I first came to the village, by chance, in the late Spring of 1988 on a walking holiday with a friend. The village hosts one of the two national folk-music schools which the State (then still a Communist state) supported. We heard music, made some enquiries, and then accompanied the students, in a terrible old bus, to a local village for a concert. How we got back to our hotel, some twenty miles distant, is now lost in a haze of rakiya, a poisonous local fruit brandy.
Ten years later, long after the Communist regime had given up the ghost, my friend returned and discovered a folk-music school in grave decline, but worse, an orphanage (which we hadn’t seen on our first visit), in extreme distress, with insufficient money to feed and clothe its 70 children. My friend then started a charity, supported by other friends all over the world, that provided food, clothes and other necessities. Especially in the early years, this made a vital difference to the lives of hundreds of children, though now, seventeen years later, the situation has improved greatly and the distress, if it remains, is less obvious and less acute.
Some years after my friend’s return, and inspired by his work, I persuaded my business partners and a group of actors, musicians and theatre directors from Sofia, to run an annual theatre school for children from this and other orphanages in the region. This year is the thirteenth year. But today, I and two friends, took a day off from the chaos of the children’s rehearsals and drove to the Eagle’s Eye, a vantage point high above a limestone gorge near the Yagodina Cave, almost on the border with Greece. You can reach it only in the back of a hired off-road vehicle, and for the faint-hearted the journey is a strain. However, the view of the meadows, mountains, villages and deep gorges justifies the mild anxiety.
Our guide was Ilie, by chance a ‘graduate’ of the orphanage in Shiroka Luka. Through an interpreter I asked him about his life then and now. His is a typical story. Ilie still doesn’t know where he was born, or even whether he has brothers or sisters, and the law doesn’t permit him to find out. This is an ever present sadness. He remembers the worst times as the mid-1990s when there wasn’t enough food or fuel to heat the orphanage, and, still to his surprise, no one in the village offered help. He confirms that life for ‘orphans’ is incomparably better now. In fact, there are now only a few orphans in large institutions, the social services department having adopted the European norm of fostering children. It’s hard on those, though, whose early life spans the old and the new systems, since, he says, the children find it hard to adapt to family life after the hurly-burly of communal living, and most long to return to the orphanage.
Ilie is in his thirties, and I asked him about the transition from social care to complete independence. For him this came, as it still does for today’s orphans, abruptly, at the end of secondary school. He tells us it was hard to get a job, and that the stigma of the orphanage hangs over him and his orphanage friends still. There are no jobs in this region, there’s no affordable accommodation, and support from the state is provided only for a few months.
Life may be less hard than it was, but tragedies still occur. During the winter of 2013-2014 a friend of Ilie, penniless and homeless, froze to death on the streets of Smolyan, the regional capital. It is hard to understand how this can happen in Europe. There is much still to do in Bulgaria.