„It stinks.“

The following contribution is an English translation of a report, which was written by the human rights lawyer Valeria Ilareva, from the Foundation for Access to Rights (FAR) which was published in December 2016.

My day begins with a legal hearing at 9am. The case is of the more serious sort, but I’m eased by the thought that we’re at a judge. Meaning that among „the judges“ exist only a small number of actual judges – those trying to decide their cases objectively and without biases. Even in the event of a verdict to your client’s disadvantage, you nevertheless know that the hearing was carried out with humane attitude and the outcome of the lawsuit wasn’t predetermined. During the hearing the judge acts unusually irritated and reacts sharply on the preliminary submitted request for taking of evidence. She mentions that the most overburdened judges are facing disciplinary procedures for delaying lawsuits. I answer that I understand her and that I am doing everything within my possibilities not to slow down the case. I indeed understand her. At 11am the judges from the Sofia Regional Court hold a protest in front of the Supreme Judicial Council.

But I leave that hearing very disappointed and thoughtful. The judge indignantly referred to a case earlier this week when a detained foreigner, after his case had to be postponed, had begun screaming in the courtroom that he would commit suicide. I knew about the case because I had been the lawyer bringing it in, only at the court hearing I had substituted with a colleague from FAR (as I was abroad at the time). I brood over the judge’s words, after which lawyers ought to be psychologists as well and should prepare the foreigner for everything that can happen inside the courtroom. The lawyers were to blame. They hadn’t prepared the foreigner nor had they kept him calm. Neither the detention nor its conditions were to blame. Solely those who had brought the foreigner in front of the already overburdened judge and didn’t have a good grip on his nerves. Who had formulated the complaint, prepared all written evidence, brought in witnesses, and met with the foreigner weekly at the detention centre; who had been communicating day and night with him over the phone in order to calm him down, who had called the centre’s guards on duty to indicate that the foreigner in question is carrying out suicide attempts within his „home“ … Solely the lawyers were to blame in the eyes of one of the remaining judges in whom lay our last hope.

I only returned the night before from a business trip abroad, but because of being absent throughout the week, it’s my turn on Friday to uphold the consultations in the detention centre of Busmantsi. Together with D., a young lawyer from FAR, we only call on our English-speaking clients (the Arabian- and Persian-speaking ones will be met next week together with an interpreter). Despite the language barrier we have to see ten persons within the one and a half hours left until the end of the time scheduled for legal consultations.

The annoyed policeman on duty leads us to a room at the end of the corridor in the administrative building of the detention centre. The room’s two windows are left wide open and, because it is quite chilly, we close them immediately. But the same moment, we understand the reason for them being open – the room is instantly filled with a stifling, disgusting smell. It comes from the adjoining rooms, from which we are separated through a gliding door that doesn’t close tightly. It is the former hall for consultations, in which since end of November are „accommodated“ foreigners. There are no beds in the hall, but through the transparent gliding door we can see a lot of people some of whom are obviously minors. The unbearable stench shows that they haven’t showered or washed their clothes for a long time.

Again I’m standing in front of the open window trying to get some air, but from there I now sense the stifling smell of something like bleach. I feel sick and realize that any moment I am going to throw up, so I leave the room, pass the corridor and return to the police room at the entrance of the building. I ask the policeman to let us into another room for the consultations, but he explains that all others are occupied. The room for taking fingerprints, which we’ve used earlier for legal consultations, is now fully staffed with foreigners sitting on the floor. The State Agency for Refugees‘ small room (which in the first years of the „home’s“ existence was reserved for lawyers) can’t be opened for us because of the SAR bearing a grudge.

I return to the smelly room, where we have to hold the consultations. We widely open the two windows and packed in coats, hats, and scarves above our noses and mouths and interrupted by fits of sickness, we hold our consultations with ten foreigners. It’s noisy. In the adjoining room are a lot of people and the glass division doesn’t close tightly. At the consultations we’re bringing bad news – to one we explain the sentence declining his appeal to be accommodated in SAR’s centre as seeking refuge. From others we hear complaints that they have to share beds, because there aren’t enough of them for everyone in the room. In the night they fall on the floor and climb into bed again in order to try to sleep … Everyone asks for how much more time they are going to be detained. I answer that I don’t know. The stench makes me feel like vomiting. I’m freezing. We’re trying to outshout the noise. I need to give hope, but this time I fail. I wonder how we could get the judges to see with their own eyes what we are seeing. To smell this stench. And I answer to myself that they are never going to see or smell it. That I understand them, but they never will. And I can’t give hope. Because it seems like I myself have lost it somewhere today between the judge and the legal consultations at the detention centre.

D. and I return to the office and I tell her that today I’m wondering, where the sense is in what we’re doing. That today I have my doubts. She tries to cheer me up, tells me as an example, how difficult it was for her to take my place at the court hearing earlier this week. She had slept only two hours before. Afterwards she wasn’t able to fall asleep at night. But in the end she didn’t give up. I attentively listen to her but the real problem lays somewhere else:

– „D., things are getting worse and worse and I am afraid we can’t change a thing about it. Before I was telling myself – even the fact that someone talks humanely with these people, listens to them with patience and understanding means something in itself. But now even that I didn’t manage. How to stay nice if you feel sick yourself and you have fits of vomiting?“

– „Eh, Valeria, everyone has such moments. Next time …“

– „Next time it won’t stink?!?“

The stench is intolerable. Not only in the air. It reeks of the inhumane conditions of the detention. It reeks of a divided civil society, in which everyone is too afraid to denounce something as not OK. It reeks of the more and more perceivable danger of a riot breaking out in Busmantsi as well, together with all its horrible repercussions. It reeks of indifference. It reeks of powerlessness. It reeks of things swept under the carpet. Like every injustice. It stinks.

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