Bul­gar­ian vig­i­lante groups start tar­get­ing Mus­lim mi­grants

EU’s im­mi­gra­tion, refugee is­sues give rise to groups.

Austin American-Statesman - - VIEWPOINTS - By Shashank Ben­gali Los An­ge­les Times

They ZVEZDETS, BUL­GARIA — gath­ered in a snowy for­est dressed in their men­ac­ing best: com­bat fa­tigues and mil­i­tary-style boots, their faces ob­scured by ski masks.

One group jogged off into a thicket of beech trees while an­other watched an in­struc­tor demon­strate, with a 6-inch hunt­ing knife, the proper tech­nique for stab­bing an as­sailant in the chest and throat.

The train­ing ses­sion in the rolling woods near the Turk­ish bor­der was not a mil­i­tary ex­er­cise, and the par­tic­i­pants were not sol­diers or po­lice. They were mem­bers of a far-right vig­i­lante group with a sim­ple goal: stop­ping Mus­lim mi­grants from en­ter­ing Europe.

The des­per­ate flight north by Syr­i­ans, Afghans, Iraqis and oth­ers has sparked a back­lash here along the Euro­pean Union’s south­east­ern bor­der, where the Bul­gar­ian vig­i­lantes see them­selves as a front-line force against the threat of Is­lamist rad­i­cals in­fil­trat­ing the West.

There is scant ev­i­dence that ex­trem­ists are pos­ing as refugees or mi­grants to pen­e­trate this bor­der, which is guarded by a par­tial fence, Bul­gar­ian po­lice and a small Euro­pean con­tin­gent. But that has not damp­ened the zeal of the vol­un­teer bri­gade known as the Com­mit­tee for Na­tional Res­cue.

Alarmed by what they de­scribe as overly per­mis­sive Euro­pean poli­cies on im­mi­gra­tion, the vig­i­lantes have tapped into a deep vein of xeno­pho­bia across the con­ti­nent. Their English web­site calls on Europe-born ci­ti­zens to “help close and de­fend the south­ern bor­der ... from the hordes of rad­i­cal fake Is­lam ad­her­ents, ter­ror­ists and (Is­lamic State) fight­ers pour­ing in and headed for Europe.”

“We’re ready for a war,” said Vladimir Ru­sev, a burly for­mer mil­i­tary man who is one of the group’s founders. “We’re guard­ing against crim­i­nals and ter­ror­ists who are work­ing against the in­ter­ests of Europe and the United States.”

His or­ga­ni­za­tion — which on a re­cent week­end mus­tered about 40 camo-clad men and two women at a rus­tic guest­house three miles from the bor­der — claims to have 800 vol­un­teers pa­trolling at any given time.

They have pre­vented hun­dreds from cross­ing the 140mile bor­der il­le­gally, send­ing them back to Turkey or hand­ing them over to Bul­gar­ian author­i­ties, Ru­sev said.

Bul­gar­ian po­lice and Fron­tex, the Euro­pean bor­der en­force­ment agency that has de­ployed 88 of­fi­cers here, said they had no in­for­ma­tion about how many mi­grants had been stopped by civil­ians. The num­ber of mi­grants reach­ing Europe plunged sharply in 2016, when author­i­ties de­tected about 3,000 il­le­gal cross­ings at the Bul­garia-Turkey bor­der, half as many as in 2015.

Ru­sev said they aren’t a para­mil­i­tary force be­cause they don’t carry lethal firearms, and they don’t stop Syr­ian refugees or gen­uine asy­lum seek­ers. But they chron­i­cle their ex­ploits vig­or­ously on YouTube, where one un­dated video shows masked vol­un­teers round­ing up about 20 be­wil­dered-look­ing young mi­grants.

In other clips, of­ten set to driv­ing Bul­gar­ian rock mu­sic, group mem­bers prac­tice at gun ranges, en­gage in light cal­is­then­ics or stride through the for­est with pel­let guns, cross­bows and walkie-talkies — and wear­ing arm­bands em­bla­zoned with their mas­cot, a wolf.

They praise Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, whose ef­fort to ban ci­ti­zens of seven (later amended to six) mainly Mus­lim coun­tries from en­ter­ing the United States was “an im­por­tant mea­sure,” Ru­sev said.

In a Europe on edge over the link be­tween mi­gra­tion and ter­ror­ism, a na­tion­al­ist fer­vor is spread­ing. The Novem­ber 2015 Paris at­tacks were car­ried out by mil­i­tants who trav­eled through Greece pos­ing as refugees, while the man sus­pected of driv­ing a truck into a Christ­mas mar­ket in Ber­lin last De­cem­ber was a re­jected asy­lum seeker from Tu­nisia.

Anti-im­mi­gra­tion can­di­dates are poised for strong elec­tion show­ings in the Nether­lands and France. In Hun­gary, po­lice want to arm 3,000 civil­ian “bor­der hunters” with ba­tons and pep­per spray to re­pel mi­grants.

In Bul­garia, sev­eral vig­i­lantes and groups have gained no­to­ri­ety for ar­rest­ing mi­grants and post­ing videos on­line. The for­mer prime min­is­ter at one point said he wel­comed the ef­forts.

Ru­sev’s or­ga­ni­za­tion is be­lieved to be the largest and most es­tab­lished. Far­right ac­tivists from Ger­many and the Nether­lands have joined his men on pa­trols. A prom­i­nent white na­tion­al­ist in Bri­tain, Jim Dow­son, made a video here last fall ask­ing sup­port­ers to aid in the ef­fort to stop mi­grants.

“You ei­ther stop them in Bul­garia, or you’ll have to stop them in Birm­ing­ham, or Bonn or Brus­sels,” Dow­son said.

Ru­sev lamented that the ap­peal yielded only a few bul­let­proof vests, night-vi­sion gog­gles and a drone. De­spite so­lic­it­ing do­na­tions on­line, he said they pay for trans­porta­tion, equip­ment and the oc­ca­sional week­end train­ing meet­ing out of their own pock­ets.

“Sadly we do not re­ceive any help from any coun­try in the world, nor from the Bul­gar­ian gov­ern­ment,” Ru­sev said. “We fi­nance our­selves with our own salaries and pen­sions.”

In his 50s, bald­ing and with a neatly trimmed mus­tache, Ru­sev of­fered few de­tails of his back­ground ex­cept that he left the army af­ter his wife was in­jured in a car ac­ci­dent and now runs a con­struc­tion busi­ness.

His or­ga­ni­za­tion is made up of two branches that date to Bul­garia’s strug­gle to over­throw five cen­turies of rule by the Ot­tomans, an Is­lamic em­pire based in Turkey. The civil­ian wing, Shipka, is named for a 19th-cen­tury bat­tle in which Rus­sian troops and Bul­gar­ian vol­un­teers de­feated Ot­toman forces; a unit made up of ex-mil­i­tary men is dubbed Vasil Levski, af­ter an in­de­pen­dence hero.

Mis­trust of Turks runs deep among the mem­bers, who view the Ot­toman pe­riod as a dark era of en­slave­ment by Mus­lim out­siders.

“That’s the world I want to keep from harm­ing my fam­ily and my child,” Ra­doslav Ka­menov, a 34-year-old ware­house worker with an 8-year-old daugh­ter, said over a din­ner of grilled fish and pota­toes dur­ing the train­ing week­end.

“I don’t want to see my peo­ple fall­ing again un­der for­eign oc­cu­pa­tion. I don’t want to see my cul­ture erad­i­cated.”

Bul­garia granted refugee or pro­tected sta­tus to 1,341 of the 19,418 peo­ple who ap­plied for asy­lum in 2016, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics. Still, Ka­menov and oth­ers wor­ried their coun­try was awash in for­eign­ers.

The Bul­gar­ian Helsinki Com­mit­tee, a lead­ing hu­man rights ad­vo­cacy group, says the vig­i­lantes’ calls for armed ac­tion and anti-mi­grant pro­pa­ganda vi­o­late the con­sti­tu­tion. It filed pe­ti­tions last year to have the Shipka and Vasil Levski groups’ non­profit li­censes can­celed, but the Bul­gar­ian pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice so far has de­clined to bring a case.

Mar­garita Ilieva, a lawyer with the rights or­ga­ni­za­tion, said many Bul­gar­i­ans share the vig­i­lantes’ an­tipa­thy to mi­grants. Re­searchers have doc­u­mented a rise in hate speech to­ward Mus­lims in par­tic­u­lar.

“There is no politi­cian or pub­lic fig­ure in power who has op­posed hate speech be­cause it would be so un­pop­u­lar and so costly po­lit­i­cally,” Ilieva said. “The po­lice take their cues and are turn­ing a blind eye to the mili­tias. They al­low them to play their games and only ask them not to over­step too much.”

The Helsinki com­mit­tee — whose chair­man, Kras­simir Kanev, has been as­saulted and spat upon in pub­lic — is a fa­vorite tar­get of na­tion­al­ists, in­clud­ing Ru­sev, who said hu­man rights groups pri­or­i­tize the pro­tec­tion of mi­grants over na­tive Bul­gar­i­ans.

Ru­sev also crit­i­cized the bor­der po­lice, whose of­fi­cers have been found tak­ing bribes from hu­man smug­glers.

As the meet­ing drew to a close, the vol­un­teers had an idea. Sev­eral men donned white plas­tic jump­suits — snow cam­ou­flage — and ran to the hills near where a hand­ful of bor­der po­lice were parked in a truck. The goal was to show the of­fi­cers that mi­grants could be tricky.

They weaved be­tween the bare trees, then lay wait­ing for sev­eral mo­ments. Fi­nally they jumped up and ran to­ward the po­lice, wav­ing their arms and shout­ing.

The of­fi­cers looked on,

SHASHANK BEN­GALI / LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

An in­struc­tor demon­strates use of a hunt­ing knife to vol­un­teers who aim to stop mi­grants from cross­ing into Bul­garia from Turkey.

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