In Bulgaria, a few months after the fall of the Wall in 1989, the Communist regime triggered the exodus towards Turkey of 360,000 Bulgarian citizens of Turkish ethnicity. The mass exodus, gone down in history as the "big excursion", has left deep scars on the people who lived it. Our reportage

04/11/2009 -  Francesco Martino Edirne

"I was beaten twice until I bled and lost consciousness. It was early May of 1989. The men from the 'milicija' told me that if they saw me talking to 'reported' people , they would kill me. Then one day they told me: 'you're about to emigrate. You choose: Austria or Sweden'. I got ready. I had no choice. On the 29th, though, Zhivkov announced that the borders with Turkey would be opened. I packed and left with my family. A week later I crossed the border, right here, in Edirne".

Rasim Ozgur's eyes, framed by deep wrinkles, sparkle of an intense black. His is one of the hundreds of thousands of stories linked to what is probably the least known collective tragedy of the European twentieth century: the "big excursion" of 360,000 Bulgarian Turks who, from May to August of 1989, abandoned their homes to seek refuge in Turkey.

"Ozgur means 'free', I chose this name once I crossed the border", Rasim tells in Bulgarian, a language he has not spoken in years, but still masters in all its rich nuances. "After struggling against those who were trying to force me to change my name, being able to choose it was my taking back".

We are in the center of Edirne, the ancient Adrianopolis. For centuries, the city, laid down on a hill overlooking the Thrace plain, was the door from the Balkans on the road of the imperial capital (first Constantinople, then Istanbul) and itself the Ottoman capital from 1365 to 1453. What mostly bears witness to its greatness is the elegant figure of the four minarets at the Syleiman mosque, an unequalled masterpiece of the great architect Sinan.

Edirne is the first Turkish city those coming from Bulgaria and Greece encounter, only a few kilometers from the border. Today it has the sleepy and somewhat provincial look of a decayed capital, lazily mirroring itself in the waters of its two rivers, Tundzha and Maritza. Nothing shows the size of the tragedy for which it was stage in 1989.

A painter, sculptor and Arts Professor at the University of Izmir, Ozgur is the guest of honor of the day organized by the University of Thrace to remember the events of 20 years earlier. Tragic and unreal footage images run along a wall: a train incredibly overcrowded with people, tens of children sitting by the tracks, elder women dimmed with a lost look, the white tents of a temporary Red Cross refugee camp. Everywhere, confusion and tears.

The "big excursion" is one of the most tragic chapters of a long and complex history: the troubled relationship between Bulgaria and its substantial Muslim minorities, Turks and Pomaks (Slavs converted to Islam during the Ottoman rule).

Viewed as unreliable and potentially dangerous people, in the decades following the birth of the modern Bulgarian state (1878), Muslims, and Turks in particular, were marginalized, when not persecuted, by the Sofia authorities.

The coming to power of the Communist Party in 1944 marked the beginning of an opening phase. With the conviction of being able to unite the nation on class belonging, able to oust ethnic and religious identity, the Communists initiated a phase of cultural protection of minorities, including the Turkish one.

The effects, however, were far from the Party's expectations: thanks to the rights granted to it, the cohesion of the Turkish community increased instead of decreasing. The year 1956 marked a new change in course: frightened by the "Turkification of part of the nation", the Communist élite decided to gradually suppress the rights granted.

The party's strong man, Todor Zhivkov, bound to lead the country until the fall of the Wall, was a staunch supporter of the strategy that aimed at absorbing Turks and Pomaks, depriving them of their own collective identity. Education in Turkish was first limited, then suppressed. Meanwhile the propaganda machine was started up to show that in Bulgaria there were no Turks (or Pomaks), only Bulgarians, "Turkified" by force during the Ottoman rule.

According to the Communist authorities, this premise led to the conclusion that it was right and due to "straighten what is wrong" by helping the Bulgarian Muslims to "re-discover" their own identity and to be "re-born pure Bulgarians" (the assimilation campaign would go down in history as the "revival process").

The focus in this strategy was the forced name changing which, in the Islamic tradition, has a transcendental and quasi-magic value, and is the first and foremost element of (self)recognition of the members of the community.

During the 70s, the Pomaks were the first to experience the name changing policy. Esma Bozadzhieva, native of Southern Bulgaria, today general practitioner in Edirne, comes from a mixed family: Turkish father and Pomak mother.

"The whole family was to be 're-baptized' as early as the 70s, Bozadzhieva tells in a crowded outdoor café along the banks of the Maritza river. "My father then decided we should move to Northern Bulgaria, where the situation was more peaceful, moving from city to city. In 1974 we were living in Aytos, near the port of Burgas. One morning, while I was in school, the teacher called me to the board. She said, 'comrades, from now on Esma's name is Sema'....".

Only in 1984, however, does the regime decide to launch the offensive against the Turkish community. The reasons leading to such a rash move are difficult to decipher. Among the decisive factors was the fear for the high demographic increase of the Bulgarian Turks and their concentration in compact and strategic areas on the border with Turkey.

The Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and some episodes of terrorism, allegedly by separatist groups, supplied the Communist élite with further justifications. The final decision, by Zhivkov's admission, was encouraged by the perception that Turkey could not react, considering Ankara's difficulties with its minorities.

Everything started on Christmas Eve of 1984, in the highly Turkish populated region of Kardzhali. The name changing operation, carefully prepared by the regime, was supposed to proceed with no major hitches. The news, however, spread quickly, and the campaign was met with harsh and unexpected resistance.

Rasim Ozgur - F.Martino

"I had just come home to Dzhebel a small town near Kardzhali from Sofia, where I had been working on the Christmas decorations", Rasim Ozgur remembers. "It was the 26th of December of 1984. The atmosphere was heavy. They had started changing changing names to people in the surrounding villages. The police was everywhere. We took the streets to protest and rebel. The next day they arrested me. I was sentenced to 18 months in the Belene lager, on the Danube. The first six months were the worst of my life, I can only remember the inhumane cold and hunger".

Between December 24th, 1984 and January 14th, 1985, the names of 310,000 people in Bulgaria were changed. The operation was marked by violent protests and repression. There was talk of tens of people dead and thousands arrested, about 1000 of whom locked up in the prison camp of Belene with Rasim Ozgur.

For the party's leadership, the "revival process" was a success. "We have not solved the Turkish problem, but we have made a decisive step forward. In 15 or 20 years everything will be forgotten", Zhivkov declared at the Politburo on March 30th, 1985.

For those who suffered it, though, the name changing was a deep trauma. "The director summoned me and told me straightforward that I had to choose another name for myself. Then they changed all my students' names. From that day on the children stopped answering the roll-call, they felt lost, confused. It was terrible", recalls Vesile Yildiz, in 1989 a teacher in the town of Tzar Kaloyan, today a teacher in Edirne.

"They called me at the factory meeting, the 'Breza' in Kardzhali, and in just a day I was Raycho Karov", Rahim Karoglu tells me with a half smile, while we are sitting outside his small joiner shop in the suburbs of Edirne. "Our family was lucky", he adds. "We all kept the same last name. Not everyone was that lucky".

In addition to the name changing, talking in public, wearing the veil and circumcising boys was forbidden. It is difficult to say which would be the long-term effects of the "process of rebirth". It is a fact, though, that while the Bulgarian Communist regime launched itself into this political adventure, the world around started transforming at an increasing pace.

The coming into office of Mihail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union and the start of the perestrojka opened scenarios that had been unthinkable until then. Dissident groups and organizations developed in Bulgaria too, which stated the issue of human rights and asked for a revision of the "revival process".

In the spring of 1989, while the cracks in the socialist system in Eastern Europe became more and more visible, the times were mature and the Turkish issue came back with all its strength. Protests and hunger strikes began to claim the rights previously denied. The repressive apparatus of the regime then reacted with the partial extradition of the political élite of the Turkish community, mainly towards Austria and Sweden.

Demonstrations, initially peaceful, reached village and city squares in early May of 1989. When the police forces intervened, marches turned into chaotic and bloody clashes. There were tens of confirmed casualties and hundreds of injured people.

"We were protesting for our names and our rights, but they responded with the use of weapons", tells F. from Medovetz, a town not far from Varna, stage for a particularly violent demonstration. Even though 20 years have gone by F., who is today owner of a beauty salon in the Fatih neighbourhood in Edirne, does not feel like telling me her name. During that demonstration, a bullet killed her sister-in-law, Nazife Hasan, who was then only 22 years old.

On May 29th, Zhivkov unexpectedly announced on TV the will to open the borders with Turkey "to allow tourists to visit the neighboring country". At the same time, "undesired" Turks were given by the police a brand new passport and an invitation to leave the country that did not allow for reply.

After brief hesitation, on the 3rd of June, the Turkish government in turn decided to open up the barriers. The confused atmosphere contributed to creating a real "emigration psychosis", which the regime wisely cultivated.

"We are on the verge of a huge emigration psychosis", Zhivkov confidentially declared to the party's leadership, on the 7th of June. "We need it, we welcome it .... If we are not able to take away 2-300,000 members from this community the Turkish community, in 15 years Bulgaria will no longer exist. It will become like Cyprus, or something like that".

The mass exodus of the Bulgarian Turks thus started. They left by car, bus, train. They left whatever they could carry. Many sold everything at give-away prices, including their house. Whole towns were emptied, often with the help of the "milicija", which carefully followed the operation.

Long lines were soon formed on the borders of Malko Tarnovo and especially Kapetan Andreevo, at the gates of Edirne. It took days to cross the border - and once crossed it, many did not know where to go or what to do.

Turkey had to manage a flow of refugees (officially "tourists", since those entering the country did so with a 3-month tourist visa, hence "the big excursion") a lot greater than expected and compared to what it was actually capable of managing.

In the suburbs of Edirne a refugee camp was hastily set up with the help of the Red Cross. It soon became overcrowded. "Our living conditions in the tents were very poor", Vesile Yildiz recalls. "The situation became unbearable when a cloudburst poured over the camp, turning it into a sea of mud".

On August 21st, 1989, Turkish authorities, in a state of emergency, decided to close the border, even though thousands of people were still waiting to cross it. From the 3rd of June to the 21st of August of 1989 about 360,000 "tourists" emigrated to Turkey. Those who did not have relatives and friends in Turkey were sent to stay in schools or hotels. A difficult process started: integration not only in another state but also from a socialist socio-economic one to a market state.

"What struck me most upon my arrival in Turkey? The fact that here you had to work for real", and
Rahim Karoglu's smile stretches to fill his whole tanned face.

The fate of many refugees was changed once again by the speedy fall of the Communist regime, only a few months later, in November of that same year. Forty-thousand go back to Bulgaria before the expiry of the 3-month visa. By the end of 1990, 150,000 Turks went back to their home country.

The new democratic regime gave the Turks their names back and, although not completely, granted them the possibility to organize themselves politically. In the following years, while the near country of Yugoslavia was torn by ethnic wars, Sofia revealed itself to be an isle of stability thanks to what politicians and the media call, perhaps with a little too much emphasis, "the Bulgarian Ethnic Model".

Many of those who emigrated, however, decided to remain in Turkey. Strong communities established in Istanbul, Izmir and of course in Edirne, first stop of their journey. Today they are well-integrated in Turkish society. "We Bulgarian Turks are hard workers, and on average we had a higher degree of education compared to Turkey. And we help each other, that's why many of us were able to make it", says Basri Ozturk, President of the Bulgarian Turks Association in Thrace.

Notwithstanding the success in integrating in a new reality, the life of many "tourists" remains suspended between Turkey and Bulgaria. "We have relatives on both sides of the border, we often go back to Bulgaria, to our home towns, and almost all of us have both passports. We are integrated but we cannot forget our roots", Esma Bozadzhieva says.

In 20 years, in the life of those who were then forced to leave their homes and country, other toil and happiness have settled, and for many time has soothed, if not healed, open wounds from the "revival process" and the "big excursion".

Not for everyone, though. "Nazife is dead and no one can bring her back. On her death certificate they wrote 'cause of death: pneumonia', says now moved F. from Medovetz. "She left two small children, whom nobody paid back, not even symbolically, for the loss of their mother. Nobody has paid for this".