PLOVDIV, Bulgaria, Feb 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On a cold day in January, Ivanka Angelova was at home with her daughter and four grandchildren when the village mayor arrived and advised them to leave.
Two neighbours - brothers aged 17 and 21 - were accused of beating up a local resident. The victim, a soldier, had been hospitalised.
Angelova, who like the brothers is from Bulgaria’s minority Roma community, said the mayor told her that villagers were out for revenge. He was concerned her family might be attacked.
She and most of the 76-strong Roma community fled Voyvodinovo village that evening, Jan. 6, and headed ten kilometres to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city.
“We were spread all over the place like a broken egg,” said Angelova, a widow, wiping away tears.
Bulgaria, which joined the European Union in 2007 and is its poorest member, has one of the bloc’s largest Roma minorities.
As in other EU countries, many Roma live on the fringes of society and struggle for work - with those in small settlements facing legal problems when it comes to land ownership, says the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), a human rights group.
After Angelova and her family fled, the authorities started to demolish the cluster of 17 small homes at the village’s edge. When the Thomson Reuters Foundation visited three days later, three houses had been destroyed and several others damaged.
Notices were pasted to the other homes to notify residents that theirs would be demolished too.
According to the 2011 census, there were 325,000 Roma people comprising about 5 percent of Bulgaria’s 7.3 million people. The European Commission, however, estimates there are more than twice as many Roma - about 750,000 people.
In the week following the assault on the local resident, nationalist and far-right groups held nightly gatherings in Voyvodinovo.
And at a Jan. 8 press conference, Krasimir Karakachanov - the deputy prime minister and head of the nationalist VRMO party - referred to the incident when he said “gypsies ... have grown exceedingly insolent”.
In a statement posted on its Facebook page, the BHC expressed “grave concern about multiplying cases of racist hate speech from Bulgarian government officials and frequent collective punishments for Roma communities”.
The BHC said the local authorities’ treatment in this case mirrored “many similar cases” of forced evictions of “illegal Roma settlements without providing adequate alternative housing, leaving those people homeless”.
Other rights groups are also concerned about how the Roma people are treated in Bulgaria.
The Equal Opportunities Initiative Association (EOIA), which works on Roma development and rights issues, said in a 2017 study that one in four Roma homes were “illegal” - lacking land title, building permits or both. It noted other researchers had put the figure far higher.
Between 2012-2016, the EOIA said, information provided by three in every five municipalities revealed that 399 out of 444 housing demolition orders affected the sole residences of Roma families.
Daniela Mihaylova, a lawyer who co-authored the report, said in an interview that the data showed a correlation between the timing of elections and the number of demolition orders carried out - with nationalist parties using “the general anti-Roma trend in society to motivate more voters”.
Such targeting of the Roma by the right-wing alliance of United Patriots were “part of a strategy of distraction” and a way to deflect attention from corruption scandals, said Ognyan Isaev, country facilitator for The Roma Education Fund, and a Roma rights activist.
BHC chairman Krassimir Kanev said he was shocked that residents were chased from their homes in sub-zero temperatures, and that the demolitions were hastily carried out without allowing time for residents to gather their belongings.
He said Bulgarian law required residents be given notice, time to prepare an appeal, and the right to demolish their own homes and salvage the materials.
He said the BHC had helped residents appeal the removal orders. In the meantime, the municipality was forced to stop demolishing homes until the court considers the appeal. That could take weeks, he said.
In a case brought by the BHC to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the court ruled in 2012 that in seeking to evict Roma from a community in the capital Sofia, the Bulgarian authorities had violated one’s “right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”.
Kanev said the ECHR recognised that “you cannot evict people on an arbitrary basis leaving them without any shelter”.
In 2015, the ECHR called on the Bulgarian authorities to halt forced evictions of Roma families or provide them with alternative housing, the Open Society noted at the time.
However, they have repeatedly failed to do so, said Kanev. Meanwhile, he added, a number of other cases brought by Roma are pending adjudication at the ECHR.
Angelova said she had lived in her home since childhood.
But, said the mayor of Voyvodinovo, Dimitar Tosev - a former police chief - the land belonged to the municipality, and the Roma families had been warned they would have to move.
And, he added, villagers had demanded the municipality solve what they regarded as a long-standing problem.
“There have been a lot of issues - issues like integration.”
“(Villagers) wanted to see action from the municipality,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that the Roma had been left alone until the fight sparked outrage, and he felt compelled to act.
Those whose homes had been demolished, he said, “have places to go, and they will go where they should go”.
In Angelova’s case, she headed to Plovdiv’s Stolipinovo district, where 50,000 people inhabit densely-packed apartment blocks and small houses.
She and her family are staying at a friend’s apartment that is now crowded with 18 people.
In the village, she said, she and her Roma neighbours worked on an occasional basis earning 2.50 Bulgarian levs ($1.45) an hour harvesting crops. There she had a home and a life.
"(Now) we have nowhere to go, we have no work and no money ... I don't know how I will survive," she said. (Reporting by Jodi Hilton; Editing by Robert Carmichael and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)