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Plight of Mentally Ill Embarrasses Bulgaria

After human rights groups say asylums violate treaties, officials scramble to prove that they can clean things up and join the EU.

September 07, 2003|Danica Kirka | Associated Press Writer

PODGUMER, Bulgaria — The petite orderly pushed back the 13 dirty, ill-clad men so visitors could step inside their "cage" -- a pen the size of half a basketball court for inmates deemed unruly.

"They escape from time to time," said Stefka Chipakova, 23, who monitors them. "So they are in a cage."

The sorry spectacle of Podgumer, a home for the insane 12 miles outside Sofia, the capital, has become the focus of human rights campaigns and threatens Bulgaria's efforts to meet the human rights criteria for membership of the European Union.

Not that the Bulgarians haven't tried to set things right for the 123 men in the crumbling old monastery that serves as Podgumer's asylum. A bright new replacement building was completed in 1997. But it stands empty because the bureaucracy hasn't approved new furniture, and the staff says the beds and mattresses in the old place will fall apart if they are moved.

Human rights groups cite at least two other identical cases, in Oborishte and Svilengrad, where new buildings are unfurnished.

It's not surprising that anyone would want to run away from Podgumer, a relic of communist-era policies that shunted the mentally retarded well away from public view.

Stung by reports from Amnesty International and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee that concluded these homes violated treaties barring inhumane treatment, officials are scrambling to prove that they can clean things up, respect human rights and join the European mainstream.

"I think they've been really embarrassed," said Desislava Simeonova of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group. "I don't know how embarrassed they have to be to act."

The government says more than $28 million is needed to renovate some 70 homes nationwide and train staff. Nikolina Ivanova, the government official now in charge, predicts that things at Podgumer will look better by autumn.

Ivanova says that she had a retarded sister who died young and that makes her determined to set things right. "There aren't going to be cages anymore," she said, tears in her eyes.

Podgumer is by no means the only problem.

A report this year by Amnesty International described a home in Sanadinovo, 150 miles northeast of Sofia, in which women were found in dirty and tattered clothing, some half-naked. Urine and feces were found on the floor and walls.

"A criminal complaint was lodged on behalf of some Sanadinovo residents who had been held in a cage," the report said. "However, in May the complaint was dismissed for lack of evidence."

The Sanadinovo home was closed, but activists argue that abuses elsewhere are widespread.

At Podgumer, on a hill at the end of a country road surrounded by countryside and grazing livestock, the sagging staircase sways as visitors climb to the second floor. Puddles stay on the linoleum floor after its daily disinfecting, forcing inmates outdoors into a weed-choked courtyard.

Among the brambles on the path to the chapel lies a rotted sheep's head. In the chapel's wooden door frame, inmates have tucked red geraniums and wildflowers.

In the home itself, inmates sleep on steel cots. Only a few seem to have possessions -- a cassette tape, a book, a calendar. The toilets are holes in the ground. One shower serves all.

Among the fortunate is Veselin Trendafilov, who, unlike most inmates, has contact with his family. Trendafilov, 39, said he's had troubles ever since an army stint, during which he was beaten.

"In Bulgaria, life is not easy. That's why I think I am better off here than outside," he said. "I'm not dangerous, but I don't have good relations with others. They are afraid of me. They call me crazy."

Bulgarian media have reported on the conditions in mental homes, but Penka Koceva, 35, who cleans Podgumer's bathrooms for about $50 a month, says most Bulgarians have enough to worry about just making ends meet.

"Nobody is interested in the problems of other people because you have so many problems of your own," she said.


Associated Press reporter Veselin Toshkov in Sofia contributed to this report.

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