The car grudgingly makes its way along the narrow, winding road through the Pirin valley, an alpine landscape on the Bulgarian side of the Rhodope mountain range, the southern part of which is in Greek territory.
Here lies the source of the Nestos River (Mesta in Bulgarian) and further south, the Greek cities of Xanthi and Drama. For a stranger, navigating the route heading east from Goce Delcev to Dospat is not just tiring but also dangerous.
Notwithstanding tips from the helpful locals, the hardest part is finding your way to one of the dozens of villages that sit like eagle nests on the slopes of Rhodopa, as the mountain range is known across the border. Frustrated with their allegedly unfair treatment by local authorities, residents here unanimously decided on August 4 to demand from their government that their land and property come under Greek administrative control.
Rebellious Tsrancha is a typical Pomak village. Its 680 inhabitants are poor Muslim tobacco farmers with strong ties to Greece. The first reason is simply that the Greek border lies a mere kilometer away, and the second, as Tsrancha’s mayor, Ilin Dolapchiev, put it, “Greece is the only solution for many young people who seek employment there as seasonal workers.”
Like Bulgaria’s other Pomak villages, Tsrancha is mired in poverty and isolation. Young people, at least those who are not employed in Bulgaria’s flagging tobacco industry, head to Greece as well as Britain or the Netherlands to seek work in agriculture – normally only on day wages. Many older people nostalgically reminisce about the time of Todor Zhivkov, the communist leader that ruled the Balkan country until 1989, when they had “factories, jobs, pensions and doctors.”
Now many people here hope that their lives might change for the better. Already, news of their decision to ask for a new administrative home has spread and made international headlines. “I even received a call from Reuters,” Dolapchiev said.
“When our land, which had been nationalized by the communist regime, was distributed, we presented title deeds handed down by our grandfathers,” he said.
The state registered the land initially but a multitude of mistakes prompted authorities to commission a private company to create a cadastre, sending the bill for the job to locals afterward, according to Dolapchiev.
“However, the price was outrageous and we suggested that state officials do the job instead. Well, years have passed and politicians are making a mockery of us all. For this reason, we decided to take a step beyond protest and do something that would get a reaction,” the Tsrancha mayor said.
So, the locals gathered in the village square, joined by the residents of nearby community of Brashten, who face the same problems. During the gathering one of the attendees suggested moving the village over the border to Greece, where, as their collective decision said, “they will give us greater attention.”
When the memo reached the Bulgarian president, Greek Ambassador Tassos Stamatopoulos and the media, the struggling Pomaks of Tsrancha felt they had made the right choice. “We have no illusions that our demand to shift borders can be met, but this was a way to claim our rights,” Dolapchiev said. Commenting on Greek concerns that the debt-wracked nation “will end up like Bulgaria,” he said: “If your politicians are so useless, then you will become like us. Greeks are much better off than us.”
Meanwhile, our conversation in the village square began to draw a crowd. Some residents were queuing up to receive their miserly unemployment check while others started turning up to “check out those journalists from Greece.”
I asked a woman, Finjtanka Bayrakerova, how she viewed the situation in Greece. “It breaks our heart. Your country enabled us to make a living for 20 years. How can we be apathetic to the suffering of our neighbors?” Another elderly woman, Fika, put a pear “for the road” in my pocket.