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Behind the wall

Tatiana Vaksberg / dcApril 7, 2015

The Roma settlement in the Bulgarian city of Vidin is hidden behind a wall. People dig holes through it rather than walk around it. DW reporter Tatiana Vaksberg lived there for a month.

Bulgarien Roma-Siedlung der Stadt Vidin
Image: DW/T. Vaksberg

For 30 days, I lived in Tschaika Street - an address that isn't very helpful when looking for a job. My neighbor Radostina (not her real name) got a job as a saleswoman, but that lasted only for two days. When her boss saw her registration form with her address on it, he fired her. Only Roma live in Tschaika Sreet, and, according to surveys, 48 percent of Bulgarians don't want to work alongside members of this minority group.

I moved into the settlement on March 8 to experience daily life with the Roma. I had packed a city map that proved to be completely useless. On the map, it looked as if the settlement was directly connected to the city of Vidin in northwestern Bulgaria. But in reality, it is located behind a concrete wall that stretches several kilometers. A long detour via a graveyard leads out of the settlement and into the city.

Municipal authorities said that the wall was built "for security reasons" - and has nothing to do with discrimination against the Roma. It separates the Roma homes from the railroad tracks, they said, protecting the many children in the settlement from accidents. And they pointed out that the wall is not a hindrance to pedestrians, due to a crossing point marked with blue paint.

Going to kindergarten through a hole in the wall

"My mama's legs hurt, she can't go up and down all the stairs. We'd rather climb through the hole," said five-year-old Mitko. He faces the wall at 9 a.m. every weekday, because his kindergarten is on the other side. Mitko, like all the other small children, climb through a hole in the wall to get there. It shortens the journey, but their clothes are dirty when they emerge on the other side.

Bulgarien Roma-Siedlung der Stadt Vidin
The wall around the Vidin's 'Nov Pat' or 'New Path' Roma settlementImage: DW/T. Vaksberg

The Roma who live here reject the city's justification for the wall. They say it's not about security. A 23-year-old teacher said that the city could have just built a barrier at the railway crossing, and that would have been enough. And a 70-year-old pensioner said that in the 40 years without a wall, there hadn't been a single accident on the tracks.

"We don't live in a ghetto"

From a European standpoint, it's clear: Building a wall around an ethnically defined minority settlement is akin to creating a ghetto, no matter what explanation is offered by the local authorities. That's especially true when the wall was built with taxpayers' money and staunchly defended, despite several petitions from the Roma.

However, it's difficult to understand how the Roma feel about the wall. People here rarely speak about the political aspects, and they remain silent about the psychological effect it has on them out of a sense of shame.

Many people I spoke with vehemently deny that their settlement has been turned into a ghetto. I often hear statements such as: "We don't live in a ghetto, we are normal people." The word "ghetto" is a personal insult; a suggestion that they will never rise out of the underclass.

Bulgarien Roma-Siedlung der Stadt Vidin
Some areas of Nov Pat frequently get floodedImage: DW/T. Vaksberg

The Roma settlement in Vidin is called "Nov Pat", or "New Path." The name sounds ironic, especially nowadays, given that there are no more direct roads into the city. Even the detour via the graveyard is no longer an option currently - the city is digging there to put in new water pipes. The Roma settlement just has to suffer the inconvenience, along with everyone else.

"All that's missing is a curfew"

But unlike everyone else in the city, the Roma are not getting any new water pipes. "All that's missing is a barrier and a curfew," said Dimiter, a Roma settler who, until recently, had a job in the city. He was laid off, not because of his ethnicity, but because of Vidin's poor economy.

At 23 percent, Vidin has the highest unemployment rate in Bulgaria. I spoke with Dimiter in his flooded courtyard. Hundreds of homes here are affected by flooding because there is no pump to deal with excess groundwater. He says that the authorities have an explanation for everything: the wall was built because of the railway tracks, and the new water pipes couldn't be laid because most of the houses in the settlement were built without the necessary permits. For Dimiter and many others, life in the settlement is stressful. There's no "new path," and no way out, as far as the eye can see.