Dinko Valev, a generously tattooed, buzz cut, strongman has become the face of Bulgaria’s opposition to incoming migrants over the last year, spending most of his days barreling near the southern border on horseback, behind the handlebars of his ATV, or in his Soviet Era Armoured Personnel Carrier.
Building on his ‘superhero’ eccentricity and unique brand of vigilante justice, Valev’s well-publicized efforts have managed to gather him a large following and inspired many Bulgarians, dissatisfied with the number of migrants using the nation of 7 million as a transit country, to follow in his footsteps.
Gold iPhone in hand, Valev sits outside a café in one of Bulgaria’s smaller coastal villages, and explains that Bulgarians are at risk of being physically assaulted by migrants every day.
“I was driving on the road with my ATV when this guy jumps from up top,” says Valev, referencing a purported attack by Syrian migrants near the border in early 2016.
“He had this sharp thing and you can see he stabbed me here on my fist. He shouted something like ‘allah mallah’. So now I have to go to war with them. After they attacked me, I understood that all this isn’t just a movie but a reality.”
Valev has not only inspired an ever growing Bulgarian vigilante force to follow in his footsteps but has become symbolic of similar movements sprouting up across the European Union as governments struggle to deal with the mass influx of migrants.
Over the last year, anti-migrant vigilantes have become increasingly outspoken in countries such as Slovenia and Sweden, where groups patrol borders, streets, and trains.
Although Bulgarian Prime Minister, Boiko Borisov’s, appraisal of civilian patrols was later revoked once social media became saturated with videos of migrants, cuffed with zip ties and laying face down near the border, his support matters little for the groups heading south.
For many, the real stimulus in voluntarily patrolling has become more than vigilante justice; it has transformed into a cultural calling – a parallel to Bulgaria’s ousting of the Ottoman Empire in 1878 after 500 years of slavery that had lasting effects on the population’s fear of invasion as well as their perception of Islam, says Burgas Municipal Counsellor, Georgi Manev.
“Bulgarians are having difficulties with migrants because we are a strictly Orthodox country,” says Manev.
“During Ottoman rule there was a forced Islamization of Bulgaria which played a big role in our history.”
Manev, who himself handed over 50 migrants passing through his hunting territory to border officials last winter, considers himself a patriot but says that most vigilantes within Bulgaria are using nationalism as a ‘PR stunt’ only to gain support.
Although Valev remains adamant that he is akin to historical liberation figures, his own contentions with the ever-increasing vigilante groups mirror those of Manev.
“These new [vigilante] groups are a complete parody,” says Valev, leaning back in his chair and shaking his head. According to him, there are an increasing number of civilian groups that do not show the same passion he does for defending his country but are merely doing it to gain fame.
“What individuals are famous in Bulgaria’s history? Whose names do we know? Those of unique people like Vasil Levsky and Hristo Botev. Tell the people in these new groups to go alone in the woods and watch how they’ll shit themselves one by one.”
One man that does fall within Valev’s ‘good books’, is Burgas citizen turned vigilante, Petar Nizamov.
On the 20th of July, Nizamov made his exit from the Burgas District Court after house arrest charges had been dropped regarding his earlier capture of migrants. He was met by the thunderous applause of the 30 odd supporters waiting outside and, while dolling out firm handshakes, he reassured the men, women, and children rushing towards him: “We will do it brothers and sisters. We will do it together. None of you are alone.”
According to Nizamov, his house arrest charges were not a result of his early 2016 video showcasing a group of apprehended male migrants along the border. Rather, it was his ‘meddling’ in the migrant ‘business’; one in which he argues border officials are just trying to keep their share of trafficking money.
“All of the places and paths through the borders that traffickers take - we know these through friends working in the border police,” says Nizamov. “They tell us that they know when large groups are coming in … but they tell us their boss’ orders are to ‘stay there’ and not act.”
While there is much contention amongst border officials and vigilante groups, one aspect on which they share opinions is the porousness of the border with Turkey.
“The border itself is very very large and with the efforts and resources put into it right now, it’s just not possible to keep it secure,” says a former border official who wished to remain anonymous.
The official argued that more should be done in terms of keeping the border well monitored but didn’t believe this task should be placed in the hands of vigilante groups.
“These groups that have created themselves are doing it for fame and money,” he says.
“They don’t have any legal right to keep people captive and they certainly don’t have any right to do it on the border.”
Although both sides accuse each other of wrongdoing and maltreatment, Nizamov argues that his message is more about being proud Bulgarians than it is about physical action. He says there is no ‘call to arms’ against migrants per se and while Valev accentuates a more combative approach, the growing civilian group known as BNO Shipka, aptly named after a famous battle against the Ottoman Empire, remains the centerpiece of armed retaliation.
In the small, eastern village Kitchevo, a group of roughly 100 men and women gather to take part in intensive survival trainings ranging from curing snake bites to disarming land mines and firing light machine guns. What matters here is not your personal fitness level, nor your former military training. The only thing that matters in the weekly sessions organized by BNO Shipka’s leader, Vladimir Rusev, is the desire to take part in the shaping of Bulgaria’s future.
“The main goals are rebirth of the Bulgarian nation, rebirth of the Bulgarian economy, rebirth of the education system, and the return of Bulgarian strategic interests to the country,” says Rusev.
Within this broad theme lays the most recent addition to the organizations goals; a document entitled: ‘International Measures to Counteract the Uncontrolled Migration into Europe of Millions of People from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.’ Herein, everything from recruiting field agents in migrant communities to finding out the real ‘instigators’ behind the migration process are outlined.
Marching amongst the group’s training session in the woods, it was clear that for every individual who had clear opinions on the purported danger posed by migrants, there were others who were simply young enough to be swayed into any gathering that would allow for Facebook photos with assault rifles.
Ultimately Rusev prepares his trainees for night patrols along the border in cases of emergency, envisioning his organization as the only back up for the weak Bulgarian army. However, his views on those entering the country illegally are not as straightforward as other vigilantes.
“They [migrants] are victims of the international crime wave,” says Rusev, explaining that migrants are often tricked into crossing over in the hopes of wealth, security, or even tricked into carrying out terrorist attacks.
“They are victims of transnational corporations and they are also victims of these so-called human rights organizations that make promises they can’t keep.”
It is Rusev’s distrust towards NGOs that stands as the only unifying factor between the various groups patrolling the border. In the middle of all the verbal crossfires remains the largest pro-migrant NGO, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee: targeted by all as the single most unpatriotic group in Bulgaria.
Amidst protests, hate mail, and incitements to violence, a BHC spokesperson claims that the real issue lays in the fact that irreparable damage has already been done to Bulgaria’s society as a whole.
“There’s this thin ice of liberal conduct but now all of the dirt is starting to come up in between,” claims the spokesperson.
“People don’t really believe in a code of conduct anymore - not in the work place where there is frequently xenophobia and racism, and certainly not outside.”
The increasingly vocal petition to ban the BHC will most likely be the final straw in the uprising of vigilante forces along the border.
Valev has already cemented himself as a symbol and the APC he drives, with its deafeningly loud interior, its impressive crushing power, and its often times unbelievable speed has risen from the hills as its own empire: helmed by a man from Yambol who stands as a testament to a new wave in Europe’s history – one where the charting of moral lines and the maintaining of rule of law is becoming increasingly difficult.