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But when the Iron Curtain was eliminated two decades ago, the factories closed.

Since then, people have become a rarity, with depopulation and aging taking a grim toll on the small towns, and notably the villages, leaving the once-buzzing schools, stately churches and huge cooperative farms in ruins.

“Oh, this was a big village of 9,000 people, but it all went to hell,” Nikola Georgiev, 77, said in the village of Yakimovo, at the heart of Bulgaria’s northwest, some 60 miles north of the capital, Sofia.

Now the village has just 2,000 people. Unemployment in the local area, where the population is 4,300, hit 54.6 percent in September, the highest in the country, according to media reports.

From wire dispatches and staff reports