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‘The Big Excursion’ January 7, 2010

Posted by Yilan in Bulgaria, Turkey, Turkish minority of Bularia.
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The mass exodus of ethnic Turks from Bulgaria 20 years ago left deep scars on those who lived through it. From Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso.

EDIRNE, Turkey | Rasim Ozgur’s eyes are framed by deep wrinkles, but they still shine with intensity as he recalls the events of May 1989.

“I was beaten twice until I bled and lost consciousness,” says Ozgur, a painter and sculptor who now teaches art at the University of Izmir. “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.”

Today this city on the Thracian plain, for centuries the gateway from the Balkans into Turkey (and, from 1365 to 1453, the Ottoman Empire’s capital), has the sleepy and somewhat provincial look of a decayed capital, mirrored in the city’s two rivers, the Maritza and the Tundzha. There is no outward sign of the tragedy for which it was the stage two decades ago.

Ozgur’s is one of hundreds of thousands of stories linked to one of the ugliest chapters in the long, complex, and troubled relationship between Bulgaria and its Turkish and Pomak minorities: the forced departure of 360,000 Bulgarian Turks from May to August 1989.

By the time of what has become known as “the big excursion,” longtime communist leader Todor Zhivkov’s government had forced ethnic Turks to Bulgarianize their names. When he crossed into Edirne, Rasim Ozgur renamed himself with purpose.

“Ozgur means ‘free,’ ” he says in Bulgarian, a language he has not spoken in years but which he still commands in all its nuances. “After struggling against those who were trying to force me to change my name, being able to choose it was my taking [it] back.”


In the decades after the birth of the modern Bulgarian state in 1878, the country’s Muslim communities were widely viewed as unreliable and potentially dangerous. Turks in particular were at best marginalized, at worst persecuted by the Sofia authorities.

After a brief post-World War II period in which the new communist regime strengthened minority protection, the drumbeat of fear began anew. Zhivkov, who took power in 1954 and remained in charge until the fall of the Berlin Wall, was a staunch supporter of eliminating minorities by way of absorption.

Education in Turkish was first limited, then suppressed. The regime propounded the notion that there were no Turks or Pomaks, only Bulgarians who had been forcibly “Turkified” during Ottoman rule, and that it was a service to help Bulgarian Muslims rediscover their true identity – an assimilation campaign that would go down in history as the “revival process.”

The name-change policy begin with the Pomaks. “The whole family was to be ‘rebaptized’ as early as the ’70s,” Esma Bozadzhieva recalls in a crowded outdoor cafe along the Maritza river. A native of southern Bulgaria with a Turkish father and a Pomak mother, she is now a general practitioner in Edirne.

“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.’ ”

In late 1984, the name offensive was launched against the Turkish community, fueled by demography (the ethnic Turkish population was growing faster than that of ethnic Bulgarians) and strategic concerns (Turkish communities were concentrated in key border areas). Turkey’s own difficulties with its minorities convinced Zhivkov that he could act without fear of censure from Ankara.

The campaign started in the Kardzhali region, home to a large Turkish population. On 26 December, Rasim Ozgur returned home to Dzhebel, a small town in the area, from Sofia, where he had been working on the public Christmas decorations. “The atmosphere was heavy. They had started changing the names of people in the surrounding villages. Police were everywhere. We took to the streets to protest and rebel. The next day they arrested me.” He was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

For those who suffered it, the name changing was deeply traumatic. “The director summoned me and told me straightforwardly that I had to choose another name for myself,” says Vesile Yildiz, then a teacher in the town of Tzar Kaloyan, today a teacher in Edirne. “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.”

From 24 December 1984 to 14 January 1985, the names of 310,000 people in Bulgaria were changed. Wearing the veil and circumcising boys were forbidden. The operation was marked by violent protests and repression. Thousands were jailed. The party leadership declared the enterprise a success. “We have not solved the Turkish problem,” Zhivkov told the Politburo in March, “but we have made a decisive step forward. In 15 or 20 years everything will be forgotten.”


It took only a few years for perestroika to belie Zhivkov’s confidence. As Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet liberalization seeped into Eastern Europe, dissident groups and civil-society organizations developed in Bulgaria, raising the banner of human rights and calling for a reversal of the “revival process.” Turkish protesters and hunger strikers made bids to reclaim lost rights.

A view of Kardzhali, in southern Bulgaria. Ethnic Turks make up a majority in the metropolitan area and surrounding province. Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis/Creative Commons licensed.

The regime responded by deporting elements of the Turkish political elite, mainly to Austria and Sweden. But demonstrations grew, and became more restive. In May 1989 police began intervening, turning protest marches into chaotic and bloody clashes that killed dozens and injured hundreds.

“We were protesting for our names and our rights, but they responded with weapons,” says F. Originally from Medovetz, a town near Varna, today she runs a beauty salon in Edirne’s Fatih neighborhood. Twenty years after the demonstrations, F. does not want a reporter to use her real name. Her 22-year-old sister-in-law, Nazife, was killed by a bullet during one of the clashes.

On 29 May, Zhivkov unexpectedly announced on television that Bulgaria would open its border with Turkey. Around the same time, police began handing Turkish Bulgarians new passports and firmly inviting them to leave the country. Turkey opened its border in turn on 3 June, and the mass exodus began. Party leaders welcomed it.

Ethnic Turks left Bulgaria by car, bus, and train, with whatever they could carry. Many sold their homes and possessions at rock-bottom prices. Whole towns were emptied, often with the help of the milicija, which carefully followed the operation.

Long lines were soon formed at the border crossings at Malko Tarnovo and especially Kapetan Andreevo, near Edirne. It took days to cross the border. Many who did so had no idea where to go or what to do on the other side.

The flow of refugees – officially “tourists” on three-month visas (hence the phrase “big excursion”) – was far greater than Turkey anticipated or could manage. A refugee camp was hastily set up outside Edirne with the help of the Red Cross. It soon became overcrowded.

“Our living conditions in the tents were very poor,” Vesile Yildiz says. “The situation became unbearable when a cloudburst poured over the camp, turning it into a sea of mud.”

On 21 August Turkish authorities decided to close the border, even though thousands of people were still waiting to cross. By that time about 360,000 “tourists” had emigrated. Those who did not have relatives or friends in Turkey were sent to stay in schools or hotels. All began the difficult process of adjusting not just to a new country but to a market economy.

“What struck me most upon my arrival in Turkey?” Rahim Karoglu, who now runs a joining shop in Edirne, asks, a smile filling his tanned face. “The fact that here you had to work for real.”

The fate of many of the refugees changed again with the speedy fall of the communist regime only a few months later. Forty thousand made it back to Bulgaria before their three-month visas expired. By the end of 1990 some 150,000 Bulgarian Turks had gone back home.

The new regime gave the Turks their names back and granted them rights of political organization, albeit with limits. As neighboring Yugoslavia was torn apart by ethnic wars, Bulgaria became an island of relative ethnic stability.

But many of the emigres remained in Turkey. Strong communities developed in Istanbul, Izmir, and, of course, Edirne, the first stop of their journey. “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.

Still, today many of the “tourists” remain suspended between the two countries. “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’re integrated, but we can’t forget our roots,” Esma Bozadzhieva says.

For some, the wounds inflicted by the last spasm of communist repression before Bulgaria’s revolution have not healed. “Nazife is dead, and no one can bring her back. On her death certificate they wrote, ‘Cause of death: pneumonia,’ ” says 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.”



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