Belene: the forgotten death camp
– Anna Mudeva is a Reuters senior correspondent based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Her special report “In eastern Europe, people pine for socialism” looks at widespread disenchantment with capitalism in the region. –
Driving through the dense willow and poplar forests of Bulgaria’s biggest Danube island of Persin on a sunny October afternoon, my throat grappled with a lump of horror and disbelief.
What twisted mind had once picked this idyllic place with its painfully beautiful white herons and pelicans to set up a communist death camp?
Actually, it was so typical for those 45 years of communist rule.
Deliberately or not, the old regime would always choose the most beautiful places to build an ugly, polluting factory or open a prison.
Near my hometown in south-western Bulgaria, the communists erected a chemical plant which gave jobs to thousands but shrouded the entire valley — surrounded by magnificent mountains — in dense fog each morning and left many with asthma and lung diseases.
I heard much about the Belene concentration camp in the first years after the regime fell in 1989 but never before that autumn visit 20 years later I had truly realised what actually happened there.
Walking through long grass on the site, I could picture nightmarish scenes of torture, beatings, animal struggle for survival, dead bodies fed to pigs and stray dogs.
What remains of Belene now are the crumbling buildings of another old jail built after the camp was closed 50 years ago.
In the 1990s, the jail was turned into barns by the inmates of the only prison still functioning on the island. They raised pigs, rabbits, goats and chickens.
The surreal farm today consists of a huge wild boar and several goats accompanied by a shady man with missing teeth, jailed for murder and sent to guard the old, forgotten camp.
If not for a small marble plaque that tells the story of Belene, one would never guess what happened there in 1949-59.
The island is off limit for ordinary people. One needs special permission from the Justice Ministry in Sofia to visit. Ornithologists and the staff of the Persina nature park are the only exception.
A big part of the island’s forests and marshlands were declared protected area in 2000 in an attempt to save the endangered yellow water rose, Dalmatian pelican, great white heron, pygmy cormorant and sea eagle.
Entire colonies were wiped out during the communist era when the then pristine island was turned into a giant vegetable garden and prisoners were forced to work, often to death, in the fields.
An employee at the island’s still functioning prison, who accompanied our Reuters team on the Belene trip, reminisced with nostalgia the days when the island used to produce huge amounts of potatoes, pumpkins, tomatoes and peppers.
Happy to be on camera, he assured us the bad things were forgotten.
The prison’s deputy-director, wearing black sun-glasses, a black shirt and shiny, dark suit, said he heard from a famous TV journalist that reports about communism were no longer in vogue or of any interest.
A number of people in the town of Belene, linked to the island with a pontoon bridge, refused to talk about the past. Many in the capital Sofia also find talking about the socialist times boring, old-fashioned, embarrassing or unnecessary.
Disappointment with the past 20 years of transition marked by flourishing corruption, crime, a climate of impunity and low living standards is palpable across the entire country.
Perhaps the renowned Bulgarian artist Nikola Manev is right in saying that 20 years was not a long enough time to open a new page and come to terms with the past.
“What people have achieved for many decades we want to achieve for just 20 years. Look at wine and cheese — for it to mature and become old, it needs a lot of time.”