"Don't take pictures or you will get thrashed." This is how you could be greeted if you dare to take out a camera in the Roma ghetto in Sofia's Krasna polyana district. The council flats, which house thousands of gypsies, became famous in 2007 when their inhabitants rioted in the streets of the neighbourhood, armed with clubs and knives. The official version was that there had been a clash with some skinheads in the local café. Informally, people talked about the unrest having been caused intentionally for political benefit.
Although such events have not been repeated yet, outside observers rarely dare enter the apartments. People from the neighbouring flats continue to complain about the constant incursions of the Gypsies and about the difficulties living alongside them. Petitions have been raised to have them thrown out – not just because of the social problems but because the buildings themselves are dangerous to live in. Rumours that the crumbling flats will be demolished and the residents moved elsewhere are so far unfounded.
Today, the area around the flats resembles a film about bombings during the Second World War. The façades of the blocks of flats are peeled off, doors have been kicked in and windows broken. Tons of litter have accumulated over the years. At one end of the street a young man is using an axe to chop up a huge wooden pulley, probably to make kindling. At the other end a few people are pulling apart an orange mini van for salvage, which they will take to the nearby scrapyard. Barefoot children play in the litter. You can hear the sound of chalga in the distance. It is cold outside and most of the adults are inside watching TV – there is a satellite dish on almost every window sill.
New technology is admired here. Many of the children cannot read or write but manage fairly well with mobile phones. They don't go to school but they do know how to tune in to the chalga channel, Planeta. Alongside the horse carts, there are cars – some of them fairly new BMWs and Mercedeses.
The flats, whose official name is Builder's Village, were built by the council in the 1970s. They used to house mostly Vietnamese guest workers, which is why the area is also known as the Vietnamese Dormitories. In 1992, the workers departed, leaving the dormitories in a fairly good condition. A little while later, Gypsies and Bulgarians in need were moved here. After 1994, the mass housing of Gypsies from all over Bulgaria began. Some have found themselves in Sofia and most are homeless. The majority of them are kokalari – one of the lowest strata of the Roma hierarchy. The housing estate has now become a ghetto. Buildings are torn apart in search for anything that might be sold for scrap. There are huge holes in the walls and 10-15 people are crammed into a single flat. In the midst of the misery and destruction, hundreds of Gypsies live, marry and bear children. There are 350 families in nine of the 11 council blocks, paying a monthly rent of 20-50 leva, depending on the size of the apartment. There are 1,500 registered residents, but the real number is believed to be twice that.
"We are in such dire straits that I cannot even begin to describe our situation," says 38-year old Rumyana. She has been living here for over eight years. At present, she shares her two-bedroom flat with her two daughters, her sons-in-law and her five grandchildren. "In the block of flats across the street one woman and 18 children are living in a three-bedroom flat. But if you knock on the wall you will end up in your neighbour's flat," explains Rumyana, referring to paper-thin walls. "And there are rats. And some rats they are! Some of them weigh three kilos each."
Most families here live like this. The tiny flats can house as many as 10-15 people from a single family. There is no hot water and in some places there is neither a bathroom nor a toilet. There was heating once but the radiators have long since been removed and sold for scrap. "We heat ourselves with kindling wood, coal, we make the holes ourselves, build our own chimneys and the smoke gets out," says Rumyana. Indeed, you can see home-made chimneys everywhere, belching out clouds of black smoke. "We have a bathroom but we only have cold water. We heat it up with immersion heaters in order to take a shower," says Rumyana and adds that the power was cut in the middle of January because of unpaid bills. Out of the entire family, only the sons-in-law work. One of them works as a cleaner for the municipality and the other goes around and collects scrap iron.
"Everyone is digging in the garbage, whether you believe it or not," says an old Roma man who refuses to introduce himself or be taped. In spite of this, he enthusiastically explains how he used to work in Italy for 500 euro a month, money that he can never make in Bulgaria. But he is now sick and stays at home. He adds in broken Bulgarian: "If I were healthy, I would be looking at Bulgaria in photographs. My daughter is abroad. My son-in-law is abroad. Only my wife and I are here. Right now if I get crazy, we will go to England. How are we supposed to work here?"
"We don't want to work at construction sites for 20 leva a day," says 34-year old Dimitar Asenov, who refuses to explain how exactly he makes a living. When I ask him how the rest of the men survive there are different answers. "They chase after the women, what else can they do? Before, we used to steal. There were things we could steal. Now there is nothing." A few of the men laugh aloud in front of one of the collapsing blocks of flats. But, in all probability, the inhabitants of Krasna polyana have nothing to laugh about – street robberies and forced entries into basements have become routine.
But the inhabitants of the dormitories deny there is conflict with their neighbours. "There are more than 2,000 of us here. We don't have a problem with anyone," says Dimitar.
"The rumours that we steal are a lie. A deception," he adds angrily. "If we were really stealing, we wouldn't be here but at police stations or in prison, wouldn't we? They do not respect us because we are a minority. In Toshko's time (in socialist times, under the rule of Todor Zhivkov, whom Rumyana calls by the endearment Toshko), we were better off because he cared for everyone.
There were neither Roma then nor Bulgarians. Since the advent of this damned democracy there is no life for the minorities. Nobody wants us. I don't know why. Even if there are thieves, not everyone steals. They are on their own."
Among the inhabitants of the dormitories, there are people who work, send their children to school, and the flats they live in are clean and in a good condition. However, they are a minority.
Maria, who works as a cleaner at a neighbourhood school, says: "There are a lot of decent people here. In the beginning, it was cleaner, nicer here. There weren't so many people around. They have now accommodated Roma from all the villages, from all parts of Bulgaria and it is really terrible." Maria and her family were originally housed here temporarily – for three years – but they have been living here for 14. Their attempts to move elsewhere have been unsuccessful so far. Maria's biggest worry is the environment her children grow up in. "My son is in the eighth grade," she says. "My daughter works and studies at the same time. But I am worried that there are drug addicts, thieves, convicts. I desperately want to move because I can't provide any future for my children."
Although there was talk last summer of different projects for moving the Gypsies from the dormitories to safer homes and of the place being cleaned up and rebuilt, the problem has not yet been solved. The Gypsies are still crammed into the deteriorating buildings, continue to bear their children in the garbage-strewn environment and…watch cable TV.