THE GOOD POSTMAN – The Bulgarian route of Syrian refugees

“Angela, I have a great idea, if I become mayor I make this village rivive together with Syrian refugees, we will reopen the school, the movie theatre. They are good people, we will reopen the school, the  movie theatre. They are good people, we will help them to start again here and they will help us.” 

A revolutionary idea, no doubt about it. It’s Ivan Fransuzovs, the elderly sweet mild-mindered postmann of THE GOOD POSTMAN by Tonislav Hristov successfully premiered at Amsterdam’s IDFA and at the One Word Human Rights Film Festival and presented in Italy at the last edition of the Trieste Film Festival.

Ivan is aging. Alone. At Great Dervent, a small village on the Bulgaria-Turkey border, a hybrid microcosm of unfinished Post-communism. Ivan is tired of capturing the horizon through its binoculars, spying people running, their legs, lost children, elderly women giving up in front of the border guards’ threatening looks. He is tired of reporting those fleeing legs to the border police, seeing every day traces of their passage, evidence of miserable lives like the Iraqis randomly camped in the village’s old school that caught fire because when you march for hours in the freezing cold, and finally find shelter, you get warm as you can.

“I saw a man, an illegal, then five or six kids – They were hungry – I gave them bread and cheese – then the border police took them […] why don’t we welcome them? There are so many empty houses. They can live work here and have children. We need people here. People are dying and no one is born […] we had cinema, people used to dance […]”

Angela, the utopia of a great young old lady. A vote for Ivan. Surely. Dystopias belong to the younger ones, though Halachev, Ivan’s rival in electoral competition, is no longer so young. But he is unemployed, destitute, and nostalgic, above all of communism when “we had everything, we used to have three cars in the front of every house […]”. Those who have experienced the tragedy have no desire for the farce. The wrinkles carved into the faces of the Great Dervent inhabitants prove that they know well the “glorious” history of real socialism and its infamous mythology of egalitarian well-being. And well remember it.

“We’ll be much better with communism. I don’t need money, I need power. There will be work for everybody and order in the village […] Comrades, if I become mayor I’ll bring internet for every one like in Putin’s Russia. My ballot is number 8, vote for number 8.”

Number 15, Ivan, the gentle postman of Great Dervent. No loudspeaker, no music for him.

But door to door asking for people’s support because “[…] if I become mayor, Syrian refugees, young families with their children will settle here and live with us in harmony. These people are important for us.”

38 votes in all, the number of the voters in Great Dervent, an old-fashioned small village from another time. All of sudden it has become the gateway to Europe for thousands of illegal migrants, after the closing in March 2016 of the main Balkan route, alias the almost impassable journey that via Turkey has brought swarms of desperate people to Greece and from there, for those who were able, to Austria, Germany and other northern European countries.

Bulgaria, the longest external border in the European Union, has become the alternative route for illegal migrants replacing the much more dangerous (and more expensive) Aegean night crossing in a boat. Bulgaria has a 270-km land border with Turkey and up until last year only half of it was fenced.

Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans, Pakistanis, thousands of them have arrived at the border on foot or hidden in buses, greeted (unexpectedly maybe) by police brutality at the borders: beatings, abuses, pushbacks – clearly a violation of human rights and international conventions on humanitarian protection and regularly reported by several human rights organizations such as Oxfam and the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights.

“I saw ten Syrians – the elderly mother of Halachev tells – a woman had fallen down, a policeman threatened her with a baton – get up right now. I cried she was doing nothing wrong, she could not just continue walking.”

“Go back to Turkey!” scream migrants hunters watching the border from the nearby hills. Illegal immigrants, people forced to lie face down, hands tied behind their backs. Images that only created a buzz of interest, not a shock to our consciousness. It is not at all easy for Ivan, the gentle postmann, with his idea of bringing Syrians to the village, to convince people to vote him as mayor.

“We are talking about refugees, they are running away from war, we should understand them […] these people deserve a chance.” (Ivan)

“Your idea, Ivan… to populate the village with Syrians. They are no good for Europe not for Bulgaria – It is not only Syrians that come – but also Afghans and Taliban come through here as well.”

“There is no work for us! Do we need Syrians here? No.”

And so it will be. In May 2016, two months following the entry into force of the agreement between the Government of Ankara and the European Union to curb irregular migration flows crossing from Turkey to Europe Erdogan granted Bulgaria the same “favor”, making a committment to accept refugees who entered the country illegally. While the EU-Turkey agreement worked (flows declined by 96% in the second quarter of 2016), despite the systematically documented and reported violations of human rights in Turkish reception facilities, the Bulgarian front saw a soaring increase of over 100% of illegal migrants (from 3,380 to 7,316) in the same period.

About 900 illegal immigrants have disappeared into nothingness. Refugees in Bulgaria amount to roughly seven thousands. A small number, but enough to trigger waves of xenophobic racism fueled by ultra-nationalist parties, but also arising spontaneously from non-politically minded people who just want refugees out of the country. Bulgaria joined EU in 2007 and since then has continuously held the position of being the EU country with the lowest incomes.

The eve of Great Dervent’s election. The television shows images of Bulgaria for Bulgarians, one of the many nationalist rallies that are taking place in Europe of nowadays.

“I have heard that many of them are bad people who kill Bulgarians and come here only to take advantages of our resources but there are small kids […] maybe not every one is bad (a young girl in front of the TV)”

The only work in Great Dervent is chopping wood for 10 or 8 euros a day. That is work for desperate immigrants. Better to wait for the revival of communism. Halachev is right. Unfortunately, he won only one vote, his mother’s, but it is invalid as his mother signed it! Ivan won twenty votes, Vesa twenty-six, reconfirming her as mayor in office. She looks like she would prefer to be elsewhere, in the true Europe, far away from that history’s backlines.

“Vesa what do you think about refugees situation?” (Halachev)

“I don’t care” (Vesa)

“Yes, but what do you personally think?” (Halachev)

“Nothing” (Vesa)

“Do we want help them, Ivan? Let’s do it – people are making money and we are making nothing – Let’s start smuggling people to Sofia.” (Halachev)

Someone is already doing it on a full scale. On August 27, 2015, an abandoned lorry was found on the A4 highway not far from Vienna. It had an Hungarian licence plates and a sign on its side for Slovakian chickens. Inside 71 dead bodies: 59 men, 8 women and 4 children. Refugees from Syria, victims of Bulgarian-Hungarian traffickers escaping from a war that has annihilated a whole population. A heart-wrenching episode that has shed light on Bulgarian networks involved in the big business of human trafficking with many making money in the game: common criminals, people living in border areas, taxi drivers tempted into making a lot of money with little risk.

Ivan looks through his binoculars. Before him, down on the hills ahead people moving. Like puppets.


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