Belene, an island on the Danube, is a name etched in the memory of Turks both in Bulgaria and Turkey. It was there the Communist regime imprisoned dissidents, members of the Turkish and Muslim community, for decades in a concentration camp. It has been 22 years since it was closed, but the nightmares are still fresh for those survived the horrors of the camp, an embodiment of oppression for the Turkish minority under the Communist regime.
Bulgaria's Turkish community was among the most affected victims of the Communist regime, which collapsed in 1989. For decades, they were subject to a "Bulgarization" campaign, where they were forced to change their names and practice their Muslim faith in secret.
Founded in 1949, Belene remained "a labor camp" for dissidents of the regime, and it was only after a nationwide assimilation campaign targeting Turks that it became a site for the detention of Turks. The campaign, which started in 1984 to assimilate Turks living in Bulgaria since Ottoman times, continued for years before Turks were forced to flee into neighboring Turkey. Some 350,000 people came to Turkey amid a harsh campaign to erase their identity by the Bulgarian regime between 1984 and 1989. It was the largest migration of people in Europe after World War II. Turkey accepted as many Turks as it could, embracing their "next of kin" as the country's leaders defined them then. In 1987, Turkish public broadcaster TRT released a mini-series titled Belene about the tragedy Turks imprisoned in the camp went through.
The camp, infamous for continuous torture of its residents and the hard labor the prisoners were exposed to, has been home to more than 23,000 people over the years. Some 8,000 prisoners died due to torture and horrible living conditions. Most bodies were dumped into the Danube by camp administration, while others were fed to pigs or buried in mass graves in a still unknown location, according to unofficial accounts.
Today, rusty barbed wire, long abandoned watchtowers and decrepit buildings with broken windows are all that are left from the concentration camp. Former prisoners and families of prisoners who died there visit the camp every year for a commemoration ceremony.
Kasım Dal, who now chairs a political party, is among the former prisoners of Belene. Dal spent three and a half years in Belene and other concentration camps for Turks and dissidents. The 56-year-old politician recalls that everywhere was "a prison" in Bulgaria at the time of the assimilation campaign. Dal was convicted for organizing resistance against the campaign. He laments that no one was held accountable for the "crimes against humanity committed by the Communists." "Me and others come here every year to remind to the world that this crime went unpunished. Unfortunately, our numbers diminish every year as those heroes who resisted the assimilation pass away," he told Anadolu Agency (AA).
Sabri İskender, one of the founders of a resistance movement against the assimilation campaign, was imprisoned in Belene in 1985. "I was here because I was a Turk and defended my Turkishness. I was in solitary confinement, in a cell, for 111 days," he says. After his release, he was put on a train on May 1989 and sent to Turkey. He was among a large group of Turkish community members who were forced to leave the country.
Seydali Akgün spent five years in Belene, where his father was imprisoned in 1954. "We were brought there because we were Turks and Muslims. I was forced to undergo a baptism in Danube, but I never gave up my faith or identity. I was like an enemy in my homeland. We lived like refugees in this country of our ancestors," he laments.
Petar Penchev's father was not a Turk and was one of earlier prisoners of Belene. As a dissident, he spent a large portion of his life in a concentration camp. "Belene was the farthest place in my life while I was a child. You could go anywhere, but you were not allowed to see your father," he says. The elder Penchev was tortured endlessly in Belene, he says. He was finally released, shortly before he committed suicide in 1979. "He couldn't handle the pain he was exposed to for years," Penchev says.