After last summer’s floods, the people in Velingrad want land for new buildings, not caravans
The Roma are living on top of an old graveyard, they organised human chains to stop funeral processions Hristo HRISTOV
he reason that I decided to visit Velingrad was the concern among local Roma activists caused by the negligence of the institutions to the problems of 18 Roma families left homeless after last the floods last August. Roman Chilev, whom the locals call the Good Teacher, welcomed me. Emil Gaitanov, the local Roma leader, also joined us. The Anezitsa Romani neighbourhood in Velingrad is located at the end of the town’s Chepino district. The houses are spread out on the surrounding hills and looked quite picturesque from a distance. The picture is very different at close range. WE REACHED ANEZITSA AND THE ASPHALT ROAD ENDED
The rain kept pouring, and Chilev offered me a pair of rubber boots, which I found useful. Plucking up courage, I stepped into the mud. The only dirt road that goes to the centre of Anezitsa is covered with garbage and manure on one side, and on the other, rocks and mud from the landslides have not been cleared away. The water runs in from every direction, past the houses, gathers the garbage and pours into the only road, which we are using. When 35 years ago this land was given to the Roma 14 OBEKTIV
for their houses in Anezitsa, the measurements were in footsteps, not in square meters. Back then, however, there were few Roma families, much fewer than today. Now there are 1,700 people and the number increases every year. There is no room for new houses. Who would have thought this would be a problem one day? We reach the caravans. White, clean and shiny. Four of them are placed on the right side of the road and two of them have been moved by a large mass of mud, stones and a huge piece of rock fallen from the bank. On the other side, is the ground with another 14 caravans. It resembles a war scene. Children play without suspecting any danger. People gathered rapidly and started sharing their problems. Assen Nikolov is 40 years old and his wife Liliana - 35. They have seven children. Two of their sons are married. The oldest, Manol, 19, lives independently in a one-room caravan with his wife and child. The other one, seventeen-year-old Ivan and his pregnant wife are living together with his parents and five siblings. ·I had a nice little house, the whole neighbourhood knows it. Furnished, solidly built with bricks and rocks, nicely plastered. It had three bedrooms and a living room. The whole family lived there. Only I know what it cost me to built it. We managed to live in it for only two years and a few months. The water took it away. They gave us 1,000 leva [500 euro] and we bought beds, a wardrobe, a Continued on page 16
Velingrad mayor Stoyan Dulev:
There is no other spot for temporary homes The Roma representative proposed to mayor Dulev to set up a public council on ethnic issues, to draft a working strategy on minority issues. Dulev promised to put this to a vote in the municipal council and to create a position for a Roma expert in his administration. -Mr. Mayor, the people are concerned that with the melting of the snow there is a danger of new floods. What will happen to them? - There is no other place to put the caravans, or where we can give the Roma people land for new houses. On the territory of Velingrad we have eight municipal plots of land. The only available place is on the hill at Anezitsa. This site alone is suitable for the caravans, or else we would have had to destroy more houses than the number of the caravans. The electricity supply and electrometers are provided at our expense. The people need only to pay every month for what they have used. The entire Anezitsa neighbor-
hood has no sewers and right now we are applying for approval for a project worth 400,000 Eur for Anezitsa. We are still waiting for a reply from the Ministry of Disaster Management Policy for a project to build a new support wall. We are in the process of preparing projects for Euro funds in 2007 under the programme for environmental protection. We want to built riverbanks and walls where we had landslides. - Is it true that the 82,000 leva allocated for Anezitsa sewers is missing? - I don’t know, I was not mayor at that time. - Are the promised 35 houses going to be built? - The houses were supposed to be donated by the Bulgarian Red Cross. All they wanted from us was the land. - How do you plan to work with the Roma people since there isn’t a single Roma representative working in the administration? - We do not have the budget for that. We will have to dismiss someone instead.
Alexander Filipov, Deputy Minister for Disaster Management Policy:
·I am shocked” - Do you think it is ethical and moral to let people live on top of a graveyard, with no toilets and running water? - Many Roma neighborhoods in the country do not have sewage and running water. But to hear that people are living in a graveyard is shocking. It is severe a violation, not only of moral and ethical norms, but also blasphemy and desecration of a holy place. It is not acceptable for such things to happen today. The guilt must be ascribed to those people and institutions responsible for the territory on which the Roma people live. - Will the little bridge over the river be replaced with something more stable? There is a great danger that it will collapse, and the children use it to go to school. - I want to make it clear that the Permanent Committee on Disasters is not part of our Ministry, but part of the State Agency for Civil Protection. Many mayors say ‘We don’t receive money’. In fact they do, but do not deal with the problems of the Roma people. The Roma people are just as much citizens of Bulgaria and the mayors should not neglect their problems. - Have you heard about the missing 82,000 leva which had been allocated for sewage in the Roma neighborhood in Velingrad?
- If a complaint has been filed, then it should be in Minister Emel Etem’s office. I am not trying to avoid responsibility, but my field of work is legislation and as regards anything else, you should ask Minister Etem and the permanent committee. If I have to comment on this case I must know if there is such a funded project, who is the executor and whether nothing has been done to inform the committee. The committee supervises and controls these things. In our draft bill these functions will go to the district governors because they know the problems of their regions and would know how to solve them. - Are the promised 35 houses going to be built? - I cannot answer. I was appointed on November 15, 2005 and by that date all such processes had been completed. - Do you think that there should be a Roma expert in the municipality? - Yes, because he will be the link between the institutions and the Roma people. Otherwise this community will live in complete darkness and will not know what is happening in the state and what rights it has. Today if they have a problem they do not have anyone to turn to. I think that the lack of such an expert is a minus for Velingrad municipality. OBEKTIV 15
Continued from page 14 table and chairs. We are living in two rooms now. My wife and I and the five kids sleep in one of the rooms, the other is for my son and his pregnant wife. We’ve suffered a great deal of misery this year, we lived almost like dogs. It is very cold in the caravans. If there’s no wood in the stove, everything freezes. The heat, on the other hand, makes curves in the plastic surfaces of the caravan walls. Last month they turned on the electricity supply. Before that we had to use candles. Now we collect metal, which we take to scrap yards so that we can make some money. Look at how our children go to school, with torn shoes and clothes. We are forced to send them like that because otherwise they won’t give us welfare. It would have been better if they just had given us construction materials to built new houses”. THE LITTLE GIRL IS EMBARRASSED AND HER HEAD BOWS. SHE HOLDS HER DOLL AND LOOKS AT ME SHYLY. Tsvetan Nikolov, 28, and Verka Slavcheva, 24, have no children. They used to live in a three-room house. When the water damaged it, they received the sum of 537 leva [app. 270 euro]. Now they are living in a one-room caravan. ·They promised us land, construction materials, but instead they gave us these caravans. They said that the one we are living in is worth 3,500 leva [1,750 euro]. Do you know what they did? A platform over the graveyard. We are living on top of graves. They just covered them with some earth. Leveled it a bit, and now we are living on top of them. This is why they do not allow us to built toilets. How are we supposed to live like this? We have been in this caravan for three months now, and before that, together with 18 other families, had to welcome the first snow on the meadow in nylon tents. Some women even gave birth in those tents because the doctors did not want to examine them. A pregnant girl was not admitted to a hospital because she had no money to pay. In the end we collected some money so that she could give birth in the hospital. At night our women do not go outside. They just use a bucket in the caravan, it is inhuman. There are just afraid to go out at night... The children also are afraid of going out at night, during the day look at where they play... Watch out that you don’t step on something! I told you that there is no toilet”. Ignat Kolev, 51, and Slavka Nikolova, 53, have five children. They used to live in a three-room house next to the river. After the floods destroyed it, they received 774 leva [app. 390 euro]. ·When on August 5 they gave us the three tents, there was not enough room for all the families and I had to make a shed from derbies so that my family could have shelter. We had to live like that with the little children during the cold until November 25. It was until yesterday (March 10) when they finally sent a lorry with firewood. We are supposed to receive three cubic metres of wood but they missed five families. We saw on TV that in other places, people received bricks, cement and timber to build houses, and we are stuck here so that they can say that something was done.” Sofka and Zheko Zafirovi are both 33 and have two children. ·Last week Mr. Nikolov (a technician at the municipality) came and told us that we could live in the caravans for 20
to 30 years. We do not agree with that. I have a 15-year-old son and tomorrow he will want to get married. Where should I put him? What about our youngest child? Do you know how cold it gets in the caravans? I have seen ice underneath the caravan more than 20 cm thick. It is wet all over the place. We bought new furniture with the money they gave us but it all got moldy. There was a time when the carpet was so frozen that I could not remove it from the floor. It was soaking wet. I do not want to spend another winter in that caravan. They are meant to be heated with electricity, not with stoves as we do. They warned us that if there is damage we would have to pay for it”. Rositsa, 50, and Boris, 47, Terekievi had a three-room furnished house. Now they are living together with their grandchild in a one-room caravan. They have a double bed inside, a wardrobe, a cupboard, a table, a stove and a free space of around 50 cm, good enough for a spin. You can see that the furniture is new. In fact all caravans I entered had new furniture. The people obviously did not spend the money in the pub. Rositsa is ill and was laying on the bed. She complains of a nervous disorder. After what I have seen in the caravans I stayed to discuss it with Roman Chilev, Emil and Assen. This is how Emil’s idea was born: We need a Romani representative at the municipality. We want to get over the problems, we need a Roma expert on ethnic and demographic issues. This man could be the link between the Roma community and the municipality. We are ready to help but there is no one to lobby for us and to raise issues openly and seriously. We only have a municipal counsellor and he hasn’t been of much help.” I found Stefen Assenov, the municipal counsellor of the Roma Party, to ask him what has changed since our last meeting last year. He told me that 82,000 leva [41,000 Eur] meant for sewers in the Roma neighborhood had disappeared. The money went on something else. The money was received at the end of the term of the former mayor and some say that they were spent for election campaigning. ·We sent a letter to the Ministry for Disaster Management Policy about this and they just told us to inform the Prosecutors’ Office and the tax authorities. An investigation is going on right now,” Assenov said. He added that a new proposal for a water supply network and sewers in the Roma neighborhood had been sent to the Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works. The project would cost 400,000 Eur, but there was still no reply. ·The old graveyard in the Chepino neighborhood in Velingrad was turned into a children’s playground after the municipality decided to put the caravans for the Roma there. Now 60 people are living in 18 caravans on top of a cemetery,” says Emil Gaytanov. ·During the day our children play among the graves and during the night are scared to go out. Several times, we have asked the mayors to stop the funerals here. Eight years ago the municipal council decided all funerals would be in the central cemeteries. Some people continued to come here but we formed a human chain and they turned back. Until recently relatives of the buried were coming to take the bones and to bury them somewhere else. We could not eat. Especially in the summer the smell from fallen graves is unbearable”.
Publication of the journal Obektiv, number 131 of 2006 author Hristo Hristov