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MIA’s Strumica correspondent opens up about horrific bus accident in Bulgaria

The lump in our throats from the grisly sight was constricting, but the journalist urge to find out more was stronger.

Strumica, 24 November 2021 (MIA) – I found out about the horrific traffic accident in Bulgaria, which claimed the lives of 45 Macedonian citizens at 4:20 in the morning, when MIA’s director Dragan Antonovski called me to break the news. I headed out as quickly as I could. The rain and fog made it impossible to drive quickly, so it took me around thirty minutes to reach the border crossing Zlatarevo, where I was briefed by the police officers and border patrol officers who were on site. They expressed their sympathies, and after I purchased a vignette, I continued towards Petrich, which would lead me to Sandanski and Blagoevgrad.

I was listening to Bulgarian radio stations on the way, and each minute the news just became more and more grim.

I knew it’d be difficult to access the accident site, but after a phone call with my colleague Desislava Velkova, BTA’s correspondent from Blagoevgrad, I felt a bit calmer. We agreed on a meeting spot, a gas station on the way out of Blagoevgrad, so that we could continue our journey down Struma Highway together for another 100 km to reach our destination, around 30 km off Sofia.

Our journey ended around 4 km before the accident site, where police did not allow further travel. Vehicles were redirected down the old road to Sofia. My colleagues, Desislava Velkova and Krasimir Velkov, remembered that we could get closer to the site via a roundabout way.

After driving for a bit, we exited the old road and returned to the highway through the village Staro Selo, but we couldn’t drive there because a fresh blockade of earth and wood was placed at the beginning, blocking our path.

We grabbed our phones and cameras and, about 100 meters away, we found police and other Bulgarian colleagues who were recording and taking pictures from a thousand meters away. A young traffic police officer warned us not to cross the lines, even having to tell us off a few times for breaching the lines even by a few centimeters.

The burned Besa Trans bus was visible in the distance, as well as the silhouettes of police officers and detectives. We got as much photographic material as we could from this distance. The sorrow and disbelief could be felt in the air – how could such an accident happen and take a record number of lives? 4-5 ambulances passed by within a few minutes. Strangely enough, their sirens were off. It was almost as if they wanted to contribute to the silence in this part of the highway.

The lump in our throats from the grisly sight was constricting, but the journalist urge to find out more was stronger.

We spoke to a colleague from the private journalism agency BGNES, who believes that the bus hit the protective fence on the highway’s right side, then swerved from the impact, caught fire and ended up in the middle between both lanes.

The young police officer who was securing the accident site commented that this particular area of the highway, with its curve, could be very dangerous if you drive fast, especially when the road is wet.

On the way back to our cars, when our BNT colleagues found out I’m from Strumica, they asked me for a statement because there had supposedly been victims from Strumica who lost their lives in the accident. I told them I would come back after sending a report from the car. I didn’t. What could I have possibly said?

Desislava and I wrote the report and published it on the websites of both of our respective agencies. We sent photos and tried to gather additional info until we realized that the accident had better coverage on the side of the highway that came from Sofia.

After talking to the newsroom, we concluded that we’ve reported as much as we could from our location, so we headed back. Sunshine appeared behind the hills. In all this darkness and terror, the tiny little ray of sunshine was almost like a symbol of hope? Hope for whom, though? Not for the deceased. Not for the survivors. Maybe it meant that life goes on.

We split up at the entrance to Blagoevgrad, and I went back home alone, thoughts in my mind about the deceased and their families. I kept listening to Bulgarian radio stations, which had started to repeat the statements said by PM Zoran Zaev and his Bulgarian counterpart Yanev, followed by statements from detectives and the police force. Zaev’s statement that this accident will bring both peoples together rang in my ears. It aired on a Bulgarian national radio station, with no Bulgarian interpretation.

Accidents know not of borders, race, sex, religion, or political affiliation.

These thoughts followed me until I reached the Novo Selo border crossing. I got home pretty quickly, maybe because my eyes followed the road, but my thoughts were left behind at the curve of the road where the burning bus swallowed the lives of 46 people, shrouding their families in a cloak of sorrow.

Risto Tasev

Translated by Dragana Knezhevikj

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