Lajos Nagy  /  AP
The first residents who were evacuated from toxic red sludge-hit Kolontar village arrive at the temporary shelter set up in the Sports Hall of Ajka, west of Budapest, Hungary, on Saturday.
By
updated 10/9/2010 4:15:25 PM ET 2010-10-09T20:15:25

The disaster that buried three Hungarian villages in caustic red sludge this week is deepening the gloom of a country gripped by recession, polarization and the near-ubiquitous feeling that its people are doomed to be victims of calamity.

Gyoergy Hoffmann, a coal miner in Ajka, a city near the spill, called it "just the latest stroke of fate" for a country dominated for centuries by foreign powers — first the Turks, then the Austrians and finally the Soviets, who turned the country into the communist bloc's main producer of alumina.

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For decades, Hungary made the aluminum ingredient and shipped it to Russia, which sold the metal back to Hungary and other Soviet bloc nations at world market prices.

Swept by euphoria and national unity after the collapse of communism, Hungary considered itself ahead of its neighbors in cleaning up the environmental sins of the Soviet era. Rusting, polluted factories and abandoned garbage dumps, once common along Hungary's back roads, have become a rare sight.

But alumina plants remained active, including the factory outside the village of Kolontar, where the rupture of a wall holding waste sludge dumped up to 184 million gallons (700,000 cubic meters) of highly polluted water and mud onto three villages in about an hour Monday. At least seven people were killed by the caustic muck and hundreds were injured.

Hungary's prime minister said Saturday that the cracking wall of the reservoir could collapse at any moment and send a new wave of caustic red sludge into the devastated towns.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, are warning of other potential disasters, among them seven storage ponds about 60 miles (of Budapest that hold 12 million tons of sludge accumulated since 1945 — more than 10 times the amount that spilled this week.

"If the gates break there, much of Hungary's drinking water would be endangered," says WWF official Martin Geiger.

'Too many national cataclysms'

Such worries add to the burdens of a people whose national psyche has been formed by centuries of foreign domination, internal turmoil and economic hardships.

"There have been too many national cataclysms for Hungarians to be able to overcome their pessimism," says sociology professor Antal Bohm. "This catastrophe is simply one more in the series."

Some of the recent gloom is understandable. Hungary's economy contracted by almost 7 percent last year and the country has been forced to draw on about two thirds of a lifeline of 20 billion euros — nearly $28 billion — thrown by EU, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank two years ago.

Nearly 2 million people are groaning under growing debt as the strong Swiss franc makes their loans in that currency insupportable.

Hungarian households' foreign currency loans equaled 26.2 billion euros — $36.46 billion at the end of June, with nearly 80 percent in Swiss francs, says the National Bank of Hungary. Of the 1.8 million people with such loans, 400,000 are behind on their payments — with 100,000 in arrears by three months or more.

With the hard times comes the need to find scapegoats, allowing the far-right Jobbik party to emerge third-strongest in April national elections after a campaign tinged with anti-Semitic and anti-Gypsy rhetoric and marches by a black-uniformed militia founded by its leader.

Those militia have been banned. But a party ad referring to "Gypsy criminals" was aired on state radio and television before recent municipal elections.

The ad also described corrupt politicians, banks and multinational companies as "parasites" sucking on the country's blood — language used by the Nazis to describe Jews.

Bohm, the sociologist, puts those facing poverty at around 30 to 40 percent of the population, adding: "This isn't a situation they imagined they'd be in 20 years after the change of system."

The gloom probably contributes to the EU's second-highest suicide rate, after Lithuania — more than 21 out of every 100,000 people in 2007, according to EU statistics.

Among the more famous suicide victims is Rezsoe Seress. The composer of "Gloomy Sunday," one of Hungary's most popular ballads of all time that premiered in the 1930s, killed himself in 1968.

"Little white flowers won't wait for you, not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you," the song goes. "Angels have no thought of ever returning you, would they be angry if I thought of joining you?"

Even the national anthem is downbeat. Adapted in the 19th century from a poem bearing the subtitle "From the rough centuries of the Hungarian people," it pleads to God to pity a people "long by waves of danger tossed."

No wonder "Hungarians always see their glass as half empty," Bohm said.

Asked how Hungarians see themselves, he responds: "Constant losers."

___

Associated Press Writer Pablo Gorondi contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Officials: Wall holding sludge likely to burst

Photos: Toxic red sludge floods towns near Budapest

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  1. The break in the reservoir near Akja, Hungary, is seen on Tuesday, Oct. 12. Cracks have also appeared in another section. (Sandor H. Szabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Reuters photographer Bernadett Szabo has her boots sprayed after walking amid red toxic sludge in the flooded village of Devecser, Hungary, on Oct. 6. (Laszlo Balogh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. An aerial view shows the cracked northern wall of the reservoir containing red mud from the alumina factory on Oct. 10. (Gyoergy Varga / MTI via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Toxic sludge floods the streets of the Hungarian village of Devecser, Saturday, Oct. 9. (Laszlo Balogh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The level of the sludge is seen on the wall of a house in Kolontar, Hungary, Oct. 10. (Balint Porneczi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A rescue worker inspects a house in the flooded village of Devecser, Oct. 9. (Bernadett Szabo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Employees of the Romanian National Administration of Waters take samples on Oct. 9 from the Danube river in Bazias, Hungary, where the Danube enters Romania. Fears for the ecosystem of the Danube, Europe's second longest river, appeared to recede somewhat on Oct. 8 as readings showed contamination levels from the Oct. 4 toxic sludge disaster were down. (Daniel Mihailescu / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A summer hat and personal belongings are covered by sludge in a house in Kolontar, Hungary, Oct. 10. (Samuel Kubani / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An elderly resident cleans his house in Devecser, Hungary, on Oct. 9. (Balint Porneczi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, front left, is interviewed during his tour of the sludge-hit village of Kolontar, 103 miles southwest of Budapest, on Thursday, Oct. 07. (Balazs Mohai / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Jozsef Toth, an official of the Hungarian enviromental service, checks a sample of water from the Raba River on the banks of the river in Gyor, about 800 miles from Budapest on Oct. 7. The toxic spill reached the Danube river on Thursday, threatening to contaminate the waterway's ecosystem. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. An aerial view of streets covered with red mud in Devecser, 100 miles southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday, Oct. 6. (Sandor H. Szabo / MTI via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A man stands in his destroyed home in the flooded village of Kolontar, 93 miles west of Budapest on Wednesday. (Laszlo Balogh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A resident rests on a chair in the garden of his house while rescuing his belongings in Devecser, on Wednesday. (Tamas Kovacs / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The eye of a soldier is washed with mineral water after burning red mud spattered in his eye during cleaning operation in Kolontar on Wednesday. (Zsolt Szigetvary / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Excavators working at the broken dyke of the reservoir that contained red mud of an alumina factory near Ajka on Wednesday. (Sandor H. Szabo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Sunflowers stand in poisonous red mud in a field in Somlovasarhely, 105 miles southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday. (Tamas Kovacs / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A wheel loader dumps plaster into River Marcal in Vinar, 114 miles west of Budapest, on Wednesdy, in order to prevent poisonous chemical sludge from reaching the rivers Raba and Danube. (Tamas Kovacs / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Dead fish float on the Marcal River at the bridge of Morichida about 93 miles west from Budapest on Wednesday. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. An aerial view of the broken dyke of a reservoir containing red mud of an alumina factory near Ajka, 96 miles southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday. (Sandor H. Szabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Damaged cars are piled up by the flood of red mud in Devecser, on Wednesday. (Balazs Mohai / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Residents return to check their homes in Kolontar, southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday. Hungarian crews worked for a second day to prevent seepage from a sludge reservoir of an alumina plant in western Hungary as rescue units searched for missing people in flooded villages. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Civil Protection Service workers clean sludge-covered streets in Kolontar, southwest of Budapest, on Wednesday. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Jozsef Holczer works in his yard flooded by toxic mud in Kolontar, on Wednesday. (Bela Szandelszky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A villager is reflected in a flood of toxic mud, while walking through his backyard in Kolontar, on Wednesday. (Bela Szandelszky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Young women pass by firemen as they carry their belongings in red mud covered a street in Devecser, southwest of Budapest, on Tuesday, Oct. 5. (Balazs Mohai / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A Hungarian soldier wearing a chemical protection gear walks through a street flooded by toxic in the town of Devecser, on Tuesday. (Bela Szandelszky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. An aerial view of the red mud covered streets and overturned vehicles in a yard in Devecser, southwest of Budapest, on Tuesday. (Gyoergy Varga / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A pet dog walks in the toxic mud on Tuesday, in the villages of Devecser and Kolontar. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. An aerial photo taken on Tuesday, of the broken wall of the reservoir of the Ajka alumina factory. (Gyoergy Varga / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A woman observes the damage in the town of Devecser on Tuesday. About 35.3 million cubic feet of sludge has leaked from the reservoir and affected an estimated area of 15.4 square miles. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. A woman rescues belongings in the villages flooded by a red toxic mud from the sludge reservoir of the Ajka aluminium works on Tuesday, in the villages of Devecser and Kolontar. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A man stands knee-deep in toxic sludge as cleanup efforts begin in Devecser on Tuesday. Seven towns near the plant, including Kolontal, Devecser and Somlovasarhely, were affected. (Bernadett Szabo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Tunde Erdelyi, left, saves her cat, while Janos Kis, right, walks into their yard flooded by toxic mud in Devecser on Tuesday. (Bela Szandelszky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A man salvages some belongings in Devecser on Monday, Oct. 4. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Firefighters wade through mud flowing in the streets next to a timber trailer in Devecser on Monday. (Lajos Nagy / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. People wait to be rescued from a rooftop in Devecser on Monday. (Lajos Nagy / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. The broken wall of the reservoir of the Ajka alumina factory in Kolontar. (Gyoergy Varga / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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