20 Years since the Exodus of the Turks in Bulgaria
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the compelled migration of Bulgaria's Turks. Being a part of the brutal forced assimilation process that the Bulgarian government imposed on the largest minority of the country, it is the biggest exodus that Europe has seen since the World War II. More than 320,000 people left their homes seeking for shelter and protection in Turkey [1, 2]. Later this became known as “The Big Excursion”. Here I will try to relate my recollections of the sad story of my family during this excursion.
Before Going – The Preparation
It was the summer of 1989, two years after my father lost his life in a tragic accident at work. Just when our grief over my father's death was becoming a thing of the past, we faced an even more cruel reality. Following the forceful change of name and religion of not only the living but also the dead, which involved the breaking of the centuries-old tombstones, and killing and internment of the “disloyal” citizens in Belene, five-years of ethnic cleansing was coming to an end: we either had to give up our ethnic identity or leave the lands of our ancestors.
I remember the panic-stricken face of my mother Nazife, then 36. All the time she was repeating, “Everybody is going, we cannot stay”. She didn’t know what to do. I believe she was trying very hard to avoid bursting into tears in front of her two kids.
One day, when she came home from work she told my (maternal) grandparents that we needed passports. Getting passports was no easy task; you could get one if you knew the right persons and appreciated their toil. Later, my mother told me that the bribes for the passports amounted to 5000 Levas (For reference, at that time a flat of 75m2 cost about 12,000 Bulgarian Levas). It looked like our forced migration was creating the first entrepreneurs of the soon-to-be-capitalist Bulgaria.
I remember the moment when we went to one of the few photographers in Shumen, the one in the city center at the big roundabout at the Russian Square. There was a very long queue. I cannot tell now the exact length but we had to wait from the morning till afternoon and I missed my favorite cartoon. But we were “fortunate” – we could make the photos for the passports in one day.
During this preparation process, there was one person, who was making life easier for us: aunt Katya. Being a member of the Communist Party and having good “connections”, she was “helping” my mother to bribe government employees for quickening the procedure. Of course, while “helping” aunt Katya was getting her generous commissions.
By the time we received our passports, my mother had started to arrange the logistics for our trip to Turkey. Most important of all, we didn’t have a car so we had to find one. You may wonder why we didn’t prefer public transportation. After all, this was a communist country and was supposed to have a good public transportation network. The answer is very simple: there were no trains and buses going to Turkey. Unfortunately, my mother's efforts were frustrated with people's unwillingness to sell their cars. This unwillingness was due to the difficulty of getting a car: in the communist era, people had to wait for years to get their turn to buy a new car. So, my mother had to hire the son-in-law of aunt Katya for driving us to the border. His name lost in the mists of those dreadful days, he was not less “helpful” than his mother-in-law and took a dive into capitalism by charging us with a fee that is probably enough to buy a new car!
Since we were going to settle in Turkey and had no plans of going back to Bulgaria, my mother made sure we took some of the basic furniture such as beds, table, and chairs. This meant we were once more at the mercy of aunt Katya, who “helped” my mother in finding a truck driver who would drive a state owned truck to transport our heavy luggage.
Before our departure, my mother sought ways of selling the house and the flat we used to live. Being offered a puny amount – just as much as the expenses we paid for the drivers – we gave up on selling. We actually didn’t need any money because, as all Turks do, we had our savings hidden at home for such emergencies. Our bank accounts, as with all other Turks, were blocked and we were not able to touch our own money. But, again with some “professional assistance” from aunt Katya, my mother could withdraw a small portion of our money.
As part of preparing for Turkey, we needed to get some food supplies and clothes. The idea was to make sure we could survive the first days of our lives in Turkey. However, this turned out to be very difficult. The shops were either out of stock and not being supplied or refusing to sell to Turks. Therefore, my mother decided that we should try our chances in Varna, the 3rd largest city in Bulgaria, 80km east of Shumen. After hiring a car and a driver, thanks to the “help” of aunt Katya, my mother, my maternal aunt Mürvet and I set out for Varna. Not surprisingly, we were stopped at a police barricade, where, following a check of our IDs, we were kindly asked to go back or wait for the others to return. Although our documents were with Bulgarian names, we were somehow detected. This meant we had to get off the car and wait for aunt Katya to complete this insurmountable mission.
When Going – On the Road
On June 12, 1989 we got our passports and were ready to hit the road. Our luggage was packed and loaded in the truck. As soon as my brother Behrin, then 14, took his graduation certificate on June 15, we didn't wait a single day and left for Turkey the following day (June 16). It was me, my brother, my mother, and my maternal grandparents. Together with us were the family of my aunt Mürvet. My mother, my grandparents and I were privileged to travel in the car – the new model of Moskvich, while my brother and my cousin Erol were in the back side of the truck with the luggage. My aunt Mürvet, my uncle Mümin and my other cousin Türkan were lucky to travel with their own car – Trabant.
We were all very excited and happy. It was the beginning of a new life. We were talking about our new future in Turkey. We were going to the relatives of my grandmother – her stepbrother Mehmet. They were a rich, influential and wealthy family in Bursa and would help us. However, after about 2 hours of driving, just before Rishki Prohod, we reached a convoy of vehicles headed for Turkey. The convoy was newly formed and we were lucky to be just half a kilometer behind the front of the convoy. However, it didn't take us long to realize the road was blocked by the police cars and soldiers and being near the front didn't help us at all. During the next 2-3 days the convoy reached Aleksandrovo, the nearest village about 5 kilometers down the road. The only reason why it didn't grow longer was because the people had heard about our misery.
We were stuck there for 9 days (until June 24, 1989). There were no bathrooms, no places to sleep, no shops, no restaurants, no facilities for cooking, no nothing. During these 9 days we ate of the provisions that we had planned as our survival kit in Turkey. My mother, my grandparents, our driver, and I slept inside the car in an upright position, while my brother and my cousin Erol were sleeping in the truck on top of the luggage. Nobody knew why we were waiting and nobody had any idea about how long we would wait.
During the daytime, we were going to the forest by the road, where we made friends with the other children and played games. The weather was sunny but almost every day of our wait we had this short summer rain for about 30 minutes. By the second day, we found spring water inside the forest, which solved our drinking water problems. However, during these 9 days, we the children had a kind of shower only once, with water that was warmed by the sun, whereas the grown-ups had to defer this luxury until out arrival in Turkey.
One day in the middle of this waiting, my uncles, Tevfik and İsmail, and aunt Katya came to see us. They had heard about the convoy on the TV and guessed that we might be here. They also brought us some food.
On the 9th day, before the noon, the police finally lifted the barriers and we could continue our trip to Turkey. As soon as the wheels started to rotate, we were once again filled with excitement and started talking about our future plans. But this didn’t last long. In the afternoon, while driving by a forest near the Turkish border, there was another barricade. The police was redirecting all convoy vehicles into the forest. It looked ominous and we could do nothing but try to come up with good reasons that nothing bad would happen to us. One popular argument was that there were Bulgarians among us, such as the drivers. We drove about half a kilometer into the forest and reached an open area surrounded by soldiers, where we saw other people sharing our concerns. The bad thing was that the police didn’t let the people go back to their homes any more. We had to stay.
Unlike the other point near Rishki Prohod this one was surrounded with trees and was very humid. The eerie environment seemed to shatter the people's determination. The security forces didn't let anybody leave the place. Filled with fear, not many would have resisted the urge of going back to their homes and living with their assigned Bulgarian names.
It certainly was not a very pleasant stay. We were not able to play. The ground was wet and muddy. Also, as far as I can remember, the police redirected the trucks to another location and all of us (a total of six people) had to sleep in the car, which meant, given the humble size of a Moskvich, I ended up sleeping on top of my mother and my grandfather. Again nobody knew how long we would stay in this forest and why we stayed there.
Luckily, our second ordeal lasted only a single night. On the morning of June 25, 1989 (around 09:00) the police lifted the barrier and the convoy once again started moving. We soon merged with the truckers somewhere on the main road, if my mind is not failing me, and reached the Turkish border at Malko Tarnovo at about noon. There was a long line here, which was shortened by the sense of relief provided by the presence of the Turkish soldiers across the border. Nothing bad could happen to us before their very eyes. They wouldn't stay and watch the Bulgarian forces harming us; they would surely protect us from the malice delivered by the army of the country we were citizens of.
On the Border
We crossed the border on the 10th day, 25 June. Because of the excitement, the time we waited at the border didn’t look long. Actually, considering the time we waited for many trivial things such as making photos, the time we spent at the border seemed like an instant. Some time in the afternoon we were finally at the side of the Republic of Turkey. I didn’t even realize the crossing of the border. But I remember that on the Turkish side there was some order and peace unlike the big chaos on the Bulgarian side.
As soon as we crossed the border, my mother made a quick deal with one of the many Turkish truckers for carrying our belongings to the final destination, Bursa. After transferring our belongings from the Bulgarian truck into the Turkish truck and completing the paperwork, we were kindly invited by the Turkish soldiers into one of the few huge military tents for having lunch. Inside the tent were tables with chairs. Soldiers were continuously passing with big pots and serving hot soup of red lentils. This tasty soup was the first warm meal we had after the last 10 days. I will never forget its taste. Since then the soup of red lentils is my favorite one. The bread they had was also hot and soft. The good thing was we could ask for as many plates of soup as we want. And we all did ask for one more. I remember, at that moment because of strong emotions my grandfather silently cried. I will never forget this warm welcome!
When we were finished with the lunch, it was about sunset time. We all got into the truck that we hired and headed toward Bursa. My mother, my grandmother, and I sat in the front cabin, while my brother and my grandfather had to hop in the back, befriending with the luggage. My aunts were also coming but they were in another truck.
When we were passing through Istanbul, it was after midnight and I was asleep. We stopped here to have goodbye with my aunt and my cousins. They were staying in Istanbul at some their relatives and we would have to continue. Though I was sleepy, I remember how my mother and my aunt cried a lot. I remember that my mother continued to cry for some time after we have split and got in the truck.
We arrived in Bursa early in the morning the next day (June 26, 1989). I remember how my grandmother walked to the house of our relatives and called them. The relatives we went to were the family of my grandmother’s stepbrother. There were a lot of strong emotions in the air. During the day, many people came to see us and my grandfather told them about our difficult journey.
The same day, my cousin from Turkey, Nurdan, who was a few years older than me, took me to a local shop – bakkal. I was fascinated with the variety of nicely-packaged products vying for my attention. I took one small chocolate bar and started for exit, just when Nurdan told me that I had to pay for it. I didn’t have any money and felt very awkward. I had thought at the beginning that my cousin would make me a gift by buying me some sweets. Luckily, the shop owner gave it to me for free.
Life in Bursa was not as easy as we expected it to be. Making a mental switch from socialism to capitalism was something that we were not ready for. The religion that never had any significance to us was another thing we had to bear.
My mother and my grandfather started working. My mother was employed in a water bottling company named Sultan Su. My grandfather couldn’t find a good job in any factory because of his age and had to start working as a gardener at the house of one rich family. So our income was meager and far from providing us an affluent life. All those nicely packaged sweets and cookies in the shops looked so delicious but we were not able to buy any of them. I used to wait for my grandfather on his way back from work and ask him to buy me something. Unlike my mother, he could never say “No” to me, his namesake.
In the meantime, more and more immigrants flowed into Bursa. Many of them were temporarily lodged in the public schools. Among them were some family friends from Shumen. We met with many other immigrants staying in the same school and started playing with the immigrant children. Somehow we couldn’t integrate with the local children. They were very rude and laughed at our dialect of Turkish. Sometimes we met with our cousins, mostly with Fatih, and watched countless karate movies at their home. His parents were very kind to us.
In the same school Turkish language courses were organized to prepare the immigrant kids for education in Turkey. Age of the attendants ranged from 7 to 20+. I was the youngest and it was very difficult for me to catch up with the others. Of course, at the end, I scored the worst result on the exam. Our relatives urged us to register in religion courses but my mother didn’t let them do it. Her argument was that we had to learn reading and writing Turkish and prepare for the school.
One evening when we returned we saw that there was a car with a Bulgarian license plate parked in front of our relatives' house. Uncle Mecit and his grandmother had come to seek the hospitability of our relatives. This meant we had to free one of the two rooms given to our disposal and live in a single room. For some time, all five members of my family had to put up with the inconvenience of sleeping in one bed along its long side.
After some time we rented a part of a two-room house. It was a very crappy place; it didn’t have a bathroom. But we were able to act more freely without bearing in mind other people. We were also away from the immigrant children and I started meeting with local children. It was a bit difficult to establish relation with them. Luckily the school started and I had duties to do.
Things were not looking good. Our budget was stretched. To help my mother and grandfather in providing our sustenance, my grandmother was washing the clothes of some football players on hand. Because we didn’t have a washing machine. At the same time we were hearing about some people returning to Bulgaria. The situation was not bad there. It looked like the communism was coming to an end. So, one day when my mother told us that we would go back to Bulgaria, we were actually very happy about this and I was jumping up and down on the bed.
Returning to Bulgaria
On Nov 13, 1989 (after 3 months and a half) at about sunset time we set out for Bulgaria. It was morning when we arrived at the border. There were many people returning. Seeing this confirmed that we are not doing wrong. My mother and my grandfather arranged the moving of the luggage from the truck to a cargo train. It took almost the whole day. It was very unpleasant weather – dark, cold, and rainy. We crossed the border at about 18:00 and were welcomed, as we had expected, with the sarcastic smiles of the Bulgarian customs officers and their inquisition, “What happened in your Turkey? Why do you return? Didn’t you like it?”.
On the Bulgarian side of the border, there was not any formal procedure to complete except a medical examination. I don’t know why – probably there was no transportation – we had to spend the night at the border. We passed the whole night in a cold depot stuffed with many other people like us and half slept on a bench. The next day (Nov 14, 1989) in the morning we took the one and only taxi at the border and left for our warm and cozy home. By the time we arrived in Shumen it was late in the afternoon and getting dark. We were all very tired. My mother rang the bell of our neighbor, aunt Milka – my mother's best friend, whose husband had died in the same accident with my father. She was so sincerely surprised to see us back. While she and my mother were preparing us a meal, we had already started playing with her children, Katya and Nikolay. So, finally we were back at our sweet home.
Back in Bulgaria
Upon our return, we realized that the communist regime in Bulgaria had been overthrown and Todor Zhivkov – the dictator responsible for our ordeal – was about to resign. We had missed all these news while we were busy with the preparations of our journey back. Indeed, the totalitarianism in Bulgaria was over. Legislation was changed and the Bulgarian government recognized Turks as an ethnic group. In March 1990, a law was ratified, allowing Turks to get back their Turkish names which were forcefully changed to Bulgarian during 1984-85. In 1991, the constitution was changed and Turks were given rights such as teaching in Turkish at schools.
Today, although the Turks in Bulgaria are recognized and have equal rights before the law, implicit and explicit discrimination against them is unspoken truth. And last but not least, during these 20 years since the Big Excursion, there has not been even one person held liable and jailed for doing this scoff at them.
On 11.01.2012, the Bulgarian Parliament officially recognized and condemned the assimilation process against the ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. Still I did not find the text of the declaration but as soon as I have it I will put a link. Reference to news link: http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=135623
The exact numbers and date of events are taken from the following sources: