As an airplane is swooping over a field beside Sofia Airport, two horses and a donkey do not look up, but keep grazing among the rubbish. Shacks made of bricks, corrugated iron and wood encroach upon the field. Heavy lorries with international logos rush by the shacks on the road from the airport and its business park.
This is an everyday scene from Hristo Botev, a neighbourhood bearing the name of the great Bulgarian 19th century poet and revolutionary.
The neighbourhood was initially a village, which was incorporated in Sofia's Slatina district in 1945. Under Communism, the place was transformed. Along the leafy main street housing blocks were built, together with schools and a kindergarten. There were also detached houses with leafy gardens.
Today Hristo Botev neighbourhood is a shadow of its former self. Walls, fences and dogs protect the houses. There is no park and the only dedicated playgrounds are in the two schools. All other open spaces in Hristo Botev are dirty squares serving as parking lots.
The neighbourhood is a perpetual building site. In almost every street, grey cement dust blows up each time a vehicle passes. Cars have to slow down and carefully zigzag between potholes. The further the streets are from the main road, the narrower they become. Finally, they become nameless. In the centre of the neighbourhood, the statue of Hristo Botev stands lost in between the supermarket and the bus stop.
Recent construction does not fit any urban plan, ignoring building or safety regulations. Like islands in an ocean, the old and often well-maintained houses with manicured gardens now stand in between half-finished buildings and attached houses. Electricity meters hang atop of high pillars, locked in boxes and secured by an alarm system – a measure to prevent people from stealing electricity.
Walking the streets reveal scenes that seem more befitting a developing state: boys play football on a vast concrete place behind a factory, weeds popping through the cracks. An elderly woman, all dressed in black, is carrying an axe to chop firewood. Broken furniture piles up against the wall of a school next to a council estate.
Hristo Botev neighbourhood started its transformation after the collapse of Communism. As collective farms were dismantled and Bulgaria began restructuring its planned economy to a free market one, thousands of people, many of them Roma, from the countryside became redundant. They started to flock to Sofia, and many of them settled in the city's outskirts in shacks they built illegally.
Hristo Botev was one of the neighbourhoods affected by the change. Between 1990 and 2013, its population more than quadrupled. The newcomers were mainly Roma, who started to outnumber the local, ageing, ethnic Bulgarian population.
For a long time, Hristo Botev enjoyed the reputation of a neighbourhood where Roma and non-Roma lived side by side. In 2011, however, riot police had to control armed residents who took to the streets. The killing of an ethnic Bulgarian near Plovdiv had sparked outrage throughout the entire country and in Hristo Botev the false rumour that rightwing extremists would have entered the neighbourhood had begun to circulate.
The local authorities have a sketched record in dealing with housing shortages for newcomers. In 2003, using EU funding, the municipality built a council estate of 11 blocks of apartments, and settled there people from several slums. Today large Roma families inhabit the flats, but as they can only rent and not buy the properties, they do not maintain them. Significantly, many of the people in the neighbourhood are so poor that even if they could buy the property they live in, they would hardly manage to maintain it.
Two years after the blocks were constructed, the authorities tried another approach in dealing with illegal settlement: they demolished at least 24 shacks, leaving about 150 people without homes.
About two thirds of the adults in Hristo Botev are unemployed, and most of the rest try to find jobs in Europe or take low-paid jobs in Sofia. The neighbourhood does not offer employment opportunities and the local factories that provided jobs during Communism are long gone. The number of taxis parked in the streets points to another way for local men to make ends meet. There is no unemployment office in the neighbourhood.
Surprisingly, in the neighbourhood there are signs of wealth. Mansions clearly designed to show off their owner's wealth can be seen on the dilapidating streets. Like in Naples and Bogota, many of them are unfinished, signalling an overnight twist in the fortune of the family business.
Walking and living in Sofia's central and southern parts creates the impression that Bulgaria's capital is nice, pleasant, thriving and increasingly affluent. However, while well-heeled citizens flock to the south, the city's northern parts reveal a different picture. There, the poor dominate and the level of segregation is increasing. It is even visible in the infrastructure. Hristo Botev, which is an administrative part of Sofia, is now as isolated as it were still a village. Its residents are cut off from the city by airport, railway and motorway infrastructure that grants other people access to the capital.
Next time you arrive in Sofia tell your cab driver to go through the Hristo Botev neighbourhood rather than the elevated highway into Central Sofia and you will be in for a very different picture of Bulgaria's capital.
*Mike Diliën, who has lectured and done research in Spain, Italy and Argentina, works for Belgian national health insurance