteers to help the community with water, food, and clothes. This differential treatment is a consequence of long years of Roma exclusion and segregation in Bulgaria.
Where Do We Go from Here?
The problem is not over. Bulgarian authorities cannot afford to wait for another natural disaster to strike before they act. Those affected require more information in relation to compensation. There is a risk of more rain and more floods in the coming months. Where will temporary dwellers move to then? What will happen to those with houses in the ravine?
The floods in Bulgaria exposed in a dramatic way the decades-old, unsustainable housing conditions of the Roma communities. Yet the government has put forward no plan to address this. And without efforts to deal with the issue of segregated housing, further disasters and even deaths may continue.