They Stole My Name
issue 229 - March 1992
They stole my name
Imagine your government demands that you change your name, speak in
a different language and forgo your centuries-old traditions. An absurd idea?
All this happened to the Turks in Bulgaria - until the country did
a rapid about-turn. Hugh Poulton explains.
Ismail Hasamov brandishes a newspaper produced by the Rights and Freedom Party (DPS), the main political grouping for Bulgaria's ethnic Turks, and smiles as he talks about the future. 'Now we have our own political party and our own newspaper in Turkish. We have our names back. We can go freely to the mosque' - he gestures towards the minaret in the town centre. 'Such things were unthinkable only a few years ago,' he says, and falls silent a moment remembering the horrors of the recent past.
Things have changed dramatically in Bulgaria. The 'rebirth process' began on Christmas Eve in 1984 in the peaceful village of Gorski Izvor on the Greek border, which is inhabited by members of Bulgaria's largest minority, the ethnic Turks. The villagers were asleep when police with dogs, and armed troops with tanks surrounded the village and went from house to house, dragging people from their beds, and giving them identity cards with new Bulgarian names to replace their Turkish Islamic ones. The forced assimilation had begun as Bulgaria embarked on its goal - to become a 'unified socialist nation' with officially no minorities except small Jewish and Armenian ones.
Within three months the country's entire ethnic Turkish minority, numbering at least 900,000 and comprising some 10 per cent of the total population, had been forcibly renamed. At gun point, Ismail Hasamov became Ivan Asenov.
All Turkish publications ceased. Spoken Turkish was banned, on pain of a fine or worse. Many mosques were shut (the Turks are predominantly Muslims, while the Bulgarian Slays are Eastern Orthodox Christians). Islamic practices like circumcision of male children became an imprisonable offence, both for the parents and those performing the operation. Women were forbidden to wear veils or shalvari (traditional Turkish trousers). Even Turkish music was forbidden. Hundreds were arrested or imprisoned. Many were killed outright, including members of other minorities, like the Roma (Gypsies) and Pomaks (Islamicized Slays) who had been subject to the process of forcible assimilation before.
'We were unarmed, but they had guns and tanks and shot us down, even women and children,' says Ismail. The brutal repression forced a sullen token acceptance of the new order, punctuated by sporadic protest. 'We heard of a few who managed to escape, like three families who dug a hole under the electrified fence on the Greek border and ran to freedom. But Bulgaria was guarded like a prison camp. And then there was Belene...' Ismail shakes his head slowly at the name of the notorious prison camp where hundreds of protesting Turks were imprisoned.
The assimilation campaign was disrupted when mass peaceful protests erupted in May 1989 throughout the north-east and southern regions of the country where Turks predominated. 'We heard from foreign radio stations about huge secret organizations of Turks in Bulgaria, like the "Democratic League" and the "Association for the Support of Vienna, 1989",' says Ismail. Through the radio he and other Turks were able to find out the movements of various protest groups around the country and to co-ordinate hunger strikes and marches.
'The authorities beat and shot us again,' says Ismail. 'In May, troops came to my village and a soldier with rifle and bayonet was put outside each door. Anybody who left was beaten. We heard of people shot in the streets, and in Dzhedel soldiers went from house to house beating everybody. It was terrible. But we would not give in, so they began throwing us out of the country.
Faced with organized countrywide protests on a scale which in Communist Europe was only comparable with Solidarity in Poland, the authorities panicked and began mass expulsions. They picked up anybody whom they thought was involved with the protests and expelled them to Turkey. Many were given only one hour to get ready and had to leave in the clothes they were wearing. They considered themselves lucky to get out, even though their ancestors had lived in Bulgaria for five centuries.
After the expulsion, the authorities allowed mass emigration and an exodus followed. By late August over 300,000, out of a total population of less than one million, had fled to Turkey. The loss of the Turks shook Bulgaria's agricultural economy and threw the country into chaos.
But throughout all these events Ismail remained: 'I thought about going, and talked to my wife about it often, but our home is here'.
Then suddenly events took a turn for the better. On 10 November 1989, while the world was transfixed by events in Berlin and Central Europe, the Bulgarian leader responsible for instigating the mass assimilation campaign, Todor Zhivkov, was ousted in a palace coup led by his erstwhile foreign minister.
Immediately the assimilation policies were relaxed. A series of amnesties began which eventually released all Turks imprisoned for non-violent opposition to the assimilation. Among them was Ahmed Dogan, a former research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy in Sophia, who had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for leading a group opposed to the assimilation campaign.
On his release he formed the DPS and led a concerted campaign to enable Turkish people to reinstate their old names. Within a year, after a series of heated debates it was eventually successful. That was not the only change. The mosques were reopened and people were free to worship. Turkish was allowed to be spoken openly. There were no more restrictions on Muslim dress. And a bi-monthly Turkish-language newspaper called Muslim had started publishing.
The DPS has gone from strength to strength, openly contesting both general elections held since Zhivkov's death. In the most recent it won over 20 seats in Parliament, with about seven to eight per cent of the vote. This is despite the fact that ethnic or religious-based parties are still banned under the new constitution, a provision which is used to deny the Roma - 550,000 strong and constantly subject to racism - a voice in Parliament.
Things may be better for the Turks but of course the scars will take time to heal. Ethnic tensions continue to run high in many parts of the country. A 'Bulgarian Republic' has been declared in the city of Razgrad, which has a 75-per-cent Slav population. And a Government proposal to allow schools in the appropriate areas to teach four classes a week in Turkish was met with threats of boycotts and civil disobedience from Bulgarian nationalists - the implementation of full minority education rights has been postponed as a result.
Despite these hitches, the situation for minorities in Bulgaria has dramatically improved in the last two years. And the country must be commended for reversing oppressive policies so quickly, while more or less keeping the peace.
Hugh Poulton was formerly East European Researcher for Amnesty International, and is currently a postgraduate in Modem Turkish Studies. He is author of The Balkans: Minority States in Conflict (Minority Rights Group, London, 1991).