ADVENTURES IN POST-COMMUNISM
Bulgarian mafia bosses, Albanian drug lords, and the 'Umbrella Assassin' - welcome to John Hamilton's world
These figures from the dark underbelly of society seem strangely at odds with the dashing, yet unassuming person of British journalist John Hamilton. But beneath the quintessential English chap lie nerves of steel – “I always get very nervous before interviews,” Hamilton bashfully admits before revealing that his most nerve wracking experience was interviewing an Albanian drug lord whose pizza joint had just been blown up by a rocket propelled grenade.
Hamilton lived in Bulgaria from 1997 to 2001, during which time he covered the infamous case of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident killed in London by a poisoned umbrella, interviewed kings and mafia bosses, and was witness to the changes in a Bulgaria shedding its Communist past and embarking on the road to the EU. His experiences inspired a book Chashata na Gadetelkata or The Cup of the Soothsayer, released in Bulgaria last December, relating Hamilton's Bulgarian experiences alongside the country's own “post-Communist adventure”. The English edition of the book is due out soon under the title The Good Balkans.
Why did you decide to move to Bulgaria in 1997?
I picked out the country by looking at a map of Europe. Bulgaria was the least known country I could find. An editor in London then told me that if I could understand what was really going on there, I could go anywhere and work out what was going on. The challenge decided me.
What are the biggest changes, for the better and for the worse that you have witnessed in the country since that time?
The best change has been that there is so much more going on in Bulgaria and so many more opportunities for Bulgarians. This is most visible in Sofia which has become a really great and lively city.
The worst change has been an underlying psychological one, which is the growing cynicism of many people and is so at odds with the advances that have been made on the surface. It seems bitterly ironic that in spite of the country's entry into the EU many people are deeply disillusioned with the government and its leadership.
Why did you leave in 2001?
After five years in the country I felt I had to make a decision. I either had to pick up my old life in England or let a huge part of it go. It wasn't an easy decision. Bulgaria is a permanent part of my life now too.
Where is home now?
My home is in London, but recently I have been travelling a huge amount, including to Bulgaria and also to Spain, where my wife is from.
Please tell us about Chashata na Gadetelkata. What inspired you to write it? What is it about?
My book is a memoir not only of my experiences in Bulgaria, but also of the country's own post-Communist adventure. I was impelled to write it after meeting so many remarkable people and having so many fascinating adventures in the country. I filled it with insights into history, politics and anthropology. But I've tried to keep it personal too, to give a feeling for the country rather than just facts and figures. It is going to be published in English in a month or so under the title The Good Balkans. To make life even more complicated my English penname is Jack Hamilton.
What was your most nerve-wracking experience as a journalist in Bulgaria?
I always get very nervous before big interviews and when I have to ask questions at press conferences – even minor ones. But I think my actual most scary experience was trying to ask an Albanian drug lord in Tetotovo in Macedonia about his brother who had been imprisoned in Austria for smuggling. This man's pizza parlour had just been wasted by a rocket propelled grenade, so he wasn't in a good mood. OK, it didn't happen in Bulgaria, but next door!
The most interesting and the most difficult interview you did in Bulgaria?
The most difficult one was the interview that never happened. Although I spoke to King Simeon on the campaign trail, I never sat down to ask him a prepared list of questions. But having read many other journalists' efforts it seems like he is impossible to get good answers from. One of the most interesting was with Iliya Pavlov, reportedly then Bulgaria's richest man and because of what he didn't, or couldn't, say. Pavlov was shot in the heart on 7 March 2003. He was CEO of Multigroup, widely believed by foreign intelligence to have been one of Bulgaria's largest mafia organisations involved in laundering money for the former Communist regime.
Which two Bulgarians, alive or dead, would you most like to interview, what would you ask them?
I would love to interview Vasil “the Skull” Bozhkov to ask him if he is worried about being Bulgaria's richest man – considering what happened to the previous two. As for dead Bulgarians, I bet Stefan Stambolov (1854 -1895) could say a few things about how the country was put together. He was a Bulgarian revolutionary and statesman, considered to be one of the most important and popular “Founders of Modern Bulgaria.”
How did you get involved in reporting on the Georgi Markov case?
No English reporter working in Bulgaria could fail to be interested in this story. So many journalists have uncovered different parts of the truth about this murder, and still there is more to know.
What developments, if any, do you expect to see in the case now?
I am sure that one day compelling information will come out of the Bulgarian archives that will make it impossible for the Bulgarian state to avoid taking responsibility.
Do you think Bulgaria's Secret Service archives should be opened?
I have no doubt that they should be. I know that many Bulgarians think the idea is irrelevant and unpleasant. But future generations need to know what happened under Communism. I don't care so much about who was a chenge. But I look forward to knowing about the decisions, the systems, the processes, in other words, the mechanism of that evil regime.
How free is the Bulgarian media?
On the face of it completely free, but in fact deeply constrained. There are so many things which the press either is prevented from writing about, or else prevents itself from writing about.
Do you think the coverage of Bulgaria in British media in the runup to accession was unfairly critical?
I wish they had criticised some things more strongly, for instance all that corrupt shenanigans about the free shops. But the fear of a great wave of Bulgarians “swamping” Britain was sad and mistaken. The paradox is that being able to travel freely will make it easier for many Bulgarians to make lives for themselves at home.
What do you think are the biggest challenges now facing Bulgaria?
To find a fresh vision for the people to look towards now that it is a member of the EU and they are waking up to the fact that their lives are not all that different from how they were before.
Three words to describe Bulgaria:
Mysterious, deep, welcoming.
ADVENTURES WITH THE UNDERCLASS, An excerpt from The Good Balkans, published by MaK Publishing as Чашата на Гадателката or The Soothsayer's Bowl, in Bulgarian. The English language edition will be published in 2007
by John Hamilton
Back in Sofia, Maria and Yana were up to their old tricks. Maria had returned to Yana's flat, flashy as ever in designer jeans and a new peroxide hairdo. She poured a cascade of little gold trinkets onto the plastic table on the balcony.
"What do you think of these? Pretty, huh? Nice presents? I got them in Istanbul." She held up a handful of little gold hearts, which dripped through her fingers on slender chains. They looked like very nice presents.
"Who are you giving them to?"
Maria didn't answer. She and Yana went out together and didn't come back until the evening. They had been touring the main western European consulates, Yana told me, giving little presents to special friends at each stop. It made life a lot easier when the time came for applying for visas, she said.
The visa application business was a sideline that Maria had operated alongside her cigarette business. Unlike her cigarette smuggling scam, it was still just about going. Demand had shrunk dramatically since the introduction of the European Union's Schengen system. It would vanish altogether once the EU finally agreed on visa free travel for Bulgarians.
But until then Bulgaria still seemed like a prison. Getting visas was a much-admired skill in the atmosphere of semi-acceptable criminality that had its roots in disappointed hopes. Yana boasted with justifiable artistic pride that she had obtained fraudulent visas from almost every consulate in Sofia. Spas "The Greek" was one of the last remaining customers. He had travelled all over Europe thanks to the sisters' combined arts. Maria's gift-giving tour of the consulates had greased the wheels for his future travels.
"Spas is fun. He's a pich, a wild guy!" Yana told me one afternoon as we waited in her flat for him to visit. "But watch out for him. He's cunning as a fox. No, as a wolf. He may seem foolish when he speaks. He makes laughable mistakes in Bulgarian that only foreigners or children could make. But in his world we appear very foolish too. So don't be tricked."
Spas made his entrance like a showman. He paused briefly on the threshold, glowered at me for a second and then came in beaming broadly, arms outstretched to embrace Yana. He was wearing a soft very long greeny-blue overcoat, reminiscent of comic book Chicago gangsters from the prohibition period. Its soft opulence suggested a garment not really designed for wind and rain. It flapped open to reveal a bright blue Bugs Bunny tie and an exaggerated, almost zooty, double breasted suit, the green of a troubled sea. Heavy gold flashed from his person as he strode into the room. Fingers winked with thick rings, a deliberate shake of the wrist rolled a chunky bracelet from under his cuff. Expensive fillings glittered amongst the decay of his smile. He greeted Yana warmly and then turned to me. We shook hands warily. My eyes watered from the aftershave which enveloped him in a bitter cloud. He had a full, mobile mouth and sharp eyes. His dark colouring and thick-set features immediately distinguished him as a Roma gypsy.
"Let's go out," he suggested.
At the Happy Kebab bar and restaurant, Spas insisted on ordering everything himself. The waitress brought big plates of food and large glasses of beer.
"Eat! Eat my friends!" the gypsy urged us. Yana nibbled, cool, relaxed, and watchful.
Later she told me that he always bought the drinks because he wanted to create an obligation. He wanted us to feel we owed him because sooner or later he was going to ask for something. Yana had been working on the opposite tack to make him feel an obligation in return. She presented him with a batch of business cards that she had designed and had printed specially for him. They proclaimed his name in large, bold italic: Spas Gruka. "Spas the Greek".
"Why are you Spas the Greek? Why not Spas the Rom?"
He grinned broadly and winked: "Well, you know what the Greeks are like? A Rom can cheat a Bulgarian but only a Greek can cheat a Rom! No one is better than they are." As he said this he twirled his fingers in the deft twisted grasping motion that throughout the Balkans is the classic symbol for light fingeredness. It seemed like an advertisement: "I am going to con you."
Pleasantries over, he and Yana got down to business. Spas wanted to visit America. Yana shook her head. This was a more complex proposition than the usual business of getting a European visa. The US consulate was much stricter than the others. There was no one there who would take a gold bauble and wink as the application went through. It would have to look completely official and above board. That would be difficult and expensive.
"I have to get this visa," Spas said. "Whatever it takes."
Yana decided that he must travel as a representative from the travel company, which her sister kept going for just this reason. She could prepare all the necessary employment documents on elegant company letter headings - in full colour. Spas would have to produce bank statements and property deeds. What couldn't be obtained legitimately would be carefully forged. It would be expensive - 1000 German marks.
Spas winced. He pushed his chair back and stood up abruptly. "Too much." He paced to the door and back biting his thumb in worry and disappointment. "You are taking advantage of me," he protested. Yana sat unmoved.
"It's not an easy job. If you know someone who will do it for less money, why are you bothering me?"
It had been a bad year he complained glumly. "One of my enemies has put a curse on me."
"Yes. He must have gone to a witch and asked her to jinx me. In Sliven, where I am from, they will do that. It must have been a strong curse because it has been difficult for my own witch to remove it."
He sighed again, grumbled, cursed, paced back and forth, sighed and pleaded some more. My resolve would have wilted a dozen times at the pathos of this preposterous tale. But Yana was firm. Spas extracted from her a single important concession. He would pay the price but only on receipt of the visa. As Yana agreed, the cloud of the curse seemed miraculously to evaporate. They shook hands, great satisfaction evident on both sides.
"Why exactly do you have to go the US?" I asked.
"I have business." He refused to say exactly what, grew edgy under my questioning.
"Just business, you know."
"How will you get by? How much English do you know?"
He trotted out a few words: "Hello, thank you, good bye..." and grinned proudly.
"I have friends. I get by."
"Don't ask me how, but he does," added Yana. "Show him your passport."
Spas took the document from the inside pocket of his lurid suit and passed it to me. It was stuffed with stamps.
"Look! Nederlands, Osteriech, Fransia, Germania, Englerland."
"Maria and I got them all for him," said Yana proudly.
Spas had loved visiting Europe. He had picked up a smattering of almost every European language, just enough to satisfy his needs, which like his impressions, were basic. Amsterdam had pleased him most.
"I had two, two at once!" He crowed lasciviously. It wasn't necessary to ask two what?
"One blonde and one brunette!"
Yana left the table and he nudged me again.
"Tell me. Yana? What's she like?" He wagged his finger obscenely.
"Come on. Tell Spas."
We left him chortling and drinking. Back at her flat, Yana took out her electric typewriter and a sheaf of company letter headings.
"First we give him all the official company documents. Spas is an employee of our travel agency. We are sending him abroad to set up some tours for us. The next most important thing is money. Fortunately Spas has access to funds. We must make sure there is a large amount in his account and then get a balance statement for that day. Finally, we must show that he owns property in Sliven and has his family there. The good thing about Spas is that he always comes back. He never makes a mistake, it's too important to him."
"His business, whatever it is."
She and her sister had often asked him about this and never got a reply either.
"It must be something criminal. Perhaps he is a pick-pocket."
"More likely a drug smuggler."
Yana snorted with derision. "He's not part of any gang."
"Doesn't it bother you what he might be getting up to?"
"It's just business. I'm not responsible."
A week later, Spas went for his interview at the US consulate. I waited with Yana at a cafe five minutes walk away. He arrived, resplendent as ever in his inky green suit and bugs bunny tie. But he had added a pair of very spivvy dark glasses to his accessories. They failed to disguise a large black eye.
"I got into a fight at a disco," he confessed sheepishly lifting up his shades to reveal the full extent of the damage. Yana was furious.
"How could you? I thought this was important to you. Well, it'll be your fault if you are refused. You should pay me anyway."
Accepting payment on delivery was always going to be risky for her. This had made it more so. It was risky for Spas too. If the consular officials spotted any subterfuge he would be refused entry to the US for ever.
While he queued we waited in the cafe. Yana fidgeted over her coffee. She needed this money desperately. Her job was not going well. The graphic design project she was working on had been rejected and her boss was threatening to reclaim some of the advances he had paid out on her wages. To make matters worse a restaurant where half of her paintings were on display had gone bust. The creditors had taken her pictures away along with the kitchen equipment and the tables.
"Can't you get them back? Why don't you just go and talk to the administrator or the court?"
"What administrator? The creditors have just taken everything. These are not the sort of people you can just ask for things from."
A poor old man was stopping at each table in the cafe fiddling with an old book bound in orange plastic. He opened it to reveal four leafed clovers pressed between its yellowed pages.
"For luck... for health...?" he croaked.
Yana refused with a nod and a tongue click. It left no room for appeal. Sometimes she was capable of great compassion, but she had a hard streak too. I gave the man some stotinki. He left one of the clovers on our table and shuffled away. I could hardly bear to see the many pathetic ways that old pensioners tried to earn money. Babas would sit on street corners behind a set of bathroom scales: 50 stotinki to weigh yourself. I had never seen anyone take up the offer. But selling clovers was not much better.
"That man must have a whole bush of four leafed clovers at home," I suggested not really believing it. The more likely alternative was that he spent days searching for them in the fields and then sold them for a pittance.
"Tch....tch..." nodded Yana again in the emphatic negative. "They belonged to his wife, who collected them when she was young. She's now dead and so he's selling them off." She stared at me defiantly, waiting for a comment on her cynicism.
"Does it still make you feel lucky?" she asked. "You have to make your own luck here you know."
"I brought mine with me. Your bloody country! At least I can leave when I want to."
"Whenever you want!" spat Yana in fury. "I hate it when you are foreign and I hate your pity. Don't condescend to me. I'm proud to be Bulgarian. Whatever happens to me or to this country, I will always be proud to call myself a Bulgarian!"
The argument had swung out of nowhere and left us both surprised and speechless. We sat in furious silence until Spas returned, swaggering cockily, sniffing at the remains of the hard words between us like a dog on a scent.
"Anything wrong? Something I should know about?"
Yana shook off the enquiry. "What happened to you?" Somehow Spas had passed the interview and got his visa. Now it was time for payment. He counted ten 100 German Mark bills from a thick wad onto the flimsy table. Yana picked them up and put them into her bag.
"You didn't count them!" protested the gypsy.
"I counted them as you were putting them down. Anyway you wouldn't cheat me, Spas. You need me too much."
"Count them. Please!" he begged. He was grinning a big joke smile.
"OK. As you wish." She took the little wad and put each note down on to the table just as he had done.
"One, two, three... seven, eight...nine."
Spas's grin grew wider. Yana counted again to check. The same result.
"You see. You are way too trusting."
He picked up the notes, pulled another blue 100 mark bill from his notecase, and counted them back out to ten again on the table with exaggerated flips of his thumb. Yana put the money away again with a laugh.
"No! no! no!" yelled the gypsy. Sighing, Yana counted the wad for a third time, pedantically thumping each note on the table.
"Five...six...seven." 300 marks short.
Spas watched smugly then roared with laughter.
"How did you do that? Where did they go?"
As if out of thin air three more notes appeared in Spas's fingers. He handed them over with a flourish.
"Is this how you make your living? Is this what you are going to be doing to those poor Americans?"
He wouldn't tell us. "Where shall we go to celebrate?" he asked.
The issue of crime and the Roma minority in Bulgaria reveals human nature at its worst. Most of the country's gypsies live in squalor in ghettos on the edge of major towns or villages. The streets are rarely paved and turn into muddy quagmires in the wet. Most dwellings are extremely poor quality, very crowded and often without running water. Unemployment is more than 90 percent. The provision of schooling is patchy and often resented by parents who are more interested in sending their children to work in a trade, or worse as beggars, thieves and prostitutes.
The Bulgarians like to think of themselves as a nation of almost unique tolerance in the Balkans. But they cannot abide gypsies and the result is massive discrimination. They may have refused to send their Jews to Hitler's death camps (there was a genuine national revulsion against this idea). They may have reached a political accommodation with the Turkish minority, avoiding Yugoslavian type strife in the immediate post-Communist years. But gypsies have been ruthlessly excluded from Bulgarian society. They are hated because they are dirty, untrustworthy, clannish and all to frequently involved in crime. But for many gypsies, living in slums with no facilities, no education and no jobs, there is no choice. It is an appalling catch-22.
This is an ever growing problem. Literally. The official census says that 370,908 gypsies were living in Bulgaria in 2001. Their number increased by one-fifth in ten years. There may, in fact, be even more than this. An unofficial census carried out by the government in 1989 said there were more than 570,000 gypsies. Some anthropologists estimate that the number of people of gypsy origin could be as many as 800,000 or more than ten percent of the population.
While the number of gypsies is growing, the ethnically Bulgarian part of the population is shrinking rapidly. Overall the country suffers from a negative birth rate, compounded by massive emigration (an estimated 750,000 have left the country over the past ten years. The population is one million less than it was in 1985). These figures only make Bulgarians more worried about gypsies. No one has any idea how to solve the problem.
A few weeks before Yana introduced me to Spas, I had been arrested. It was the only time I was ever arrested in Bulgaria. The only reason was because I was in the company of a gypsy. I had gone to Stara Zagora to a Roma pop folk festival and was staying at the home of Petko Emilov, the mayor of Lozenec, the town's gypsy quarter.
The first thing I noticed when he met me off the train in Stara Zagora was that he carried a stubby black pistol in a little brown leather holster on his belt.
"I am tsiganin. I have to look after myself and my family," he said when I ask him about it.
He drove me round the city in his blue Lada. Half of its insides were stripped out. The windows were jammed shut. At the top of every hill he would turn off the engine and free-wheel down the bumpy streets until he ran out of momentum. When it got too hot, he opened his door for ventilation.
At the bottom of one hill, we were stopped by a pair of policemen.
"Kakvo?" demanded one of them, gesturing with one hand. The one word enquiry said it all.
In other words, explain yourself and what you are doing. Justify your presence here and your existence. What is a gypsy doing driving around with a foreigner in his car?
The policeman snapped his fingers: "Documenti?"
I handed over my passport for inspection. But Petko had left his identity papers at home. We were taken to the police station. That day at lunch we had argued about this very thing.
"In Britain we enjoy great liberty," I had told him, proudly. "We don't need to carry identity cards. Everyone has the right to go about their business unhindered."
Petko could not understand this.
"So how do you prove who you are?"
"I don't need to."
"But say the police think you have committed a crime. How do you prove they have got the wrong man?"
His question had opened a different perspective on the issue for me. In Bulgaria, gypsies are automatically regarded as criminals (As is anyone in their company, regardless of origin.) Petko thought he needed his card to safeguard his civil liberties, not to undermine them.
"My identity card is the only proof that I am a good citizen," he told me as we sat on the hard bench in the lock-up. "I don't know why I left it at home today. It's something I normally never do."
He telephoned his wife from the police station and we waited for one of his sons to bring the documents down the hill. I could see the force of his argument even if I could not get rid of the idea that an identity card was an instrument of repression.
Nearly a decade into the era of democracy and still everyone carried their old Communist documents with them. This was because the parliament could not decide on a new national emblem to replace the Communist symbol of a lion standing on a cog wheel. The old passport contained information not only where you lived but where you worked. The most sinister fact of all was that gypsies were identified by a tiny dot next to the 2 on page number 12.
Petko's son brought his papers and after an examination, the police let us go. As we walk out of the police station, the mayor showed me his passport. I turned to page 12. He still had the little dot just by the number.
As we went up to the Roma neighbourhood, the sound of a clarinet led us down the unpaved street into the heart of the quarter. The houses were scrappy and basic. Outside one of them a wedding was being celebrated. Half a dozen plump musicians sat under an awning. Up close, their music was deafening. There is a guitarist, a pianist on a synthesiser, a drummer and two clarinetists and a singer. The singer warbled with syrupy emotion and the clarinets wailed and shrieked. Sounds of drinking and revelry could be heard from within the house.
"The men are indoors. They let the women dance during the hottest part of the day," Petko told me.
The horo was led by the most unlikely glamorous looking woman to be found amidst the yellow mud and dust. I guessed she was the sister of the bride. Her black glossy hair was piled on her head in an elaborate coiffure that exposed her neck and shoulders, and cleavage, which were spangled liberally with silver glitter. Her body was encased in a clinging crimson dress, almost too tight to dance in. But she managed it gracefully picking her way over the uneven baked mud of the road in a pair of impossibly high and sharp stilettos whose heels were filigreed with a pattern of gold. No one paid any attention to the bride, who danced beside her dressed in demure white fl ounces.
The other residents of the street (only the men) who had not been invited to the celebration, stood with their backs to the wall and watched. They looked at me curiously.
"Don't stare too hard," said Petko tugging my arm. We walked back up the street.
The "town hall" was a tiny office up the hill. A crowd of people had gathered outside, waiting for Petko to open up. I sat on the old sofa and listened to complaints of corruption and embezzlement.
"Doesn't the government give you any social support?"
"There is European money that has been allocated for pensioners. But it never gets this far. We have no schools, no transport, no drains, no electricity," Petko explained.
Evidence of this was all around. When amenities did exist, they were primitive. Petko's house was perched on the edge of a rubbish dump. But it was grand for the gypsy quarter, fairly new and built of breeze blocks and red air-bricks. Everything inside was spotless, almost as if it were never used. There was a TV, a hi-fi , a foam-stuffed three piece suite. This physical evidence of success was not to be touched. Life was mostly lived in the concrete back yard, where there was a plain wooden table, some benches and a sink with a tap, the only running water in the house.
Following my Stara Zagora experience, I decided to investigate the lives of the Roma street children in Sofia. I started with the Faith, Hope and Love children's home that had been set up by Dimi Panitsa, one of the first Bulgarians I ever met. My mother had known him in the 1960s when he was managing editor of Reader's Digest in Paris. When I told her that I was going to live in Bulgaria, she had sent me over to see him. My passport was in the Bulgarian Embassy in London, awaiting a visa, so I had borrowed my twin brother's and hopped on the train.
I was to discover that his name opened doors all over the country. He had fled Bulgaria with his family, at the time of the Soviet invasion but had returned as soon as the Communist regime fell. Now he was one of the country's leading philanthropists. The home he created for Sofia's street children was perhaps his greatest project. It provided fresh meals, medical care, clothing and first aid for acute infectious diseases. Only children under 16 could stay there over night but those who were too old or who didn't want to stay could wash and get clean clothes.
The centre opened in autumn 1995. Since then more than 400 children up to the age of 16 had passed through its doors. Many more still lived on the streets. I met up with Angel, an outreach worker, employed by Faith Hope and Love. His job was to visit all the places round the city where the street children lived and slept. He tried to get them to attend the home or at least to visit it to get clean clothes and proper food. The next step was to persuade the children to attend school regularly.
"Some are in the city on their own. Other have parents who don't want them in school. They come to the home and complain that we have kidnapped their children. They want them to be on the streets, begging, bringing in money," he told me.
One of the main homeless camps was just outside the city centre near the central railway station and the international bus station. Angel took me there and as we walked he told me about the homeless problem in the city.
"Look at that building." He pointed to the collapsing ruin of a town house surrounded by metal fences near the socialist party headquarters.
"Some Roma youths were living there until a month ago when a band of skinheads attacked them while they were sleeping. They smashed bottles on the heads of some of the boys and killed another by throwing him out of a window. That's where he landed." He pointed to a spot on the road.
"People hate the tsigani because they steal. But they have no other choice. Anyway the people who have stolen most from Bulgaria are not the tsigani, but the mutri who are all ethnically Bulgarian."
About 30 people were living by the hot air vents outside the train station. They had formed an extended family led by Ivan, who, in his late 20s, had been living on the streets for 10 years.
"We want to work and to have a home," he told us. It was a simple request, but one unlikely to be granted. The ground was strewn with empty flattened tubes of glue, empty bottles, waste paper, and discarded plastic bags. A small baby scrabbled around in the dust playing with an old glue container while her mother looked on disinterestedly and sniffed from a plastic bag.
We found an extremely grubby young man with the dirt of months caked on his skin lounging under a tree in an overgrown empty lot. He was reading a book. This marked him out. Most of the street children are illiterate. Lack of education is one of their main problems. The boy looked up and greeted Angel lazily, not shifting from his comfortable position under the tree.
"What's the book?"
He lifted it so I could see the cover. It was a translation of Melville's Moby Dick.
"This one isn't a thief," Angel told me. "One of his brothers has been convicted of thieving and is in jail but this one is honest."
A third brother lay in the grass on the other side of the tree. He was inhaling deeply from a plastic bag. Amongst the debris of plastic bags, rags and junk lying around I noticed squeezed out tubes of glue.
"After another hour or so of that he will be incoherent and probably aggressive. That's why I do my rounds in the morning."
Angel prodded the inhaling youth with his foot.
"Hey, we haven't seen you in the home for a while. You promised me you would come."
The glue sniffer waved him away sulkily.
"Yeah, yeah, I'll come. I said I would." Then he put his face back in his bag.
A slatternly looking girl nearby was also sniffing glue. She was the girlfriend of the boy who was reading. She worked as a prostitute and was most probably infected with syphilis.
This trio was part of a larger group of about a dozen teenagers who had been living under a tree near the public lavatories at the bus station behind the Novotel Evropa Hotel for the past couple of years.
Originally they had come from the town of Lom, a deadbeat place on the banks of the River Danube. Having staked out their territory in Sofia, other homeless people would not come on their patch - at least, not without risking a fight. They made money by working in a couple of nearby cafes where the owners paid them tiny amounts for clearing tables and performing other menial tasks.
Angel had built up a relation of trust with them. So now if he was having trouble making contact with a particular kid, who might be hiding from him or distrustful for some reason, the others would pass messages along for him and try and persuade their unwilling companion to take some good advice.
Crossing the Luvov Most heading back to the centre, Angel plucked a skinny little boy in dirty clothes out of the crowd moving in the other direction and gave him a swift interrogation: where was he working? Where was he sleeping? Was he safe and healthy? Still holding onto the boy's shoulder, he turned to me.
"Meet Petyo. He's just 10 years old. We did not know who his mother was until last year. He ran away from home at the age of five and since then has been homeless and looking after himself. He won't go into the home because he is used to his independence and he wants to have his own money."
Petyo looked at me curiously. Angel squeezed his shoulder and asked him some more questions about his welfare. The little boy meekly answered all the questions and then ran off back towards the train station clutching a bundle of cellophane bags. He had been collecting them all morning and would sell them for a handful of stotinki. At least he had a job.
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