A Flood Lays Bare Inequality in Bulgaria

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.”

Selective Solidarity

“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.

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Where do We Go from Here? Romanestan is an option. You are persecuted everywhere at the same time nobody wants you. Don't waste time create your own place under the sun.

Unfortunately there is huge lack of capacity in the municipalities in Bulgaria, a lack of qualitative governors, qualitative civil servants, a lack of courage to improve the situation of all their citizens (no matter what their ethnicity is). We can strugle for the absolutely necessary improvement of the situation of people with a Roma background, but one of the conditions sine qua non is the improvement of the quality of the municipality.

Dear Cor de Vos, I agree with you that the quality is not good enough. However, the foundation of the problem lies from the historical treatment of Roma issues in Bulgaira since the time of communism. Unfortunately, when the "democracy" came Roma were again the hardest hit: they were the first to be dismissed from the jobs and housing issues were never solved by the newly "democratic" state. The bitter part is although Bulgaria is in EU since 2004 housing issues remained unsolved.

I am sorry, but this is just not the whole truth either! I have nothing against the Roma people themselves, but their behavior and actions sometimes are outrageous and such articles that claim to foster the "whole truth" do exactly the opposite and exactly the same as what they try to fight against. It is a fact that there were a big number of Roma people that came to take products, clothes and other goods that were collected from people for the victims of the flood, but exactly those were not from area of distress, but from another neighborhood. It comes as a normal reaction to this and and for the FACT, not for the claim, for the FACT that the main reason for the flood was exactly those illegal houses, build without being included in the urban planning, and on that spot where water should go, producing a lot of waste and throwing it there guarantees a disaster at some point. Yes the rain was a lot, but it could have been prevented. And I am not saying the fault is only in the Roma people, it's more in the administration than in them, but still... this segregation and "discrimination" has it's reasons. In fact the discrimination is reverse here... yesterday those people screamed " Let's make Bulgarians to soap" and delivered deadly threats when the municipality came to demolish the illegal houses in the ghetto. The Bulgarian society holds some fault, but it's the least. It can only support measures that should be taken by the government and the EU, but to be honest Roma people are completely reluctant to any reasonable changes in their way of living. I am a tolerant person by all means, I respect human rights, but I demand mine to be respected too. When equality in rights is requested, equality in civic duties should be presented as well, this is the biggest problem of the segregation. Because after all, nobody wants to be the stupid one right? Please, write the whole truth and don't believe to everything people claim, just as you want us to do.

Dear Aleksandra Dzhermova:
1) Yes, there were probably a big number of Roma people that came from other neighborhoods to take products and goods collected for the victims of the flood, but they were not only Roma. The FACT is that there were lots of poor people that came from other districts of Varna to benefit from the aid collected for the victims of the flood. But usually people like you, who consider themselves democrats and human rights defenders, simply relate Roma people to poor people and generalize blaming all Roma of being unscrupulous opportunists.
2) Yes, there were illegal houses built from Roma more than 30-40 years ago in the ravine but 90% of these houses have been legalized by the local authorities in the following years. The houses you claim to be out of the urban planning have addresses, electricity, water supply – how could they have been illegal then?! Moreover, massive houses of ethnic Bulgarians have been built just down the road from the Roma houses in the lower part of the ravine. These houses also suffered from the flooding. Why and who allowed these houses to be built in the ravine? By addressing the lawfulness of Roma houses, address the lawfulness of these Bulgarian houses as well and then you will really speak with facts and objectivity.
3) Yes, there are reasons for the flood, but you may agree that still there is no an expert assessment of the real causes of the flood. By the way, after Asparuhovo, there were floods in the regions of Dobrich, Veliko Tarnovo, Gabrovo and the latest in municipality of Miziya. There are no Roma illegal houses there, then what are the reasons for the floods there?
4) Yes, I believe that some of the Roma people may have screamed “Let’s make Bulgarians to soap!” and I strongly condemn such a demeanour but you might know that every action has equal and opposite reaction. Instead of integrating Roma, most Bulgarians simply reject Roma: you perhaps know that in Varna 20,000 signature were collected by an initiative committee against a housing project of the municipality; or you may know that in Asparuhovo Roma students are segregated into separate classes under the pretext that if Roma children are mixed with the Bulgarian children, the Bulgarian parents will begin to remove their children from this school…
5) Yes, I totally agree with you that the rights should be considered in the context of our responsibilities as citizens. But can you tell me who actually care for Roma to realize their civic role together with the rights and obligations? Integration of minorities can not happen by itself. It requires activity and responsibility by the social agents in society and the state; requires effort to overcome ethnocentrism and acceptance of diversity with calm and confidence. When the Bulgarian society is ready for this, then Roma integration will happen.
And last but not least, dear Aleksandra Dzhermova, I am sure you as a person claiming to respect human rights, are absolutely clear that nothing can justify any segregation and discrimination.

Zoning is a local discretionary aurhority of the municipal mayor under the local planning and development. Local authorities are put in the middle of the problem. It is not important if the constituents are minorities. We believe and implement humane living in our respective locality.

Dear Aleksandra,
We write the truth we experience, see and hear from victims because all we heard from Bulgarian media is simply blaming the Roma for the floods. I myself went to witness what happened in Varna. Lili, who also responded to you, works for more then a decade trying to improve the situation of Roma in Bulgaria. But we cannot do it alone. We need more people to understand why Roma are still segregated and isolated, and we need more people to act and to break the vicious circle they are in. We do not need to blame one another who is more and who is less guilty. For revealing the core reasons why Roma are in this situation we need to look back at the history and how governments treated them before. If you are interested you can check these fact sheets of CoE: http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/roma/histoculture_EN.asp
Let me know if you need more information. I will be happy to provide it for you.

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