Yelis Erolova, PhD

Ethnic and Social Challenges of Post-Disaster Housing: Case studies of Asparuhovo and Hitrino, northeast Bulgaria

Yelis Erolova, PhD

Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum at Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Sofia, Bulgaria


Abstract: This model Researchers in the social sciences and humanities are increasingly focusing their attention on communities affected by disasters and, in particular, on social and cultural changes as a post-disaster consequence. The paper discusses one of the aspects of post-disaster recovery – housing and its ethnic and social dimensions – studied through the cases of the Varna quarter of Asparuhovo and the village of Hitrino in Northeast Bulgaria. Based on ethnographic research techniques, a multifaceted analysis of the post-disaster recovery activities has been conducted.

Keywords: disaster, post-disaster recovery, housing.


Caused by different natural, technological, biological, and social agents, disasters and their material and social consequences are increasingly attracting the attention of scholars from different disciplines. According to American researchers and experts Michael Lindell and Carla Prater, the social consequences of disasters, involving psychological, social, demographic, socio-economic and socio-political effects, can extend over a long period of time, and their study serves the purpose of providing preliminary pre-disaster forecasts and developing plans to prevent the occurrence of adverse effects (Lindell and Prater, 2003, p. 178). In international research on disasters and their impacts, special attention is paid to the issues of housing in terms of: socio-economic displacement; growing poverty, which may contribute to greater vulnerability; protection against potential future poverty; and the connection between housing and resource management (Quarantelli, 1982, pp. 277-281; Oliver-Smith, 1990, pp.7-19; Levine,Esnard and Sapat, 2007, pp. 3-15; Chang, Wilkinson, Potangaroa and Seville, 2010, pp. 247-264; Comerio, 2014, pp. 51-68; etc.). So far, only few qualitative studies have been conducted in Bulgaria on the problems in question (Tzaneva, Sumei and Schmitt, 2012; Rangelov, 2012; Berberova, 2012; Petrov, 2017, pp. 63-92; etc.), and these few have not been relevant to the formulation of post-disaster action plans by responsible state and local institutions. In this context, the article focuses on the ethnic and social dimensions of the housing problem, which appear to be among the most problematic post-disaster consequences for the affected local communities, as shown by the examples of Asparuhovo quarter in the city of Varna, and the village of Hitrino, Shumen district.

Boundaries of the field

The flood in Asparuhovo in 2014 and the propylene explosion resulting from a train accident in Hitrino in 2016 are among the greatest disasters that have occurred in Bulgaria. Both events affected settlements in the north-east of the country that have historical, geographic, economic, social, cultural specificities, but also have many common features with regard to post-disaster issues. In the framework of the ethnological study in question, desk and field research were conducted. In-depth interviews were taken from members of the local communities, authorities, and different institutions in Asparuhovo and Hitrino.

Asparuhovo (Case Study I) can be defined as a peripheral zone of Varna, one of the biggest Bulgarian centers of tourism. In the beginning of its history, Asparuhovo was a viticulture center and villa area of ​​Varna. It was established as an administrative-territorial part of Varna in 1903 under the name ‘Ses Sevmes’ (which means ‘Not loving noise’ in Turkish). Although the neighborhood of Asparuhovo is located near the Black Sea coast, it is built high above sea level, and is hence protected from potential marine floods. A flood caused by torrential rain occurred in 1927, but the local population today keeps no memories of the event (Dryanovski, 2008, pp. 9-12; 2009, pp. 225-227). Until the 1980s, Asparuhovo was an industrial and tourist center that attracted many settlers from the country, mostly Bulgarians and Roma. The social, road and water-supply infrastructure was expanded to meet the needs of the growing population. According to the local municipal and regional media archival documents of the second half of the 20th century, the residents of Asparuhovo, who built their homes on terrains with high groundwater content, faced recurring problems with the newly built water-supply and sewerage systems, especially in cases of heavy rainfall (Dryanovski, 2009, pp. 45-46).

During the field trips to Asparuhovo in 2018, my first general impression was that the local community as a whole had a good standard of living and was satisfied to live there. The approximate number of the total population is about 27,000, with an increase of 20,000 during the tourist season. The local residents develop a dual local identity: they feel they belong both to Varna (‘Varnentzi’) and to Asparuhovo (‘Asparuhovtzi’), stressing they are not ‘peasants’. The number of Roma residents varies between 3,000 and 6,000 people, who inhabit the outskirts of Asparuhovo around the eastern and western gullies. The Roma neighborhoods are called ‘Bunkera’, inhabited by Romani-speaking Christian Roma, and ‘Mahalata’ (meaning ‘neighbourhood’ in Bulgarian), inhabited by Turkish-speaking Muslim Roma with a Turkish or ‘Millet’ identity. The relations between Bulgarians and Roma have been formed through jointly established mechanisms marked by a certain ethno-cultural distance and by the Bulgarians’ general sense of cultural superiority to the Roma. The recovery activities after the 2014 flood have been completed, yet the local Bulgarians and Roma have not overcome the post-traumatic stress. My study was focused in the Roma neighborhood, close to the western gully, where the residents were most affected by the disaster. I would like to express my gratitude to the representatives of various social and cultural non-governmental organizations, and to the local residents who gave me great support in my study, unlike the local authorities and municipal administration of Asparuhovo, which to date has refused to even provide data on the number of residents and the number of households affected by the flood.

My field research in Hitrino (Case Study II) started in the summer of 2018, in parallel with that in Asparuhovo. The village is located about 20 km from the city of Shumen. It is curious to note that the settlement is officially designated, and still known among the Turkish-language speaking population, as ‘Sheytandzhak’ (meaning ‘devil’s place’, from ‘seytan’, the Turkish word for ‘devil’), a name which is associated with the local belief that in Ottoman times, the area was deserted and wild, and the passing caravans of the merchants were often attacked by robbers. The village emerged as a railway-type settlement on the Ruse-Varna railway line built in the 1860s (Jensen and Rosegger, 1968, pp. 105-128). Workers, traders, farmers, livestock breeders and poultry breeders settled on both sides of the train station. In 1934, the Sheytandzhak Station was renamed Hitrino Railway Station. In 1978, it was declared a municipal center that currently comprises 21 villages. In 1987, the administrative status of the settlement was changed from railway station to a village under the name Hitrino (Avramova, 2011). Since its establishment, Hitrino has developed as an area of active migration processes. Many of the local Turks resettled in Turkey (1950-1951; 1969-1972, 1989). Since 1989, labour emigration and mobility from Bulgaria to the EU member states has affected the residents of this village as well. Despite emigration and low birth rates, a slight tendency to population increase can be observed, even after the 2016 propylene explosion the number of village residents was increasing slowly from 848 in 2017 to 884 in 2018. The favorable geographic location in the regional transport infrastructure, the proximity to the city of Shumen, the existence of a secondary school, and, in general, its function as a municipal center, are attracting residents from the surrounding villages. Nowadays, the rural community in Hitrino includes Bulgarians and Turks, with Turks predominating in number. Ethno-social division has not been observed. The members are generally more connected by social ties than by kinship. The social space of the village is not – as otherwise typical for most Bulgarian villages – split into neighborhoods, but is divided by a railway line that crosses its central area, into ‘below the Rail line’ and ‘above the Rail line’. The outside visitor to the village is impressed by the lack of religious temples and cultural monuments in the village, in contrast with most Bulgarian villages that are municipal centers. The only cultural monument, located in the central area, is a sculpture of the famous Turkish professional wrestler Koca Yusuf, born in the village of Cherna, who is nowise connected with the history of Hitrino. The Muslims in the village gather for worship in a house donated by a man who resettled in Turkey in 1989; according to his desire his house can be used only for religious service.

On my first visit to Hitrino, I was initially impressed by the locals’ lack of concern that they have to cross the three railway tracks almost daily – the tracks are not secured along their length in the area of the settlement. Some villagers even remembered that in their childhood, they would play near the line and collect empty beverage cans thrown out by foreigners traveling in the passing trains. Two railway accidents are recorded in the history of the village. The first one occurred in 1867 about 500 m west of the railway station; this was the first ever recorded railway accident on Bulgarian territory. The local residents remember the other train accident, in 1978, which caused a heavy oil spill. Thus, the railway lines and trains are an inseparable part of the landscape and of daily life for people in Hitrino; even after the train crash of 2016, which caused casualties and material damage, the residents do not intend to move out. It should be noted that in 2018, and in April 2019, post-disaster recovery activities on road and housing infrastructure were overall in their completion stage, but the local population was still experiencing intense trauma. Interviews, as part of the research methodology, were successfully conducted thanks to the assistance of the local authorities, businesspersons and residents.

The housing problem in Asparuhovo and Hitrino in the context of post-disaster recovery

The Asparuhovo flood in 2014, and the propylene explosion resulting from a train crash in 2016 in Hitrino, are two different types of disasters, which can be variously defined – as local in territorial scope, but as national by the level of institutional participation (Porfiriev, 1998, p. 66). In terms of the nature of their causes, they can be defined as natural disasters (meteorological), sudden natural (in the case of Asparuhovo), and technological and accidental (in the case of Hitrino) (Glickman, Golding and Silverman, 1992, p.10). While floods are among the most common disasters across the world, cases of propylene explosion are rare, among the most famous being that in Los Alfaques, Spain in 1978 (Arturson, 1981, pp. 233-251). The consequences of both types of disasters are similar: they include deaths, material damage, long-term psychological trauma, social disruption. The recovery of Asparuhovo and Hitrino after the tragic events continued for several years and has a complicated history, which can be traced along several lines, housing being one of the biggest problems.

Case study I: Asparuhovo. Gypsies as a disaster culprit, and the Gypsy housing problem

On the evening of 19 June 2014, there was a heavy rainfall over Varna. Around 19:00 h, two-meter waves, carrying mud and debris, hit Asparuhovo in the direction of the two gullies, especially at the Roma neighborhood close to the west gully. Authorities initially announced 11, and then 13 deaths (including 4 children), 11 of which were of Roma residents. The material damage has been estimated at millions of Bulgarian leva. The Bulgarian government declared 23 June 2014 as a day of national mourning in memory of the victims of the floods in Varna and Dobrich (another north-eastern Bulgarian city).

The start of post-disaster recovery began immediately after the flood. According to collected field materials, between 20 June and 5 July 2014, a crisis headquarter was set up in front of the Asparuhovo Town Hall, where local residents could receive financial and material aid, food, water, household appliances and other donations made by a number of non-governmental organizations, over 100 companies, and more than 500 individual donators. Around 1,400 individuals and representatives of different non-governmental organizations, Roma students in medicine, and asylum seekers from the refugee camp in the town of Harmanli (located in southern Bulgaria) came to the flooded zone to help clear the mud and drain water from the houses. By the end of 2014 and 2015, the Bulgarian Red Cross continued to give financial and material support to the most affected families and to provide food to the school in the Roma neighborhood. However, this aid covered only the basic needs of the affected population. Local authorities have played the most important role in renovation activities, implementing a number of projects for the reconstruction of the local water supply and sewerage infrastructure. The flood in Asparuhovo has had irreversible consequences for the life and health of some of the locals, but even the most sorely affected residents want to continue their lives here and do not intend to move to other parts of Varna. The disaster experience of the locals has resulted in long-term psychological stress, expressed even now in a feeling of emotional discomfort in rainy weather.

The post-disaster recovery and the overcoming of disaster consequences are linked to a number of issues that affect both the ethno-cultural interactions within the local population, and socio-political attitudes. Immediately after the flood, the residents who were the most strongly affected victims began to be publicly viewed in Varna as the main culprits of the disaster. Some representatives of local authorities and nationalist parties pointed to causes of the disaster that included the rainfall, the deforestation of the gullies and their use as a garbage dump by the local Roma. Kostadin Kostadinov, councilor at Varna Municipal Council and chairman of the 7-member Municipal Working Group for clarification of the causes of the disaster, called the Roma of Asparuhovo ‘parasites’ and accused them of relying entirely on volunteer help in recovery cleaning activities. His public statements used racist speech, which has been frequent in Bulgaria in recent years: ‘This inhuman riffraff simply has no place in our country, not to say, frankly, in our civilization. It has once again proven that what it has in common with the rest of the human race is only its outward appearance’ (Kostadinov, 2014). The Varna Prosecutor's Office pursued a claim for the causing of death by negligence in connection with acts of carelessness committed by the local authorities, and the Varna Court of Appeal finally ruled on 28 August 2018 that the rainfall had been the only cause of the disaster. Nevertheless, anti-Gypsy speech has impacted on public attitudes and the Roma of Asparuhovo continue to be considered among those mainly responsible for the disaster. These accusations have not enlarged the traditional ethno-social distance between Bulgarians and Roma, but a new social division has arisen between parts of the Roma inhabitants in the ‘Neighbourhood’ in connection with the organization of aid. During the field studies, the local inhabitants distinguished the spaces of the settlement as Upper and Lower Neighborhoods – each with its own social and cultural life.

Within a month after the flood in Asparuhovo, two housing-related problems emerged: the demolition of risky buildings and the sheltering of the homeless. Some of the houses were completely or partially destroyed or at risk of destruction by future rainfalls. 163 persons in 52 families remain homeless. For safety reasons, 1,275 residents from 228 buildings were evacuated permanently or temporarily (, 2014). At the end of June 2014, the chief architect of Varna municipality announced that half of the residential buildings in the Roma neighborhood in Asparuhovo were illegally built and were hazardous for the lives and health of their inhabitants. Hence, Varna municipality started a demolition campaign the following month. As a result, 108 buildings were demolished, including 48 residential constructions. The demolition campaign against illegally built residential buildings has not been endorsed by the Roma community unanimously over the years. Although the Roma in Asparuhovo had accepted at first that this municipal initiative was necessary to their safety, at the time of my field study interlocutors commented that serious mistakes had been made during its implementation. For example, according to one of the health mediators in the Roma neighborhood, two houses were registered at a single address and by mistake, the legally constructed of the two was demolished instead of the illegal one. The owner of the demolished house was left homeless. Though he was not a habitual drinker, he was drunk for a few days and committed suicide.

During the field study, some of the Roma of Asparuhovo commented on the demolition of their homes by asking rhetorical questions: ‘Why did the local authorities provide land for housing or allow house construction if these houses would later be considered illegally built?’, ‘Why is there talk only about the illegally built houses of Roma in the western gully, but not about the commercial sites legally built by Bulgarians in the eastern gully?’ During my fieldwork, with regard to reconstruction and other post-disaster recovery activities, some of the most affected Roma residents also discussed that, despite the assistance they had received, the repair works on their homes cost much more, which obliged them to draw bank loans and go to work in Germany, Poland and England. Thus, post-disaster consequences have become a boosting factor for the Roma residents’ labor mobility abroad.

Varna municipality took temporary measures to accommodate people left homeless after the flood. In August 2014, a small trailer village was built on the outskirts of Asparuhovo, and approximately 80 people, mostly Roma, were accommodated there. The rest of the homeless preferred to stay with relatives or rent dwellings while their houses were being repaired. The trailer settlement was a temporary measure and no longer exists. A long-term solution was Varna municipality’s project for the construction of a social housing residential block, which was approved for EU funding in 2015; however, the project failed to be implemented. In 2015 there was a public discussion on this social housing block project among the residents of Asparuhovo, which ended in its rejection under the impact of political anti-Gypsy speech. Thus, the local Bulgarians emphasized the boundaries of ethnic distance separating them from the Roma. As a result, the most sorely affected Gypsies developed their own strategies to overcome the housing problem, including labor emigration aimed at earning money to restore homes or build new ones. However, the ethnic dimensions of the housing problem have extended to other parts of the city of Varna, which were not affected by disaster. The demolition campaign against the illegally built Roma houses has been implemented in other Roma neighborhoods of Varna as well – the so-called ‘Mushroom Neighborhood’ in Vladislav Varnenchik quarter and Maksuda quarter – and is still continuing at present. It has not been unanimously accepted by the Roma community, whose members have organized a number of protests.

Case study II: Hitrino. Post-disaster housing recovery or resumption, political reorientation and social disruption

On December 10, 2016, at about 5:30 am, a freight train carrying propylene and propane-butane tanks derailed on the railway crossing in the village of Hitrino. The resulting explosion and fire killed 7 people, injured 29, and destroyed more than 20 houses and public buildings. Starting from December 10 and by December 21, all residents of the village were evacuated in view of the risk of further explosions. The Bulgarian government declared December 12 a day of national mourning. According to the field materials, the rehabilitation activities started on the same day, under the leadership of an operational headquarters comprising representatives of state authorities - Interior Minister Rumyana Bachvarova, the Shumen District Administration, and the Shumen Regional Fire Safety and Population Protection Directorate. The Prime Minister Boyko Borisov visited the Operational Headquarter, which was working from a laboratory van specially equipped with modern technology and placed near the village. The main purpose of the initial recovery post-disaster actions was to secure the area, to repair cracks in the tanks in order to avoid leakage of explosive substance, and to move the tanks away from the area of the accident. These measures were implemented within less than a month. Civil protection teams, firefighting and medical units, came from different parts of the country to help evacuate the people and clean the debris. Within the 12-day evacuation period, Hitrino residents stayed with relatives in the neighboring settlements and were allowed to visit their homes for 10-15 minutes at a time to feed their animals. On December 13, 2016, at the initiative of the mayor of Hitrino Mr. Nuridin Ismail, the residents of the village gathered in the local community center in the neighboring village of Timarevo and elected a Public Council, on the grounds of Art. 54, par. 1 and Art. 57, par. 1, item 1 of the Direct Citizen Participation in State and Local Government Act. The main purpose of the Council was to properly and transparently allocate the donated funds. Its eleven members were elected to deal with material damage, distribute donations, and play a coordinating role between local residents and state institutions, donors and non-governmental organizations. Information cards were prepared for each residential property, based on which, and according to the assessment of material damages and the restoration costs to be covered, the inhabitants of Hitrino were divided into 5 groups: Group 1 - households with completely or significantly destroyed property; Group 2 - households with partially destroyed property which does not provide normal living conditions; Group 2A - households with partially destroyed property, which provides acceptable living conditions; Group 3 - households with destroyed or damaged heating appliances, as well as damaged furnishings; Group 3A - households with destroyed or damaged heating appliances, as well as damaged furnishings, in which the inhabitants do not reside permanently (included in this group were several families of long-term emigrants in England and several Turkish families re-settled in Turkey).

After the evacuation period, most Hitrino residents returned to their homes, and a small number of them, whose homes had been totally destroyed or were unfit for living, remained with relatives or in rented homes in Shumen while new homes were being built for them. Only one house in the village was insured against accident; the owners of the rest rely entirely on external financial and material assistance to cover the damages. Four funding sources have been involved in the reconstruction of the housing, road and rail infrastructure of Hitrino: the Social Protection Fund of the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy (MLSP); the donation campaign organized by the Bulgarian Red Cross; the donation campaign organized by the Municipality of Hitrino itself; and the European Agricultural Fund, Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 (covering 12 projects with a total approved funding of over € 16 millions to be implemented by 2020).

The activities related to post-disaster reconstruction of homes has resulted in two main social changes – social distance and disruption, and political reorientation. Thus, rivalry arising between neighbors with regard to the amounts of aid received, has led to social disruption. Several houses were restored, the roofs and window frames of some others were renovated. The most common practice was the distribution of building materials to owners of damaged houses. Some of the owners decided to make a full renovation of their houses with the donated materials and with their own financial contribution. According to rumors in the village community, the whole renovations of some houses had been funded with the target donations. All restoration activities and newly bought furnishings were the object of public discussions, as a result of which, in order not to provoke envy and possible harm, many of the social contacts were discontinued. Although not all residents of Hitrino are satisfied, it should be noted that emergency reconstruction activities as a whole were fulfilled successfully through good cooperation between the local mayor, elected on the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) party list, and the Bulgarian Prime Minister and leader of the party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (CEDB). The visible cohesion between these national and local leaders, representing otherwise rival party organizations in this region of the country, led to political reorientation in Hitrino. In the context of the recovery activities, the Hitrino Mayor left the MRF party because of disagreements with its central management, and this caused an outflow of a large number of party members and sympathizers, almost leading to the dissolution of the MRF municipal structure. The central management of the party also distanced itself from the mayor of Hitrino, adducing as one of the reasons for this the ‘lack of adequate response on the part of the largest party structure in the municipality to the consequences of the railway accident’. A small number of the traditional MRF voters have continued to give lukewarm support to the party. Even the commemoration ceremony, the so-called ‘Political Kurban [Commemoration, Sacrifice]’[104], held on December 10, 2018[105], and attended by the MRF Chairman Mustafa Karadayi, has not led to the mobilization of the Turkish population, normally known to be strong supporters of the MRF in the Shumen district. In fact, the few remaining supporters of the MRF in Hitrino are mostly from the group of ‘the Dissatisfied’ (residents who are not satisfied with the aid received), so-called by the satisfied residents. The expression of their attitude includes public comments made within the village community, but has gone beyond that: in 2018, about 70 people filed complaints with the National Ombudsman that their request for material assistance had not been approved by the Local Council of Hitrino. This initiative has been widely covered in the national and regional media and has provoked doubts among the public as to the fair distribution of the financial and material donations.

During the field study, a woman included in the so-called Group 1, the hardest affected residents, who had lost her son and husband in the disaster, and whose house had been completely destroyed, along with all the family savings earned from agricultural work in Spain, also shared her dissatisfaction with the housing recovery issue. On the one hand, she commented that, in comparison with her losses, her fellow villagers ought to be ashamed of the claims they make. On the other hand, she now lives by herself in her new house built on the site of the old one, where she does not feel comfortable: ‘This is not my home’, she says. Despite its small construction failures, the house cannot be sold, as it was built from financial donations; thus, this Hitrino residents who has sustained the greatest damage must continue to live near the passing high-speed trains that remind her daily of the tragic event in her life.

Concluding remarks

It should be noted that my conclusions regarding the consequences of the flood in the Varna quarter of Asparuhovo and the propylene explosion in the village of Hitrino do not differ from the findings of other disaster studies – namely, that such disasters lead to social interactions, transformations and reorganization (Hoffmanand Lubkemann, 2005, pp. 315-327; Drabek, 2013). They unlock and reveal fundamental values ​​and structures defining communities and societies – and ethnic communities are considered more vulnerable than the rest of the population (Fothergill, Maestes and Darlington, 1999, pp. 156-173). Notably, renovation activities in both cases under study are intertwined with political party initiatives that, more or less, have an impact on the local communities. In the case of Asparuhovo, illegally built houses were not legalized through the appropriate administrative and construction procedures, and the destroyed homes were not replaced with new ones. In the case of Hitrino, destroyed homes and damaged property were replaced, but the political elites’ visible involvement in the successful implementation of restoration work led to local party reorientation and social tension. Thus, post-disaster housing has raised an issue that will create long-term social challenges for the members of the affected communities, who intend to continue living where they underwent past disasters, whatever be their chances for protection against future ones.


This study has been realized within the project of IEFSEM-BAS ‘Local disasters and quality of life: Cultural strategies to overcome natural, technological and biological disasters’ (2017-2020), funded by the Bulgarian National Science Fund.


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[105] Such commemoration events organized for Muslim communities by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and the new party ‘Democrats for Responsibility, Solidarity and Tolerance DOST, whose voters are also predominantly Turkish, are held in many parts of the country. See Karakusheva, 2018, pp. 202-217.