The Bulgarian-Turkish border is often regarded as the place where Europe ends and the Orient begins. For the past two decades, however, its European side has been synonymous with depopulation, poverty and despair. Marked by steady unemployment and lack of hope, thousands of Bulgarians have fled their native places in search of a better life deeper in the country or abroad. This exodus has left a trail of destruction. For more than 20 years the only people who have managed to make a living there are human-traffickers and looters. Today the population of most villages is between 2 and 40 people compared to more than 1,000 four decades ago.
Just 2 solitary people prevent the border village of Matochina from being declared a ghost zone. The days of Hristo Andreev, a retired Communist-era militiaman from when Bulgaria was part of the Communist block (1946-90), and Dyana Georgieva, an elderly shepherdess, are spent in silence that many would find depressing. The silence, however, is broken every now and then by the sound of another roof or wall crumbling to the ground. The long-abandoned houses in Matochina have been left to the mercy of the elements for decades. And sometimes the peace and quiet of the place many Bulgarians brand as ‘godforsaken’ is disturbed by the patrolling cars of the Border police and the European agency Frontex. Since Matochina is less than a kilometer away from the border line, the sight of refugees trying to make their way into Bulgaria is a common place.
Under different circumstances Matochina would have been an attractive tourist destination. On a nearby hill overlooking the village are the ruins of the Medieval fortress of Bukelon. It was built in the 12th century as a guarding post of the town of Adrianople; what is today’s Edirne in Turkey. Due to lack of financing the fortress’s restoration has been put on hold for years. Visitors rarely decide to come back to the place, scared of the pot holes on the road, the lack of mobile-phone coverage and the fact that there is not even a functioning grocery store in the village.
‘The road to the nearby town of Svilengrad, our only connection to the world, was last repaired back in 1984. Can you imagine how hard it is for ambulances to reach us, if we ever manage to contact them in the first place?’ the retired militiaman Hristo asks. He lives in a house inherited by his parents. There are not even dogs in Matochina. ‘To protect us from whom…?’ questions Hristo.
Back in 1965 there were 800 people living in Matochina. Hristo recalls that each family had between 3 and 5 children. The decline began before the end of the Communist era. Matochina was declared a border-zone village and access to it was limited because the regime feared that visitors would be tempted to escape to Turkey. ‘At some point I had been working in town and they did not let me come to Matochina to see Mum and Dad,’ Hristo remembers. ‘Nothing can stop depopulation and degradation of border villages. Life will never [return] here. I am tired of politicians’ empty promises. I follow closely what is happening in Sofia but I no longer have faith. And what’s the point in voting, anyway? Nothing changes!’ the pensioner says in exasperation.
At the age of 69, Hristo considers himself too old for migration. ‘I am going to draw my last breath here. Sadly there is not a priest in Matochina. When I die they will have to call someone from elsewhere. Then they will put my coffin on a horse cart and take it to the grave yard,’ he explains. The local church, built in 1937, is emptied from all its valuable belongings. They are now kept in the municipality of Svilengrad as a caution against thieves. The orthodox temple is always open but people no longer enter for prayer; just pigeons and ravens scavenging and seeking shelter.
But the people of Matochina are too busy with their daily chores to think about death. The 81-year-old Dyana is constantly on the move between her house and her son’s sheep farm. The young man is taking care of a herd of more than 200 animals all by himself. He lives between Matochina and Svilengrad and is constantly frustrated by the lack of internet connectivity in the village, as it forces him to travel to town for every small thing that could otherwise be managed online.
People here tell the story of their neighbor who got into trouble for trafficking people through the Turkish-Bulgarian border. ‘This is what our region is famous for – people trafficking, goods smuggling and looting. This is where the money is,’ they say, though refusing to mention how much money can be made from those illegal activities. ‘It is obvious that those assets are spent elsewhere,’ Hristo infers.
The landscapes around Matochina are notorious for being preferred by Middle East and African refugees trying to enter Bulgaria on their way to Western Europe. ‘Those border police officers are here all the time. We can see how they pick refugees from the fields, put them on buses and take them to camps in the town of Harmanli and Lyubimets,’ Dyana explains. ‘We have never been harmed by the foreigners but nevertheless I don’t want them in Bulgaria. I have heard that they already have problems with the large number of refugees,’ Hristo adds. In his life time he has seen thousands of refuges of different nationalities, some of them carrying small children, others disabled, unable to walk, carried by their relatives.
‘Not a day passes by without at least one refugee caught,’ says Margo Apostolova from the nearby village Shtit. Although the name of the village translates as ‘shield’ people here are not convinced that the Bulgarian shield against migration is functioning. The headquarters of the border police is based here. But it is not the refugees who trouble the locals most. ‘Two decades ago the schools in [the] border regions were closed. “Not enough children,” they say. Close a school and you close life forever,’ Margo ponders. There are only a few children now in Shtit, and they are forced to travel 40 kilometres a day to be in school. This is financially challenging for their parents, most of them farmers and field workers.
‘It is never too late to learn. I am not counting on authorities and politicians to make my life better. Why should I?!’ exclaims Yanka Kostova, 72 years old and from another border village – Yerusalimovo. The retired shop assistant still drives her Fiat Punto for pleasure and has recently begun keeping accounts on Skype and Facebook. ‘She attended school only to 7th grade but her mind is as vivid as that of a teenager,’ her son Dimitar says. Not many Bulgarian pensioners living in the small border villages are acquainted with social media. But Yanka is eager to learn new skills in order to be able to communicate with her 4 grandchildren who live far from her. ‘It is hard working with a touchpad and without a mouse but I am tough and I will learn,’ she smiles. As depopulation continues, Yanka confesses that she is seriously pondering teaching her neighbors computer literacy since each of them has at least one grandchild living abroad.
Milena Mihova is a Bulgarian freelance journalist, based in London. She specializes in reporting on migration, refugees and social issues such as poverty, depopulation and unemployment. Milena has worked for two of the most popular Bulgarian newspapers, Maritsa and Pressa, as well as the national radio station Darik. Her report on the snow disaster of the Bulgarian mountain Rhodope earlier this year was published by the Guardian.
Hristo Rusev is a Bulgarian freelance photographer, based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Aged 20, Hristo has 4 years of experience in covering refugee crises, natural disasters and social unrest in the Balkans. His photographs have been published by the Guardian, Reuters and Associated Press. His picture from the Bulgarian refugee camp in Harmanli was appointed as February’s picture of the month by the European parliament. Hristo is currently contributing to the Italian photo agency NUR.
This article first appeared in New Internationalist Magazine. Click here to go to the original.