Sunday, July 22, 2012

Peaceful Bulgaria gets a jolt

Bulgaria is a lovely little country of around 7 million people tucked away East of Europe. When I visited the country around 5 years ago, one of the things that struck me as remarkable was the complete absence of any security apparatus anywhere in the country. Being used to the intimidating presence of gun totting security guards, metal detectors and frisking at every nook and corner of the country, the absence of a threat perception among Bulgarians was astonishing.

When I checked into my rented apartment on arriving in the country, my agent – an old lady probably in her fifties - helped me to settle down and showed the place around. At one instance, I had some difficulty understanding the strange locking system on the outer door of my apartment, which she was trying to explain. After a few unsuccessful attempts at teaching me how to lock & unlock the door, she politely said that if I found I could not understand the lock, I could leave the door open while going to office - no one would take anything! I looked at her in total disbelief, but over the next few weeks realized she had really meant it.

Outside the President's Residence - the guards have gone home!
My office, at that time, was located right in the front of the President’s Residence, in the heart of the capital city Sofia. The majestic building stood there almost discreetly, watching life go by. There would only be one security guard at the gate who stood on duty for the entire building. He too would leave at 6:00 PM in the evening and after that, there would be no one! The National Assembly, which stood a stone’s throw away, looked similarly commonplace. You could easily walk up the stairs or take photographs, with no one even casting a glance at what you were doing. No rifle wielding commandos, no cars flashing their red beacons, no VIP cavalcades bringing traffic to a halt. It was clear to me that Bulgarians had no enemies, nothing to fear. Having come out of the Iron Curtain, the country had at that time one of the highest growth rates in Europe and was looking forward optimistically to joining the European Union. 

In fact, the only time I saw any security presence in the country was when the then U.S. President George Bush visited Sofia. For his visit, some of the principal roads in the city were cordoned off, traffic was diverted and there were policemen all around. The night before Mr. Bush was due to arrive, as I walked home late from office, a policeman stopped me and asked for my identity. After showing him my papers and answering a few questions, I proceeded home. Clearly, Mr. Bush had enemies, though the Bulgarians didn’t.

Last week, a powerful bomb ripped across the coastal city of Burgas in Eastern Bulgaria, killing 5 Israeli tourists and injuring many others. The tragic attack has shattered the peace and harmony of this beautiful country. If the attack changes this permanently, it would be a sad day indeed.

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