And they come down to this: I’ve always tried to be careful as a journalist to avoid writing about things I know nothing about, especially when I’m new to a country. And last week’s ethnic tensions and rioting over Bulgaria’s Roma (Gypsy) minority pose a big challenge for someone who tries to be careful with the facts.
It all started Sept. 23 with the killing of a non-Roma teenager in the southern village of Katunitsa. (Though already I’m straying onto thin ice, because some would say these troubles have been brewing for years and not just days.)
Angel Petrov, 19, was run over by a mini-van driven by someone with alleged ties to Kiril Rashkov, whom everyone seems to feel comfortable referring to as a Roma crime boss. And then things began to truly unravel.
Protesters — some call them nationalists or soccer hooligans — descended on Rashkov’s luxurious home and set it afire. Mobs formed in other cities, including the capital of Sofia, calling for Gypsy blood and vowing to “turn them into glue.” Roma were photographed brandishing knives and axes in their neighborhoods — many call them slums — and vowing to defend themselves. Police set up barriers.
This pattern has been repeated, more or less, for a week. A few others have been injured, and a few hundred protesters (“over 350,” according to the local news agency) have been arrested.
The problem is, few of the protesters seem to be talking about Angel Petrov anymore. Nationalist politicians have been making hay over the incident, howling about the “Gypsy crime” problem and rallying supporters in advance of presidential elections on Oct. 23. Folks on the street are listing all kinds of problems attributed to the Roma.
A few commentators are connecting the dots and suggesting that some of this unrest — the mobs, the rallies, the brochures — might have something to do with those elections. But you’d be surprised to see how many reputable news organizations are leaving out that key detail.
Most Bulgarians feel the Roma have an “easy ride,” reports the Christian Science Monitor. There’s a perception that many don’t pay their taxes, and protesters told the reporter about relatives who had been mugged.
Much of this, of course, is hard to prove. Inaccurate census data means it’s hard even to get a fix on how many Roma live in Bulgaria. Some say less than 400,000 out of 7.7 million, while others say the true number is 700,000 or more.
What I can verify with my own two eyes is this. I’ve met a handful of Roma and they tend to work quite hard, often with their hands. Frequently they’re the ones cleaning houses or driving horse carts through Sofia neighborhoods to gather usable trash. Sometimes they’re wearing ties and driving cars. In either case, I can’t say whether or not they paid their fair share of taxes. (And tax evasion is a problem the world over and not just in poor communities, isn’t it?)
I’ve also come across a good number of people who are working hard to eliminate the poverty, segregation and discrimination that many agree are problems for the Roma community here. Some Roma are themselves working on such issues. Others go to college, find good jobs, and try to hide their ethnicity.
“They hide just like I did,” writes Violeta Naydenova of the Open Society Institute. “Deeply rooted stereotypes in our society made us feel like second-class citizens; like we are not part of society and that we only belong in ghettos and mahalas.”
The closer one looks, the harder it becomes to generalize. But I’ll do my best.