I tossed and turned all night in the colorful room of a Roma family in Lom, Bulgaria. My sleep was haunted by the images of young Roma girls, price tags dangling from their hands, dotting the 148 km road like a dreary part of the wintery landscape between and Lom and Pravets.
Actually, my sleep starved mind was mixing up two images. My friend and I are on a week-long trip in Bulgaria, meeting with pastors in Roma Mahalas (the Roma Quarter) gathering stories and research. We really did see these Roma women waiting for truckers along the cold January road out in the middle of nowhere, likely dropped off by a pimp of some sort. Some looked as young as 15. Our traveling chatter would drift off into a deep silence whenever we would pass another one.
But the price tags were from another disturbing conversation I had earlier that evening with a Roma pastor: young Roma girls of certain clans in Bulgaria going to “bride-markets” and sold to the family who finds her appealing, prices mediated by a group of men who act as a “third party” to ensure everything is fair. Of course, this is a long-standing tradition and I am admittedly speaking in ignorance since I have never been to one. Perhaps it is, as some Roma would argue, a safe way for young people to find partners.
But I think the image of the women waiting on the long road to Lom put a filter on the way I listened to the story of the “bride markets.” The concept of putting a price on a woman, whether for a prostitute or a bride, deeply disturbs me.
Earlier in our journey, we met with a Bulgarian woman who described the rampant sex-trafficking happening with young Roma girls; girls who perhaps have a violent home life and are lured with the promise of a few dresses and a “better life” in Germany or the Netherlands. Girls who perhaps are sold by their father or brother, desperate for some fast cash. Sometimes, my Bulgarian friend gets a call from her contacts when someone is heading toward the airport with one or more girls, and she calls the police and races to head them off at the airport.
“What do you say to him when you catch him?” I ask her, trying to imagine the scene.
She shrugs and says simply, “I tell him that he can’t take her.”
Sometimes, she tries to get the sold ones back; but some of them don’t want to come back, perhaps because the evils they face in Western Europe are not as great as the evils at home.
But every terrible story I hear is challenged by another story of how God is actively working in these desperately poor communities in Bulgaria. For me, thus far on the trip, this is the theme I hold like two crystal balls in each hand, gazing into them: the reality of evil, suffering, poverty, and the stories of God’s “closeness” to the suffering, manifesting in healings, dreams, and divine providence.