n the last day of August, the summer boredom of a society that was on vacation after the two-month thriller on the subject of ·forming a government” was interrupted by the roar of bulldozers: the municipal authorities in the Slatina district had demolished several ·unlawful” Gypsy homes in Hristo Botev, a Roma ghetto in Sofia. On the same day, authorities in the Vazrazhdane district promised that they would soon carry out a similar operation in the small ghetto near the Serdika housing complex. The major newspapers, nationwide TV and radio networks gave these events a lot of coverage, some of them devoting full-page articles to it. Human rights organizations, both Bulgarian and international, objected. And afterwards, after the long weekend celebrating Unification Day on September 6th, the topic faded and disappeared. Now the last echoes of it are fading away, only to - with the help of the bureaucrats - arise again. There are more homes to be torn down. In this story, which still has no end in sight, there are several destructive factors: the motivation for the action and the complicity of local leaders in the face of nearly total passivity from the neighbours, as well as the reactions of many ·good-willed” pundits.
Why were the homes destroyed? For the good of society. Demolition took place in two parts of the Hristo Botev district. In one place it was in order to build a playing field, something that would doubtlessly be a welcome asset for this small Roma town that has no other sport facilities. The second place was cleared to make way for a chic, European-style apartment building with 86 apartments, for which there are already 200 applications, the municipality has proudly announced. But there is a subtlety here, an important additional detail: the homes were demolished mostly for the best interests of their inhabitants. Because, as you must agree, the municipal officials say, how can anybody live in such hovels, it can’t be normal? It is not normal, everyone would agree, and they would be right because we are indeed talking about some pathetic ruins. So now what are those who, come winter, won’t even have a thatched roof over their heads, supposed to do? That’s not our problem, the municipal players say (for example, the deputy mayor of Slatina, Mr. Stoilov, and the mayoral representative, Mr. Manov), those people were living illegally on municipal property. There is another basis, too, for this total disregard for the individual human being. That human being is Roma, and this means, first of
So a few hovels were knocked down, so what? Emil COHEN
all, that he or she is unpretentious (they were nomadic for so many centuries, going around in their caravans, they’ll manage somehow), second, he or she is a newcomer (we know all about them - coming to Sofia to make money but they have their homes in the countryside), and third, he or she is illiterate and ignorant, and therefore has no rights. Simply put, in the eyes of the administration, the inhabitants of the demolished homes are not citizens. It is even doubtful whether they think of them as human beings. Let everyone draw their own historical parallels. Thus we come to the second paradox. The demolition campaign undertaken in the Hristo Botev district would not have been possible if the several thousand local residents, or even just a small part of them, had stood up to the bulldozers. There is no official so insane as to order the machines to run people over. They would only have had something to gain from staging such protests: half of the houses in the district - while they are much better than the demolished shanties - are illegal, and nobody knows when or on what scale the next campaign will be undertaken. But the journalists present for the event were not just there to stare at the spectacle; TV stations were eager to interview satisfied local residents, who had been complaining about the filth, noise and stench of their newly-homeless neighbours. Their main argument, which was also insistently repeated by local Roma leaders, was: ·These people aren’t natives, they should leave, they are causing trouble for us natives.” It turned out that there were, in fact, some natives of the area among the inhabitants of the demolished homes, as well as some who simply had nowhere else to go. One example is Ms. Vera Zaykova, a widow with two children, who lives in a small cottage with no electricity (in order to be hooked up to the grid, one has to pay a bribe, and Vera has no money for such things) or running water. But the refrain ·They’re not natives” kept repeating over and over, like a broken record. It turned out that local Roma organizations had circulated a petition against these dwellings and their inhabitants. Some of those who signed it stated that they hadn’t known what they were signing due to illiteracy and childish trust in the local leadership. Many things regarding the municipality and social services are dependent on the advantages to be gained from that state of affairs, and every move is carefully calculated. Thus, the strategy of ·divide and conquer” did the trick once more. And the Roma politician Tsvetelin Kanchev announced to the people of the Slatina ghetto that he would help them, but he would not interfere on behalf of the Roma from the Hristo Botev district - because the latter had not supported
his party in the last elections. Now that is what we might call solidarity Bulgarian-Gypsy style. Why then should we be surprised at the surprise expressed in the media that the campaign took place in an atmosphere of total calm? During these events politicians, with some few exceptions, were silent observers, and the journalists were doing their job, commenting on the issue. Those politicians who had anything at all to say on the matter (for example, MPs from the right-wing Attack Coalition) stated that ·the law is the law, and it is applicable to everyone.” However, they did not call for the demolition of unlawful villas in the upscale suburban Boyana and Dragalevtsi areas. Meanwhile, the media, shocked by what they had seen, began to spew forth a flurry of instructional articles on how the inhabitants of the demolished hovels should go live in abandoned military barracks. However, the crux of the matter is that nobody uttered a word about relocating these people before the actual demolition took place. Discussions on that topic only began afterwards. It just might be possible for the municipality to conduct negotiations with the Defence Ministry regarding former military bases that could be used to shelter the homeless. Unfortunately, experience has taught us that nothing is likely to result from such negotiations. And demolitions are still set to take place in the Serdika housing complex, as well as the removal of the caravans parked along Europa Boulevard in Sofia. Here I am setting aside the fact that the only basis for the demolition was the fact that the dwellings had been built on municipal property. This is said of places where the borderline between private, state-owned and municipal territory is, to put it mildly, extremely fuzzy, because there are no regulations pertaining to it (for this reason a large part of the sturdier, more decent houses in the Hristo Botev district are also unlawful). Everything seems to indicate that the procedures required by the Construction and Territory Act were not adhered to, and that the people affected had no opportunity to defend themselves in court. In fact, lack of education and of money would probably have prevented them from doing so anyway, but that is beside the point. And the order issued in March 2005 by the Sofia Municipality, which introduced a requirement for registration of one’s residency - a document far outside the boundary of the normal - should also be made the target of a special analysis and challenged in court. I do not know whether this campaign was someone’s way of testing the waters of public opinion before the Sofia local elections, or if it was just plain racism, garnished with some bureaucratic heartlessness. The scariest thing is that there were quite a few people who were confounded by the alarm bells sounded by human rights organizations. ·What’s the big deal, it’s just a couple Roma shacks, who cares... ?” That was what they all seemed to think, in unison: bureaucrats, local leaders and ordinary people. Forty years ago, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report On The Banality Of Evil, Hannah Arendt called that sort of thinking and the thing it led to - the Holocaust - ·a crime against humanity.” We can only take consolation that in our case, there has been no talk of gas chambers.
Published on Mar 7, 2011
O n the last day of August, the summer boredom of a society that was on vacation after the two-month thriller on the subject of "forming a...