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After Terror

The attack on Israelis in Bulgaria has raised a raft of questions, but not all of them have merit.

by Boyko Vassilev 2 August 2012

I got the SMS immediately after finishing the interview.


The interviewee, Miral Biroreda, was a Kurdish writer and a Syrian opposition activist; he had spent 46 days under torture in President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons and as a consequence suffered a heart attack at 33. I was talking to him in the Turkish city of Antakya, near the Syrian border. The previous day I had been briefly on Syrian territory, meeting refugees and members of the Syrian Free Army that is fighting the regime.


Miral had spoken passionately as he recalled a sign carried by a child in the northeastern town of Amuda. If the blood of children were oil, it declared, the world would have defended it.


I was just about to thank him, when the message arrived from my colleagues in Sofia, short but shocking: “Terrorist act at Sarafovo airport on a bus with Israeli tourists. Many killed.” While I was reporting the terror in Syria, it had come to my home country, Bulgaria.


The world had become dangerously closer, and there was no safe place out there. I said goodbye to the Syrian Kurdish writer, exchanging words of mutual consolation. I am sure I will remember this interview for the rest of my life.


Soon the details of the 18 July blast at Sarafovo materialized. A suicide bomber had blown himself up near a bus filled with Israeli tourists traveling to Burgas on holiday. Seven people had died, including the perpetrator, a pregnant woman, and the only Bulgarian – driver Mustafa Kyosov, a Muslim.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to blame Iran and the Shiite group Hezbollah. Sofia was not hurrying with its own version, waiting for the end of the investigation. Yet the identification of the suicide bomber turned out to be difficult.


Shocked Bulgarians quickly learned that this was the first terror act against Israeli tourists on EU soil; previous Israeli targets had been officers and sports figures. Certainly it was the first assassination of Israelis in Bulgaria. The blow was severe, especially for a country that has tried to have excellent relations both with Tel Aviv and the Arab countries.


The usual blame game followed promptly. Some Israeli media accused the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, of failing to provide warning and protection. Some Israeli military and security experts blamed Bulgaria for neglecting airport security and emphasized that the Balkan country was chosen as “a soft target.”


No foreign blame game, however, would outmatch the one that was raging inside Bulgaria. Security procedures at Sarafovo airport were put under the microscope. The question of whether Sofia had received a warning and failed to react was put several times to various politicians, officials, and ministers. Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the deputy prime minister and interior minister, took a lot of the fire, adding to recent criticism from Brussels that reform of the country’s judiciary and law-enforcement agencies has been halfhearted and incomplete.  


One accusation was especially painful. Some on the far left, commentators and members of Bulgaria’s Arab community, claimed that Bulgaria was punished for its good relations with Israel and for following U.S. policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, now, Syria. The target here was Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov, who has pursued an active policy toward the Arab spring, including meeting with the Syrian opposition in Bulgaria.


While other criticism could have some basis, this one is preposterous. Consider: Israelis, not Bulgarians, were the target of this act. Bulgaria suffered 13 causalities in Iraq but was never punished on Bulgarian soil. It was not punished for joining the West in Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya. Bulgarian policy toward the Middle East has been entirely in tune with that of other EU countries. Those who criticize for overreaction would have criticized for inaction if Bulgaria had been less engaged in the Middle East.


But the very idea that Bulgaria should act under threat and change its foreign policy under duress is self-defeating. After all, this is what terrorists want.


Yes, Bulgaria’s new Middle East policy has enraged some (particularly among the “old communist guard” and its old Arab friends), but it has won acclaim from others. While speaking with members of the Syrian opposition and Syrian Free Army, I recorded words of appreciation. Such words came also from revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia, and, notably, Libya, where late leader Muammar Gaddafi detained five Bulgarian nurses in 1999 and then managed to demonize everything Bulgarian.


Most Syrians in Bulgaria support the rebels and Bulgaria’s stance on the conflict in their country. Abu Kamal, a restaurant owner in Sofia’s city center, sells his food wrapped in paper printed with Syrian opposition slogans. In his restaurant the Syrian opposition flag hangs alongside Bulgaria’s.


I am not saying Bulgaria has no issues to rethink after Sarafovo, the state of the security services being the most pressing. The country pays a lot for security and aspires to join the Schengen area of free movement within Europe. It must ensure that money is well-spent.


Then, Bulgaria should ask itself whether it can properly address strategic issues as a country and society. It has relations with Israel (based both on strategic interest and the saving of the Bulgarian Jews in World War II), traditional ties with the Arab world, and the biggest proportion of Muslims in the EU (the only Bulgarian victim in Sarafovo being one of them). It will take inventiveness to balance these things and consider them an asset, without behaving like a potential target of terrorism. Responsible pundits, independent groups, and the media are a crucial part of this effort.


“Bulgaria has achieved a lot. We can learn reconciliation and the ability to forgive from the Bulgarian transition,” Mahmut Osman, an opposition politician from the Syrian National Council, told me a day before the terrorist act in Sarafovo.


I might be the only optimist in Bulgaria, but I hope he is right. 

Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.

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