People of the Mountain. Or Who Plants the Forests, Picks the Strawberries, Builds the Houses and Sews the Clothes of Europe.
In the 2nd century, the Roman emperor Trajan fought the Dacians in the eastern Balkans. To mark his victory, a city was built on the mid-Mesta River and named Nikopolis ad Mestum. The fertile basin had long been home to the Thracians but this ‘city of victory on Mesta' signalled that hegemonic power was here to stay. The people of Mesta would have to negotiate with it for the next two thousand years.
The Mesta-Nestos runs like an artery 230 kilometres long through the heart of the southern Balkans. It crosses one modern national border (Bulgaria-Greece), one ancient trade route (Via Egnatia) and several microclimates. This is a region of exceptional ecological value, untouched by industry and defined by three major European mountains – Rila, Pirin, and Rhodope. The flood plains of Mesta were extensively cultivated during Communism and the majority of people were employed in agriculture. In the 1990s, livelihoods were lost, lands abandoned, people emigrated. The Transition from communism’s planned economy to free market economy was meant to be short, but it lasted thirty years. I came here to learn about the people and mountains between the river’s source and the border with Greece.
Churches and mosques rub shoulders in this region. Christians and Muslims have lived side-by-side for centuries, often in mixed communities. At the town market, you hear Bulgarian, Roma, Greek, and Turkish because this border region is a slice of the original cosmopolitan Balkans. The town is the inheritor of Nikopolis and was called Nevrokop until 1951 when it was renamed Gotse Delchev after a Bulgarian revolutionary in the struggle for Macedonia’s independence from the Ottomans. Bulgaria and Macedonia still argue over his identity – an unwise fight in the 21st century, based as it is on dogmas of ethnic nationalism dating from the 19th century and which destroyed Europe in the 20th. And everything here is connected – people, tributaries, histories. Everything here has more than one name and identity. People and mountains have survived the repeated totalising assaults on their natural diversity. But only just.
Mesta has myriad villages and pastoral settlements scattered over its hills. The thriving ones are either tourist destinations or Pomak. Pomaks are Bulgarian- and Slavic-speaking Muslims who live in mountainous areas of Bulgaria, Greece, Kosovo, and North Macedonia. In Bulgaria, they are two per cent of the population – a small minority with big cultural significance. Their culture is uniquely syncretic. Exotic to the western eye, poorly understood at home, absent from mainstream culture, written out of history books, the Pomaks are the invisible Europeans. Extremely hard workers, attached to their places and families, they largely keep this region going – economically, demographically, even culturally.
Today, a large number of Mestans still work with the land at home and abroad. The British media contemptuously calls them “unskilled workers”. They are the people who plant, harvest, process, and bring food to our door. They are the people who build our houses, stitch our clothes from rag to label, grow tobacco for our cigarettes, nanny the newborn, and soothe Europe’s aged into dignified death.
The mostly Pomak village of Breznitsa is the largest in the Mesta Valley with 4,000 residents. This is unusual in a country where the dying village is the norm and demographic decline is the worst in Europe. Breznitsa has twenty-five tailoring workshops which employ the majority of the village women.
The rise of the private tailoring workshop began in the 1990s when the state-run economy collapsed. Locally, this meant the collapse of the tobacco industry, animal and agricultural cooperatives, and all other state-run enterprise.
Mesta is now the centre of the Bulgarian garment-making industry and home to one of Europe’s largest garment factories – Pirin-Tex. In 1993, the German textile entrepreneur Bertram Rollmann moved his production hub across the border from Greece. Desperate for jobs, the locals welcomed him. Rollmann employs skilled tailors from the Mesta region. Clothes for upmarket labels are designed by master tailors and made from scratch. Seamstresses can stich a trouser hemline in five seconds. Yet they are paid from 300 euro a month. The same work in Britain gets you 1,800 euro. Some cut their losses and go to Manchester or London, so Pirin-Tex struggles to find staff and despite his good employer ethic, Rollmann faces an uncertain future. Cheaper labour outside Europe and the fashion brands’ refusal to match workers’ basic earning needs may force the company to move. This would leave thousands without jobs but may play out well for small businesses. And there are hundreds of those in Mesta.
Private tailoring sweatshops were first opened here by Greek entrepreneurs, because of the proximity of the border and Greece’s advantageous EU membership which Bulgaria didn’t have until 2007. These mushroomed in the villages and small towns, making use of captive labour. They still do. Conditions have improved, though, and seamstresses now work in modern buildings or private houses with well converted ground floors. This is where those who prefer to be poor at home rather than emigrate make clothes for H&M and other labels sold in Europe’s high streets. These women remain flexible and lean in the face of an inflexible and bloated behemoth – the global fashion industry.
Rabié Yumer and her husband started the business twenty years ago and recently invested in a state-of-the arts building at the entrance to Breznitsa. They employ thirty seamstresses. A seamstress can earn 800 lev (400 euro) a month, working a six-day week. This is higher than the national minimal wage (332 euro).
The Yumer family work with Greek distributors like Eva Jo and Athos Pallas. The clothes are made from pieces, and each woman has a particular detail. Bags of cloth arrive in mini vans from Greece every week and these rags make up a sweatshirt that is labelled Mango, Diesel, Desigual, Moskino, or ASOS. ASOS operates out of Greece but its clothes are made here.
‘The market price has no impact on us,’ said Rabie. ‘This T-shirt here could sell in the shop for 30 or 300 euro, but we still get 38 cents for it.’ I try to calculate how many of these the woman at the machine must stitch, for anyone to make any money at all. I can’t.
‘We’ve kept all our original employees,’ said Rabié with pride. This is impressive, given the competition. Younger women prefer to work in the west but permanent emigration is unusual in Pomak communities. Even if they work on a Scottish farm, they return. Winter-spring is spent at the sewing machine. Meanwhile, they qualify for an unemployment benefit, based on their work within the EU. This is informally called here borsata. It entitles them to 60% of their wages and it is four times bigger than the Bulgarian dole – which reflects the difference in wages. A combination of these makes for a liveable income.
‘My workers are family. We depend on each other.’ Rabié said. ‘We grew up together and learned the tailoring craft together. When we’re chasing a deadline, me and my husband sit at the machines too,’ said Rabié Yumer. ‘Because you’re only as good as your reputation.’
All villages in the region had tailoring sweatshops during communism. It meant that many women and men were expert tailors already. It also meant that one way or another, they have remained poor while enriching the coffers of hegemons – first Soviet communism, then global capitalism. The difference is that they can now work abroad.
Rabié’s achievement was considerable, however. She had turned a vicious cycle into a virtuous one. The vicious cycle is brain-drain and labour drain, the result of drastic inequality within Europe. This inequality is aggravated by endemic domestic corruption which drives talent and labour away to greener pastures. The Yumers desperately tried to keep the pastures at home green.
Next time you look at a Hugo Boss jacket ‘made in the EU’, think of the woman in Mesta who made it. Her monthly wage is less than the price of that jacket.
The Tobacco Growers
‘You grow it from seed. You keep it from frost, you water it plenty. You pick it, string it, dry it, and pray over it,’ said an old woman in the highland village of Kribul. She still did it, with her daughter.
She wasn’t old – maybe sixty – but after a lifetime of outdoor work, her face and hands were coarse. Strings of green leaves hung on wooden frames, sun-curing under a plastic roof until brown. Then they pulled them out and stacked them in neat pies, and put them inside hessian bags, ready to be sold. If your crop isn’t blighted and you don’t mind rising at dawn to drive or walk to your field before the day’s heat, then you could make 250 euro a year as a family. That’s not enough to cover the doctor’s bill for the chronic bad back of the tobacco grower.
The going price is 7-8 lev (3.5-4 euro) per kilo of dried tobacco. Many professional growers and pickers work downstream in Greece, where they fetch 18 euro per dried kilo – that’s four, five times more.
The crop known as basma, or Oriental leaf, is the world’s finest aromatic tobacco. It is grown almost exclusively in the highlands of Mesta. The specific climate and soil required for this crop is found here, along the Mesta basin whose communities are mostly rural. In the 1960s and 1970s, thanks to these people’s labour, Bulgaria became the world’s largest tobacco exporter. The Nevrokop tobacco processing plant was at the heart of this industry so lucrative for the state. The entire population of Mesta was employed in tobacco cultivation, including children whose education was interrupted because they were required in the tobacco fields. Those Mestans born in the 1960s were the last to be exploited as children by Bulgartabac. And those born before 2000 were the last to help in the family tobacco fields where parents and grandparents were forever bent in furrows.
By the turn of the 21st century, Mesta’s tobacco economy had permanently declined for two reasons. One, the criminally low rates paid by wholesale buyers, as the tobacco unions collapsed and the privatisation of Bulgartabac brought oligarchic practices. Tonnages of tobacco rotted in warehouses, after being bought for pennies from the growers, but had turned out to be in excess of market demand. Two, the decline of smoking. Thousands of families were left without livelihoods. Today only a few diehards grow tobacco. You drive past the green fields of Mesta in summer and see how much water, footwork, and labour is needed to make a cigarette. The hills once covered in tobacco are bare, left to nature, grazed by the odd herd and with the odd field sewn with potatoes or sunflowers, or nothing.
And the old woman who wasn’t old – why did she still do it with her daughter?
‘Because I grew up with it. I love the smell, I’m good at it and too old to work in Greece.’
Her daughter helped her out of kindness. Oriental tobacco in Bulgaria hangs on these last growers. Downstream in Greece, its cultivation will continue for as long as the buying price is fair. Or at least not murderously unfair.
Emin picked me up in his UAZ off-road vehicle early in the morning. Emin had a degree in ecology, and his wife – in law. But there were no jobs for them in their pretty mountain town near the source of Mesta. When he asked for a job in the ecology police of the local council, the mayor at the time was upfront: ‘You don’t vote for me, there’s no job for you’.
This is one of the reasons why most of Emin’s peers work abroad. The capturing of resources by authoritarian paternalistic rings whose façade is one political party or another is a form of totalitarianism that has never completely left these lands.
It is the people who leave instead.
‘We could leave too. But we want to live here.’ Emin invested in fifteen sheep. It’s all he could afford. ‘Dad joined me. He used to take other people’s cow herds to the peaks on horseback. And grandma grew up here, so she was happy to join in.’
They had one hundred and thirty now. The family had always had animals, but even so, it was a bold move to try and survive on small-scale organic farming. Emin’s wife worked as an administrator in a Greek- and French-owned sewing factory that made upmarket lingerie for a French label. Sometimes she came up to help with the sheep.
This is how the three-generational family made a living. But there was milk only in the warmer months, not in winter when the sheep were kept in a lower pen. A kilo of fresh cheese sold for 10 lev (5 euro). At the height of season, they got 40 litres of milk a day which would make just under 20 kilos of cheese.
‘This one’s Pramenka, a Romanian breed. This one is Asaf, from Israel.’ He milked them all by hand.
Emin was on the lookout for different breeds. He’d arranged to buy a few dozen highly prized Sharplaninska pramenka from North Macedonia, but because of EU restrictions, he couldn’t get them across the border. It had been a blow.
Emin and his grandmother Badé sieved the milk through a cloth into a bucket and a sterilised plastic tub. Everything was washed and reused. They couldn’t afford waste. The milk was taken straightaway to the mandra (dairy) in town and sold. Then Emin and his father took the flock into the hills for a few hours. They rested in the afternoon and repeated the excursion in the evening.
For hundreds of years life was lived up here at the kolibi (pastoral settlements). This is where Badé had come for safety, to live with her parents and their animals, after her husband was beaten to death. This happened during the 1972 pogroms against the Pomaks – Pomak names, clothes, weddings, and funerals were banned. The aim was the psychological annihilation of a community. In the 1980s, a similar campaign was carried out against the ethnic Turks, the other Muslim minority. The Muslims of Bulgaria experienced the worst of Soviet-style communism: fascism. The goal of these campaigns was social homogenisation, labour exploitation, and cultural extinction. Badé was twenty-four, with two small children, when she was widowed. She was saved by the small-scale animal husbandry her family had done for generations, and was happy that her grandson took it up now.
During Communism, the expertise of the shepherds of Mesta was sought-after, and entire families were employed to look after animal co-operatives in other parts of the country. They took up these jobs, because tobacco growing was not enough if you wanted to build yourself a house. It was also the only way for underprivileged rural people to see another part of their own country. A single family of shepherds like Badé could look after hundreds of animals.
Extensive animal husbandry ended in the 1990s. Today, only a few families in the region make a living from pastoralism. What makes it viable is EU subsidies for special breeds. Of course, most working animals are crosses, so the chase after subsidizable breeds can distract farmers from the main purpose of shepherding – to keep the free-grazing ways that are an anti-dote to industrial, inhumane farming, to produce food, and to encourage biodiversity through a moving feast of grazing.
Badé and her family produced some of the cleanest, tastiest, and most ethical food in Europe. They were all skinny and tough. Highland shepherding is like that. With his flock, Emin had found his purpose. He was putting to good use his degree in Ecology, in fact. Yes, he and his wife could earn more working as farmhands in Germany, two anonymous bodies in a tide of cheap ‘unskilled’ labour. But they had decided to make their mark here, against impossible odds. Or almost impossible.
The Planters and Harvesters
In summer, Mesta communities go quiet because able-bodied men and women are working 10 hour days on the farms of western Europe. They pick soft fruits or plant saplings in large agricultural outfits in Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, and Spain.
Mehmed was a master woodcarver but couldn’t make a living from it – people bought cheap Chinese-made furniture instead. This is why twice a year, he went to work in rural Germany, with other men and women from the village. They worked for the largest tree-planting company in Germany. Fir, oak, beech and sycamore. The pay was 6.5 euro per hour, after tax. When the saplings planted by Mehmed reached 1.5-2 metres, they were sold to other countries. The conifers went to Scandinavia, the deciduous to Czechia.
‘The packing is done by the women,’ Mehmed said. ‘Inside huge warehouses. Men do the outdoor work.’
In October-November, he cut branches from the pines he’d planted the previous season and made them into ‘Christmas wreaths for the Germans’. In mud, snow, frozen ground.
‘It’s funny,’ he said. ‘We were coming back from Germany in a mini bus. At the Hungarian-Romanian border, I saw these refugees. Battered luggage, bad clothes. Then I realised they weren’t refugees. They were just our people, returning home! Bulgarians, Romanians, Ukrainians, like me. You know, at that border Europe ends and something else begins.’
The Balkans, and that other Europe of the east.
During Communism, some Mestan men went to the Komi Soviet Republic to work in forestry. The conditions were labour camp-like, but it was well paid. Back here, the state felled the priceless ancient beech and oak forests of Mesta and sold the wood to the Soviet Union for a cutdown price. Shallow-rooted pine was planted in its place. Today, logging remains one of the few livelihoods for men who don’t want to go abroad. It is dangerous work; I met forestry workers mourning a colleague crushed by a pine. Every time a woodland is sold at an auction to a local entrepreneur, the result is guaranteed environmental degradation. The high-quality beech that is still cut in Pirin Mountain are sold downstream in Greece. You see the lorries on the motorway to the border checkpoint. It is surprising that any trees remain at all. But for how long?
The forests of Mesta continue to be destroyed, cheaply exported, flooding gets worse every winter, plants disappear, wild fires rage, animals are forced to go higher, and people go abroad to survive. The going rate for a freelance forestry worker is 40 lev (20 euro) a day.
Open European borders have brought serious benefits to the local economy. After years of working abroad, Mestans have enough capital to invest in their own small businesses, or employ others to build their dream houses, earned abroad.
Many have started their own raspberry and strawberry farms, for instance. Soft fruit are traditionally harvested in the wild here, which is much more labour-intensive. But people had seen the lucrative ways of large-scale farming in the west and now, instead of being gastarbeiters, they are business owners and employers. Parents don’t have to be separated from children, through seasonal labour, and dignity is regained. After all, nobody wants to be a ‘slave to the west’ – an expression I heard many times from Mestans, said in sadness and anger.
Smalyo learned the interior painter-decorator trade from his father Metko. Metko Fetahov is the historian and chronicler of his community, an intellectual without an academic job. He spent twenty years decorating the apartments of Sofia’s intelligentsia to support his family in Breznitsa. This changed when the building boom in Breznitsa began, a few years ago. The new affluence is the result of seasonal work abroad. People earned in Germany or France for twenty years, but spent here, on large houses. Metko is in high demand. Smalyo used to work on English farms with his wife, even during the pandemic when ‘unskilled workers’ like then had special permission from the EU to keep travelling. Now the young couple plan to stay home. He works with his father and she is a paid home carer. They earn four times less, but they no longer have to be third-class citizens living in caravans on the fringes of Essex. Then filling endless forms at home and being at the mercy of some bitter provincial bureaucrat to release or withhold their unemployment benefit.
The young couple are still an exception to the rule. But they may be representative of a slow circling back home. Thousands of men from Mesta work as builders in western Europe.
‘Builders and farmhands wanted in Spain/ Beligum/ France. No language required. Extra pay for extra hours. Immediate departure’. Notices like are in local shops. In Black Mesta, a village of four hundred people, one hundred men were building houses in England. In the village of Ribnovo, famed for its spectacular Pomak weddings, the weddings are held in winter only, because that’s when the men return – briefly.
The Mesta basin has a long masonic tradition. Builders travelled seasonally in guilds to the Aegean and other parts of the Balkans. Their communities grew wealthy from this and from animal herding. Men and herds moved seasonally. The hard border with Greece brought an end to both, and forced collectivisation delivered the worst blow, separating people from their land, animals, and ancestry. But the building trade didn’t die. In the last twenty years, the mushrooming of real estate to buy, rent and holiday, has ensured work for a new generation of builders. The ski resort Bansko near-by has multiplied in size, keeping thousands of men in work. But this uncontrolled sprawl has been at the expense of ecologic degradation.
However, in the thriving, off-the-tourist-track villages like Breznitsa, Gorno Dryanovo, Kribul, Ribnovo and others, houses are built for people, not for profit. That is why Metko and Smalyo prefer to plaster ceilings here instead of in Scotland, where Metko Fetahov worked one year, sleeping on the floor of a mosque because he could not afford to pay rent.
Microcosms are illuminating. Mestans have survived and sometimes thrived on the margins of Europe. When the state was their enemy, which was often, the mountain remained their ally. They deliver food and clothes to the rest of Europe, while back in Mesta, they are the last keepers of a vital mountain culture.
Mestan livelihoods weave a complex weave in which a blueprint for resilience can be discerned. Threaded together are local and global, nature and culture, rural and technological, modernity and ancient knowledge. This is the meaning of an ecosystem: an intelligent way of surviving, where everything is interconnected and has a place. Ecosystems are under threat from hegemonic powers. Their fabric, the fabric of life itself, is held together by people like these.
Mestans live on the periphery of a staggeringly unequal Europe. They know that anything could happen at any time. For them, it already has. Peripheral people are more aware of the centre than vice versa, and this gives them a quiet insight and strength. Qualities helpful at times of cataclysmic change when the centre and the periphery may yet swap places as the earth moves beneath our feet.
Kapka Kassabova’s Elixir: in the Valley at the End of Time is out in 2023 (Cape). It is an exploration of ailing and healing with the people and mountains of Mesta.
The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).