Macedonia awoke today to reports about a major tragedy – the death of 45 passengers in an accident in Bulgaria. The bus owned by the Skopje based BESA Tours company was returning from a shopping and tourist trip to Istanbul. Macedonia is honoring the Day of the Albanian Alphabet, and some of the passengers took the popular road tour to the metropolis over the long weekend. It crossed back into Bulgaria late Sunday evening and headed to Sofia, before turning south on the Struma highway that leads to Dupnica and Blagoevgrad. About half way to Dupnica, the bus apparently hit one of the highway fences and caught fire. Most of the victims died of asphyxia, Bulgarian authorities say, with only seven people able to get out in time.

Various reasons for the accident are being examined – from the driver falling asleep, to a burst tire. In many reports of local news outlets, it is implied that the bus was carrying a large quantity of petrol in canisters – probably an attempt to take advantage of the low petrol prices in Turkey.

Macedonia declared three days of mourning, and Bulgaria will hold a day of national mourning on Tuesday. A number of schools in Macedonia, near Skopje and in Kumanovo, were closed today to mourn the victims. The official list of those killed has not been published, but family members have shared details about the fate of their loved ones online. Among them is a family from Skopje where a young husband and wife were killed, along with their twin sons aged only four. Five of the victims were elementary school pupils from the “Ismail Qemali” school in Skopje’s Cair district – classes there were not held today. One was a high-school student from the “Zef Lush Marku” school in Skopje. Eight of the victims were from About two dozen of the victims are from Studenicani, a village near Skopje. This includes the Jahi family, which reportedly lost eight members.

This is the second major tragedy to strike Macedonia in a matter of months. On September 8th, when the country was celebrating its 30th independence anniversary, an improvised Covid hospital in the city of Tetovo caught fire due to a wiring issue. Within minutes the hospital container was ablaze, and 14 patients and their family members were killed. Under public pressure, Healthcare Minister Venko Filipce offered to resign for his role in the contract to build 19 such hospitals that was awarded to a company with links to the Zaev Government, but Prime Minister Zaev refused to accept his resignation.

Zaev was himself expected to resign on Tuesday, after losing the local elections in October, in large part owing to his mishandling of the Covid crisis, the Tetovo disaster, and the Bulgarian veto of Macedonia’s EU accession talks. This resignation is, of course, postponed due to the tragedy, as Zaev rushed to Bulgaria to meet with the survivors and Bulgarian authorities. During his press conference with caretaker Prime Minister Stefan Yanev, when asked by a Bulgarian journalist how will this affect the tense relations between the two countries, Zaev said that he expects that the disaster will affect relations in a positive way. This statement is seen as completely tone deaf in Macedonia, as it seemed that Zaev is hoping that Bulgaria will now feel pressure to lift its veto. Meanwhile, Bulgarian citizens flocked to the Macedonian embassy to lay flowers and pay their respect to the victims.

Macedonia suffered another major bus accident in February 2019, on the Skopje – Tetovo highway in which 16 passengers lost their lives. After the accident, the investigation showed that the Durmo Tours company from Gostivar, which operated the bus, did its own mechanical inspections, without using an independent company. Charges were filed against company owner, several technicians and the driver who survived the accident, but the case is moving slowly, and prosecutors are focusing on the employees and away from the company owner. Many citizen were commenting online about their own near disasters when using public transportation in Macedonia, citing poorly maintained, antiquidated vehicles and drivers speeding on narrow and slippery roads.

In this case, the investigation will be led by Bulgarian authorities, with their Macedonian colleagues providing support. Prosecutor Ljupco Joveski was in Sofia today, to discuss modes of cooperation.

The accident of the BESA Tours bus, that burnt down overnight in Bulgaria, with 45 people on board, is the worst bus accident in Europe in the past decade. AFP reports on half dozen other similar accidents in Portugal, Russia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Italy.. with death tolls in the dozens. In 2015, 43 retirees were killed when their bus crashed with a truck in France. The toll on the Macedonian bus that crashed in Bulgaria yesterday has already surpassed this number.