'If you had a dog, would you keep it here?' Eye witness


By Diana Simeonova


Standing in the muddy puddle outside the grey sliding gate of the Harmanli refugee camp in southeastern Bulgaria, I couldn’t help but ask myself how many European asylum officials would venture to be in my shoes now.

"I can't let you in. It's a closed facility and nobody has called me about your visit," the policeman shrugs. Minutes later he gets the call -- a local colleague has managed to pull some strings -- and we're in.

Suddenly, it feels as if we've been teleported right into the heart of a war zone. Men scurry for cover between skeletons of buildings, metal containers and khaki tents, wrapped up in blankets against the incessant drizzle (Thank God not shells!) that soon turns into snow.

Children -- many barefoot – wade through the freezing mud or try to keep warm by open fires and improvised stoves outside the tents, their eyes sore from the choking smoke that pervades the whole place.


Réfugiés sous une tente

(AFP Photo / Nikolay Doychinov)

Women do dishes in buckets outside, or drink tea from emptied glass jars, seated on soaked old mattresses or directly on the ground.

The 1,200 people here are all asylum seekers from Syria and Afghanistan. They paid thousands of US dollars to smugglers and braved a dangerous illegal crossing over the border from Turkey into Bulgaria with the hope of finding a safe haven in a European state.

Instead, they found themselves crammed into this deserted former army camp, under conditions that a visiting UNHCR official said "did not take an expert to qualify as inhumane."

"Everybody here run from war."

"I had house, car... But no life in Syria for us. Bombs falling. Go outside house, don't know if you come back alive at all," says 35-year-old Abdul Alghni, a lawyer from Aleppo, fighting for the right words in English.


Refugiés au camp

(AFP Photo / Nikolay Doychinov)

He tells me how he paid $300 per person to get smuggled over the border from Turkey with his wife and two small children -- aged one and two.

"Twelve hours," he says, gesturing to show me that they crossed on foot, carrying the children.

"Here so bad. Government forgot me here with my family," he adds, pointing to the rows of metal containers where his family lives together with several hundred others.

Then adds with a shrug: "Me better, there is people in tents."

"Come, come," he beckons, and we jump across the streams of rainwater running down the main alley to a decrepit building to the left.

Inside, smoke is everywhere. It seems as though the very air itself has been painted grey. Lines of yellowish bed sheets divide the two big ground floor halls into dozens of three-by-three-metre boxes -- each shared by a family.


Famille de réfugiés avec un enfant

(AFP Photo / Nikolay Doychinov)

Men smoke and warm their hands on the improvised stove -- made from a tin barrel. Women go back and forth between the halls and the six toilets and eight showers, carrying half-naked toddlers. Laundry hangs to dry any place possible.

Something bumps my leg. I look down and my gaze is met by the sparkling dark eyes of a small girl looking up at me. I smile at her and she winks back.

A bunch of men from Afghanistan crowd around me, asking who I am. None, except one teenager, speak English so all conversation with the group goes through him.

"My baby has bronchitis," 32-year-old Siawash Askary from Herat says, hugging a three-month-old boy, wrapped up in a pink-and-blue blanket. The baby’s face looks pale bluish -- I catch myself gazing at it to make sure he’s breathing.


Refugié avec un bébé dans les bras

(AFP Photo / Nikolay Doychinov)

"It's very cold, we have no money and no food. All babies are sick. We never imagined what we'll find here. If I knew I would never come," Siawash says.

"But in Istanbul everybody said that Bulgaria is good, that the border is open if you want to go to Europe," he adds.

"We want documents so that we can go to Germany but there is no attention for Afghanis, only Syrians," the men fume.

A young woman comes up to me, asking in English: "Can I speak to you?"

"I heard them saying bad things about Syrians. This is not true. It's the same for everybody," she says.

"Look, we share everything with them," a Syrian man adds, showing me lists of names detailing who got toilet paper, soap or any other basic necessity – all of which come from donations.

The appalling conditions here are too much for me already. I don't want to be turned into some kind of referee between two warring camps of refugees.

"Can you help me with translation, please? I want to go to the tents," I ask the man.

"Sure. Sure," he beckons and we're back outside in the rain, jumping puddles to reach the lines of khaki military tents at the back of the courtyard.

"Come," he waves and we walk on wooden planks that lead the way through the mud to a tent. There is the same stove made from a big bucket burning inside, next to seven beds lined up one against the other. Laundry hangs everywhere.


Femme refugiée avec deux enfants

(AFP Photo / Nikolay Doychinov)

A man, two women and four children nod at me to come in, pointing to a bed next to the stove, as they sit on the other beds and a mattress on the ground.

"I used to be a driver in Damascus. But we could not stay there after the war. We went back to our town of Qamishli," 48-year-old Abd Aljalil Bonja tells me through my new translator.

I had met with Syrians from Qamishli in a camp outside Sofia and I knew that they were Kurdish and ran from an area where Al-Qaeda linked groups performed a series of kidnappings of the local population for ransom.

"We had problems with the Muslims. My brother works for the UN. The Muslims kidnapped and killed his son. We were scared. The Muslims told us 'If you stay here, we'll kill you," Abd says, smoking a cigarette.

He and his wife and four children -- aged 4, 14, 20 and 22 -- crossed the whole of Turkey and paid $2,500 to come to Bulgaria.

"We are Kurdish. We were afraid to stay in Turkey. If you are Kurdish in Turkey, you have a problem," he says, hinting at Turkey's complicated domestic politics -- the separatist Turkish PKK Kurdistan Workers' Party has been fighting the Turkish government for decades.


Petit garçon refugié dehors

(AFP Photo / Nikolay Doychinov)

The women step into the conversation, muttering things to Abd, who then bombards me with a torrent of statements and questions:

"We thought Bulgaria was Europe. A normal country like Germany, France, Italy... But it's different."

"You can see for yourself -- the rain is coming down through the tent. And now it's snowing."

"Let me ask you something: 'If you had a dog, would you keep it here?'"

"The Bulgarian government is not doing anything for us. Nobody has come to ask how we are doing, do we need anything. It's a European country but there is no respect."

"The EU said they'll help, we heard. But nothing has changed. Does a child have to die for them to do something?"

"You know what. If it snows like that, I'll just pack my bags and go. I don't care if the policemen stop me or kill me."

We leave the tent and are out in the rain again, making our way back to the entrance among the rows of tents.

Shouts of "Rasheed! Rasheed!" are heard from a group of men and women, lining up the stairs of a nearby building.

"They are asking me if I knew what's going on in there. Somebody told them that whoever has a medical problem has to come here. Other people say it's for the fingerprints. Do you know?" my translator -- the Rasheed they're calling -- asks me.

No, I can't help.

There does not seem to be a soul inside the building and the door is locked.

"Bashar Assad good. Bulgaria no good," a man shouts, summing up the general despair.

The lack of any information for progress on their refugee status claims spreads all kinds of rumours among the people in the camp.


Petit garçon refugié joue dehors

(AFP Photo / Nikolay Doychinov)

"There was this guy who used to be here, but paid money to a lawyer and called from Germany two weeks later." "If you can pay the authorities, you get the papers." "If only we could get outside and go to Sofia. They say it's quicker there."

The excruciating truth is that it is not. Overwhelmed by the influx of more than 11,100 refugees so far this year, the government in the EU's poorest country would be unable to offer them tangibly better accommodation, or speed up the processing of claims enough to be felt by these people anywhere in the next weeks or months.

"I am sorry to tell you that but it's the same everywhere about the documents. It's just slow. At least they said they'll soon move the people from the tents," I tell Rasheed on the way back.

It dawns on me that this 35-year-old man -- dressed in a thin jacket and a dripping baseball cap -- saved my story today by translating back and forth between me and dozens of Syrian refugees who only spoke Arabic, writing down their names in upper case in my notebook.

And I never asked anything about him.

"Rasheed, you also come from nearby Qamishli, right?"


"What did you do for a living?"

"I was a tourist guide in Damascus. Almost like here."

"Did you come here alone?"


"Did you leave a family there?"

"Yes. My father, who was too old to travel."

"Have you heard from him?"

"No. I don't know anything about him. I tried to call but the lines were cut."

His eyes shine back at me and I am sure it's not the rain.

"You are important, you know. You are like a spokesperson for everyone here," I utter sheepishly. "Thank you for helping me. I hope things change for the better."

I ask him where he lives. "The tents?"

He nods back.

Short of words, I leave him and the rest to battle their new war for life all by themselves, feeling guilty for the whole European Union -- the same one that is based on fundamental rights such as dignity, liberty, solidarity.


Femme fixe l'appareil

(AFP Photo / Nikolay Doychinov)


'If you had a dog, would you keep it here?'  Eye witness