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The Turkish professor Zeynep Zafer was forcibly evicted from Bulgaria in 1989 because of her opposition to the assimilation policy towards the Turkish population. She told Deutsche Welle how she was expelled from Bulgaria.
Professor Zafer, in 1989, when it was the highest wave of expelled people from the Turkish ethnicity, from the Turkish minority, you were actually already in Turkey, right?
– Yes, because we were already expelled on February 3, 1989, as members of the “Independent Society for the Protection of Human Rights” and as representatives of the Turkish and Muslim minorities, with whom French President François Mitterrand wanted to meet. But we were detained together with Petar Manolov and the meeting did not take place.
During Mitterrand’s visit to Sofia in January 1989, when he gave a breakfast for Bulgarian dissidents?
– Yes. And after his departure, they took away our passports and expelled us from Bulgaria. So I followed the May events already from Turkey. And actually the entire expulsion of the Turks from Bulgaria.
And how did the Turkish media react then?
– With a shock. All TV stations had correspondents at the border, there were constant reports and photos with arrivals. That was a central theme, so it went from the beginning of June until the 20th or 22nd of August, when they closed the border. I followed all this. And when I started working in Ankara in August on the radio broadcasts in Bulgarian, we lived in a dormitory together with the Turks expelled from Bulgaria, so I saw with my own eyes how these people lived. They lived literally crammed there in one room, several families each
A human tragedy.
– Yes, yes, exactly.
Do you remember the issues of DV in Bulgarian at that time about the fate of the expelled Turks?
– DV was one of the radio stations we grew up with and listened to constantly – along with “Free Europe”, “Voice of America” and the BBC. We continued to listen in Turkey as well, and DV played a very important role during the May events, because in its midday broadcasts it reported on the protests on May 20, and when everyone in the area heard about these protests, people started flocking. And so about 10 thousand gathered from the villages and went to Kaolinovo. The municipality was there and, you know, they were shooting at people.
One person died, there were many injured. The authorities wanted to stop them, but eventually the protesters reached the council building and put their demands to return the names, to stop the repression against the people of the opposition groups who openly fought against the assimilation of the Turkish population.
Professor Zafer, you are a man of letters, that is, a person with a very professional attitude to language. You say that these people we are talking about do not want to be called “Bulgarian Turks”. Why?
– Because “Bulgarian Turks” are perceived as “Turks of Bulgarian origin”. You know that the assimilationist policy towards the Turkish minority began as early as 1975, in 1984 it reached its first climax, when in the winter of 1984-1985 all the names of the Turks were changed and Bulgarianized. The authorities argued that they were actually of Bulgarian origin. That is, the designation “Bulgarian Turks” refers to exactly that – people of Bulgarian origin. And the people of the Turkish minority themselves do not use this designation when they talk to each other.
And what do they prefer?
– Turks from Bulgaria, Turkish minority.
And what role does religion play?
– The religion, yes of course they are Muslim. But first of all, it is important for them to call them “Turks from Bulgaria”.
And what do you think about the designation of the Pomash population as “Bulgarian-Mohammedans”?
– During the Ottoman period, they were divided into religions – Muslims and non-Muslims. So the Pomaks are considered as part of the Muslim community. And the Turks are the majority, so they are even called “Turks”. I first heard the word “pomak” at school, from the teachers. And because of this, part of the Pomaks have a Turkish self-consciousness, but in the course of time, of history, with propaganda, they gradually began to impose this term. They were unofficially called “Pomacs”, but officially “Bulgaromohamedani”, which means “Bulgarians”. And of course they resisted. In the end, it came to the point that they preferred to call them “Pomacs”, but in no case “Bulgarian-Mohammedans”. It’s not important what they were like back then, it’s how you feel now, and religion and traditions are very important.
Professor Zafer, you must be communicating with Turks who were then expelled from Bulgaria. Do they still have pain, bitterness from what was done to them? What do they think about Bulgaria, about the Bulgarians?
– There is, yes. Younger generations have forgotten, but adults bitterly recount their memories from then. In the end, they left behind houses, entire villages, their birthplaces, and in Turkey they had to start from scratch. They haven’t forgotten. And the question of whether they have forgiven must be asked separately to everyone, because no one has the right to forgive on behalf of everyone. There are many people who have not forgiven.
Tell us a little more about the political cores of resistance that you formed back then, in the 1980s.
– I also experienced assimilation in the 1960s, I was 6 years old, I also remember the 1970s very well, when we were evicted.
Evicted from where?
– From Gotsedelchev village Kornitsa to Slavovitsa village, Pleven region – our whole family was evicted. We didn’t change our names initially, it was forced only in 1985. It was this last campaign. Among the attempts of the Zhivkov government, the communist dictatorship to carry out violent assimilation campaigns, this was the most lightning-fast, the most organized and the most shocking.
At the time, we lived in a village in Tolbukhinsk, but shortly before that, people in southern Bulgaria were told at meetings: “You are pure Turks, nothing will happen to you, we will not change your names here.”
And many people wanted to believe it. Only a few knew that this was bound to happen, but they could do nothing, for there was talk of slain, of bloodshed. When we in Northern Bulgaria got our names changed, the authorities came up with a way to suppress the protests in Southern Bulgaria. Somewhere around 850 men, more educated and intelligent, were gathered ostensibly for military training.
Did they take stock?
– Yes, they took them in stock and sent them away from the areas. This also shocked people, but the names were changed. There were protests in individual villages, but in Northern Bulgaria we organized much faster. And if in 1984-1985 the heroes of the protests were from Kardzhali and the surrounding area, in May 1989 the Turks rose up in Northeastern Bulgaria – and there were the victims. After the name change, the shock began to shake off and people began to express their protest – by taking to the streets, by fleeing across the border or otherwise. And then the villages in North-Eastern Bulgaria were full of Turkish emigrants and we were among these emigrants after getting out of prison
Who was in jail?
– I was in prison, in Sliven, in 1985. Then they first moved us to Mihailovgradsko, then to Tolbukhinsko. All the surrounding villages were full of such emigrants, in families or singly. Those who had been lying in Belene were then dispersed among the villages.
Let us return to the question of organized political resistance.
– Namely, we saw each other and there the response organization already started. Through the “Independent Society for the Protection of Human Rights” we started resistance actions, then on “Free Europe” we quite openly talked about everything we experienced and what happened in Bulgaria in the last decades. Other repressed people joined in and we in North-Eastern Bulgaria gradually started to prepare for an organized and open action against what was happening. People were encouraged by the broadcasts of the Western radio stations and started coming, joining the Society, supporting hunger strikes, for example the hunger strike of Petar Manolov – he was supported the most by the Turks in North-Eastern Bulgaria.
It was the awakening of the people, the recovery of the courage that was paralyzed during the name change. The authorities tried to crush this resistance with weapons during the very cold winter of 1984-1985, but we continued to work actively with the Society
This is Iliya Minev’s company, right?
– Yes, Iliya Minev’s “Independent Society for the Protection of Human Rights”. I was responsible for the Varna region. And from there actually started the protests, which – I can boldly say – were actually the beginning of the road to democracy. Because it was the Turks who gave sacrifices. And I think that the Bulgarian people owe a lot to the Turks. It is not talked about, but it should be known. For their courage, these people were punished: they gave sacrifices, were beaten and arrested, and finally – expelled.
And a natural, topical question: do you follow from Ankara what is happening in Bulgaria politically?
– Yes, I follow this frequent election. The democratic forces in Bulgaria somehow cannot unite, they are very divided. And in the end, parties from which not much can be expected win from this. But nothing can be done because the elections are decisive. We see the same thing happening in many other countries.
*Zeynep Zafer is a professor of literary history at Ankara University. Because of her opposition to the assimilation policy towards the Turks in Bulgaria, she was forcibly evicted from Bulgaria in February 1989. Professor Zafer is the author of a number of publications on the repression against the Turks in Bulgaria – in Turkish and in Bulgarian.
Zeynep Zafer participated in a discussion dedicated to Bulgaria within the framework of the European Historical Forum in Graz on 11.11.2023. Her joint project with journalist Diana Ivanova “Women with fur coats. A visual memory of the forced assimilation of the Turks in Bulgaria” was presented there, in which Prof. Zafer also participated.
(During this interview, Prof. Zafer deflected questions related to DPS – author’s note)