Donka and Georgi Kostov in the burn-victim unit of St. George hospital in Plovdiv, two weeks after Georgi’s suicide attempt.
All photos by Jackson Fager.
t’s not every day that you meet someone who has set himself on fire. One reason for this is because it’s pretty much the most awful and insane thing imaginable. Another reason is that people who light themselves ablaze usually die soon afterward. Surprisingly, it’s not always the burns that kill them. Often, flames will enter a self-immolator’s lungs through his mouth, causing him to asphyxiate.
On a recent trip to Bulgaria, I met not one but two people who had survived suicide attempts by fire. “Solving problems with gasoline has become the new trend,” Georgi Kostov told me in the burn-victim unit of St. George hospital in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city. He was still in shock, so his wife, Donka, did most of the talking.
She explained how the couple were unemployed, in debt, and struggling to feed their children, when, two weeks before my visit, Georgi disappeared into his bedroom at their apartment in the industrial city of Dimitrovgrad. He came out doused in gasoline, convinced that the Mafia was outside his front door to collect on his debts and kill him. Standing in front of his family, he flicked on his lighter and burst into flames. Donka leapt onto him to put out the blaze while his sister threw water on him. They succeeded in saving Georgi, but his wife suffered third-degree burns all over her arms in the process. “He was so depressed,” she said. “He didn’t know how to make anyone notice our poverty. So he did this horrible thing.”
Georgi’s not the only one. In the past six months, Bulgaria has experienced a wave of self-immolations. During one span in February and March alone, six Bulgarians killed themselves with fire, and at least ten people in total have done so in the past six months. (That’s more than in any other country except China, where suicidal Tibetan Buddhist monks use the tactic to protest religious persecution.)
A memorial to Plamen Goranov, outside City Hall in Varna, where the artist set himself on fire on February 20, 2013.
Some say the inspiration for it all was a 36-year-old photographer named Plamen Goranov, who burned himself on February 20 in front of City Hall in Varna, a resort city on the country’s Black Sea coast. According to investigative journalists, Varna’s commerce is controlled by a business group called TIM, which the former US ambassador to Bulgaria, James Pardew, accused of racketeering, prostitution, and extortion in a 2005 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. TIM, he said, was the “up-and-coming star of Bulgaria’s organized crime.” Plamen set himself on fire to protest TIM’s alleged relationship with Varna’s mayor, Kiril “Kiro” Yordanov. Before he set his body aflame, he propped up a sign demanding the “resignation of Kiro and all the city council by 5 PM.”
When Plamen died 12 days later, he got his wish: memorials and vigils in his honor were held in every major city, and under pressure from his own political party, Yordanov resigned. Buoyed by this success, protests against corruption had erupted throughout the country, and by the end of February they’d grown so large that they forced the prime minister, an alleged former amphetamine smuggler named Boiko Borisov, to also resign. When his replacement, a Socialist named Plamen Oresharski, nominated a widely hated and allegedly corrupt media magnate named Delyan Peevski to run Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security, protesters forced Peevski to step down too.
LEFT: After he woke up from a coma in the hospital in Sofia, Dimitar Dimitrov took a selfie on his cell phone. “I dropped the phone five times trying to take it,” he said. “I looked like Quasimodo.”
RIGHT: A protester at one of the nightly marches in Sofia, calling for the resignation of the current prime minister, Plamen Oresharski.
On my visit to Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, in June, thousands marched through the streets every night. By this point the protesters had upped their demands, calling for Prime Minister Oresharski’s resignation. In a shout-out to the man whose self-immolation in 1969 catalyzed the downfall of the Soviet regime in Czechoslovakia, people began celebrating Plamen as “Bulgaria’s Jan Palach.”
It remains to be seen whether the past six months have signaled the blooming of a Bulgarian Spring, or have instead been a disastrous demonstration of nihilism and despair. Whatever the case, one thing is clear: the self-immolations continue intermittently, and serve as one of the most dubious legacies of Bulgaria’s earnest attempt to create a less corrupt and more democratic country. “The only way to get anyone to listen to us and pay attention,” Dimitar Dimitrov, another self-immolation survivor, told me, as he was convalescing at a little cabin in the rural region of Silistra, “is to set ourselves on fire.”
In a country where people are still struggling to embrace democracy after nearly 50 years of Communist rule, and where EU membership, which the country obtained in 2007, hasn’t significantly improved the poverty rate or transparency in government, self-immolation remains one of few available forms of critique in Bulgaria. “We are killing ourselves because there’s no way to meaningfully engage with the political system,” Dimitar told me. “But something weird happened to me—I survived. I survived so I can tell the story.”
VICE: Describe what happened to you on March 13, the day you set yourself on fire.
Dimitar Dimitrov: That day started 23 years ago [since the Communist government collapsed, in 1989]. Our government—first the Communists and then the “democratic” politicians—has always been connected to the oligarchs, to the criminal world, to incompetent people. Under Communism, I had to wake up at 5 AM so that I could stand in line to buy milk and bread for my child. Under this government, I was a blacksmith until my workshop went out of business. The job that was feeding my family went away. Then electricity became impossible to afford. Under Communism, we had money, but there was nothing to buy. Now, there is everything to buy but no money. It’s always been a recession, and I finally got tired of it.
Dimitar Dimitrov at his wife’s cabin in the rural village of Silistra, four months after his self-immolation.
What was the last straw?
I had decided to do it the day before. The prime minister [Boiko Borisov] had just resigned and new elections were announced, and I was sick of all of it. So I decided to kill myself in front of the president’s building. I woke up early and had coffee with my wife. I had made up my mind, but I didn’t tell her anything. I was very quiet. After that, I went to the store and got one beer. I drank it with my neighbors. I went to a gas station and pumped out some gas and poured it in an empty bottle of vodka. I got on the train to go downtown, and when I got there, I walked around for a while. It was about 10 AM, and I walked around until 1:30. During that time, I drank another beer alone in an unknown bar. I have one daughter, and I thought about her. It’s not that she lives so bad, but I want her to have the same life as American girls. I thought it was worth it for her to not have a father if she could have a better life. One can’t live in a constant recession.
Eventually, I went and stood in front of the president’s building. I took my bottle of gasoline and poured it over my chest and head. I struck the lighter. I’ve worked with fire all my life [as a blacksmith], but this time there was a big fireball and I got scared. I screamed because of the pain. It surprised me that it hurt instantly. Have you ever burned yourself with a drop of oil from a frying pan? It was like being in a frying pan. My head, face, shoulders, hands, everything.
Then I heard people shouting, “This guy set himself on fire!” It was the security guards, and they immediately ran over to me with fire extinguishers and tried to put me out. At this point, there had been so many suicides, they were ready. They were scared about someone doing what I did. So they put me out. I lost consciousness at some point, and I woke up in the hospital. I survived because the guards were so fast, and because the hospital was close by, but I don’t remember it. I was in a coma for a week.
When I woke up, I looked terrible. I took a photo of myself on my cell phone. I dropped it five times trying to get a good shot. I didn’t have skin. You could see my bones through my arms. I had no lips. I looked grotesque, like Quasimodo. When I saw the photo, I thought I would have to go off to live in a wild village all by myself. I looked like a vampire. I didn’t think I would ever get better.
But at Pirogov Hospital, when I was there recovering and having surgery, the health minister came to visit me every day. The nurses told me I was under the president’s supervision. Which means that I had to survive. Even if they had to fly me to New York to save me, they were going to do it. I had to live, because if a person dies in front of the president’s building, that’s bad news. I didn’t have the right to die. And so I survived.
Afterward, the government shut down my personal website, they deleted my profiles on social media—Facebook, everything. I am defined as “dangerous,” and they are afraid I will provoke others.
Why did you choose fire as a method? Why not a gun, for example?
I did not want to simply commit suicide. We had all of these protests—we’re still having them—and nothing gets done. Nothing changes. I didn’t want anything from the Bulgarian politicians. I was hoping that the world, people like you, would look at our country with a careful eye. When Plamen Goranov committed suicide, he ousted the mayor of Varna with his self-immolation. I wanted to oust the entire system.
Watch our documentary about these self-immolations, Burning Men of Bulgaria.
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