The Invisible Ghetto – Varna’s Maksuda Neighborhood

| Spas Tzvetkov,

Five Roma houses were demolished, without any clear information about what will happen
to the families who had been living in them for more than 40 years

The Varna Gyspsy quarter of Maksuda, like many others in Bulgaria, was born “out of thin air” in 1945. Back then it was located on the edge of the city. Now the ghetto is practically downtown. The court battle for a 44-decare territory where part of the neighborhood is located has been going on for more than ten years. It is being waged by the Varna Regional Administration and the heirs of Gina Bagdatova, who now live in Botevgrad.

The property was conclusively restituted in 1999. The main part of it falls in the so-called “ravine” – which is now the most impoverished part of the neighborhood. The houses there are made of mud bricks, while their inhabitants consist of around 1,000 of the poorest Roma who came to Varna at the beginning of the 1990s in search of a way to make a living. Immediately following the restitution of the property, the owners began talking to the regional administration about resettling the Roma. According to the regional governor from that time, Petar Kandilarov, Bagdatova’s heirs were offered a different property in exchange. They, however, insisted on impossible conditions – a property of the same size, but closer to the center of the city. At the same time, the price of the land the ghetto occupied was constantly rising, because these negotiations coincided with the height of the so-called construction boom in Varna.

How precisely the negotiations between the Bagdatovi and the government concluded remains a secret. The fact is, however, that the negotiations themselves have already been forgotten. What has also been forgotten is the fact that after the decisive end of the restitution procedure, the arrival of the bailiff in the ghetto to turn the property over to its new owners was not merely a question of time. This delay was also likely due to the lack of an answer to the question: “Where are all the Roma going to go?” And so the dirty streams continued to flow down the steep, crooked, sidewalk-less streets, while alongside them naked children keep chasing hula hoops made of wire. Even before they grow up, they have already become the clients of the local drug dealers. The latters’ houses are big and ugly, jutting up obnoxiously amidst the awful misery all around. Otherwise misery seems to love bright colors – blue, yellow, pink…

In fact, Maksuda is a “hidden city.” Only its inhabitants enter there, because no one else cares what goes on inside it. It is a public secret that one of the most serious problems in the ghetto is the residents’ lack of address registration and ID cards. Nobody knows exactly how many people live there, nor how many houses and sheet metal shacks there are – simply because they are all illegal. Over the years, this problem was a “secret clause” when power was handed over from one municipal administration to the other. The Regional Directorate for National Construction Control (RDNCC) also kept silent, as did the police and the state… And so it was until the beginning of this year, when it suddenly turned out that five Roma houses stood in the way of widening Devnya Street. It leads traffic out of the city center towards its western industrial zone.

Black Hole

On January 4 of this year, Galin Baev, head of RDNCC in Varna, announced that he was prepared to begin the demolition of four of the illegal structures hanging over the slope along Devnya Street, as long as he could get the necessary constituent records for it. According to the municipal administration, the houses presented an obstacle to a plan for reinforcing the slope over the lakeside Devnya Street. According to Baev, two tip-offs concerning unregulated construction works in the neighborhood were received by the directorate already at the end of 2010. One came from a citizen, the other from the ultra-nationalist group VMRO. “In order to begin to remove the houses, however, we need to have constituent records from the regional administration certifying their illegality,” the director of RDNCC said then.

The Roma neighborhood in the heart of Varna is split between two municipal sub-regions: Odessos and Mladost. According to the Regional Mayor of Odessos Tanya Vasileva, her administration could begin to verify the legality of the buildings there only after receiving the results of inquiries which it was waiting for from several institutions. “The municipality and the regional administration must provide us with information concerning the ownership of the properties upon which the houses have been built, while we are waiting for information from the Registration Agency as to whether title deeds have been issued for any of them. The cadastral office needs to make a statement concerning the ownership of the houses in the neighborhood,” Vasileva said, explaining the complicated procedure. According to her, the constituent records alone are not sufficient for the demolition of illegal structures. It must be clarified who the properties they have been built on belong to and who exactly performed the construction.

In Mladost, the region in whose territory the larger, remaining part of the Roma ghetto falls, there is data on approximately 200 illegal structures which are dangerous due to lack of adherence to building codes during their construction. The regional administration clarified that all of them are built on terrain that has been designated for landscaping according to a project that is part of Varna’s General Construction Plan. During the renovation of roadways in the region during May of 2010 the presence of several illegal structures on municipal lands was established. Constituent records for them have been sent to the RDNCC; however, their removal has been delayed due to court proceedings, the administration in Mladost further explained.

On the Street

On the day when the demolition of the obstructive Roma houses was to begin, the municipal administration in Varna announced in reply to questions from the media that the order from the Directorate for Construction Control had been issued back in June of 2010 and that it concerned precisely the five illegal structures that fell within the borders of the plan for widening Devnya Street.

Several hours after the beginning of the campaign to demolish the houses it was halted, since the order for the compulsory removal of the Roma from the ghetto turned out to be groundless. Despite this, thirty-five residents of the buildings were removed from their homes under reinforced police presence and were left without shelter.

According to Stoycho Bakalov, head of the Directorate for the Maintenance of Public Order and Security for the Varna Municipality, the families had somewhere to go, but they denied this publicly, most likely so that new homes would be given to them. In the meantime, several Roma families began tearing down their own houses in order to save the construction materials and their household goods.

Despite the arrival of the designated day and hour, the destruction of the remaining houses did not begin on February 17, either. This time the reason was that the DNCC was waiting for the Varna Municipality to secure shelter for the Roma who were chased from their homes. It turns out that as early as February 1 of this year, the DNCC informed Varna Mayor Kiril Yordanov that it would move to demolish the illegal houses only after the families living in them had been resettled in other housing. The motive for this decision was that the meteorological conditions during winter were extremely unsuitable for people to be left out on the street. Three days after the date slated for the beginning of the demolition of structures in Maksuda, however, no information had been presented regarding action on the part of municipal administration to secure shelter for the inhabitants of the buildings facing demolition, who also included small children. In a letter from the DNCC dated from February 1, 2011, the mayor of the Varna Municipality was informed that the compulsory execution of the demolition orders that had come into force would be carried out only after the resettlement of families to other homes, given the adverse meteorological conditions during the winter season.

The mayor of the Varna Municipality, however, issued only a single Order № 0522/09.02.2011, which gave instructions that the municipal property upon which the structures were located should be seized.
The actions of the municipal administration in the execution of the mayor’s order are not in accordance with and do not fall under the control of the DNCC, the letter to Kiril Yordanov further explained. It further clarifies that at that time, the DNCC still had not received information about actions taken by the municipal administration to secure housing for the inhabitants of the buildings.
Finally, on February 25, the RDNCC-Varna published a message on its website stating that after the forcible removal of families from their homes undertaken by Kiril Yordanov’s administration, the directorate intended to go forward with the demolition of the structures. The unspoken part of that message could only mean that the five houses in Maksuda would be destroyed, despite the fact that their residents would be left out on the street. This happened on March 2.

A Possible Solution

Six years ago in Varna it was announced that a project existed according to which a small neighborhood of several dozen houses would be built for the homeless and the indigent. Besides homes, this neighborhood would also have a medical clinic and a kindergarten. According to published data, the project cost around three million leva, while part of the funds had to be secured within the framework of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 Initiative.

Now, four years before the end of the decade, it is becoming ever clearer that the neighborhood isn’t going to happen.
Another EU-financed project was supposed to allow Roma from the village of Kamenar near Varna to build their own houses. The residents of Maksuda were also supposed to be included in it, as an attempt at a partial resolution of the problem with the ghetto. In the village at the moment there are around 140 municipal houses and the families living in them pay their rents and try to maintain normal everyday living condition, according to the mayor of Kamenar, Svetoslav Raykov. There are several families with upwards of 15 children, but the tendency is for family sizes to decrease. Young Roma rarely have more than five children and try to secure better living conditions for them. “If the project is realized, the new community will be built precisely in the western part of Kamenar – in the Roma neighborhood,” Raykov clarifies.

The village itself was quick to respond to the proposed project, however. At the beginning of March, 825 signatures were collected opposing the resettlement of Roma from Maksuda in Kamenar. Residents of the neighboring village of Kumanovo were also recruited to the cause. According to Svetoslav Raykov, in their letter to the Varna Municipal Council, the protestors from both villages and the villa zones around them threatened to block the road to Varna if their demands were not met. Their ultimatum was immediately taken to heart, since an eventual blockade would create problems for hauling garbage from the region. The problem was further complicated by the unwillingness of the Roma living in Kamenar to accept the people from Maksuda as neighbors. “Just look at what it is there – a pigsty!” said one of the leaders of the protest, Ivan Hristov. “There are lots of drug addicts in Maksuda, tons of crime. If some of the Roma from there come to Kamenar, conflicts will be inevitable,” he categorically declared.

The New Ghetto

Left without a roof over their heads, the Roma from the five demolished houses in Maksuda built a shantytown of shacks near the shores of Varna Lake several days after March 2. Thirty or so people have settled into the “bungalows” only a few meters from the tracks of the Varna-Sofia railway line, despite the fact that the region around the rails has the status of a special zone, with the Transport Police responsible for keeping it untouched. The new ghetto seems to be invisible. No one has reacted to its sudden appearance – not the police, not the RDNCC, not the regional management of the Bulgarian State Railways, and not the Varna District Administration as a representative of the state, which owns the land.

“We’ve been here since they tore down our houses,” Ivanka Dobreva says. “No one has come to chase us away, to say ‘Get out of here!” According to her, some of the people who were left out on the street have moved into other Roma houses as renters. “But we don’t have any money, so where could we go? So that’s why we came and built here,” she explains. “The old house was illegal, too, but we lived there for forty years. My children were born there, my grandchildren, and great-grandchildren…”

Most of the Romas’ household goods are being kept in storage as arranged by the municipal administration. The three families aren’t in any rush to go get their things, since their huts are too small for most of it. They sleep on the ground, surrounded by their animals. In front of a local newspaper, the Roma declared that they would leave their shantytown if they were offered housing in exchange. Until then, however, they’re staying by the rails.