Bulgaria, My Land

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Bulgaria’s ethnic Turkish community, persecuted and even deported last century, continues its fight for recognition.

Filmmaker: Yelda Yanat Bagci 

In Bulgaria, a country of seven million people and a member of the European Union since 2007, Muslims of Turkish origin comprise about 9 percent of the population.

People from what we now call Turkey have lived in the Balkan region since it became part of the Ottoman Empire more than 500 years ago.

Fasting, going to the mosque, sacrificing and speaking in Turkish were banned. They said, ‘There’s no such thing as a Turk in Bulgaria. You’re Bulgarian.’ They ordered the destruction of gravestones to erase Turkish history. All fountains with Turkish names were ripped out so there wasn’t a single piece left. Then they decided to change Muslim Turkish names.Kadir Usman, teacher

But the fortunes of ethnic Turks changed considerably when Bulgaria declared independence in 1908 and the Ottomans lost nearly all their territories in the Balkan Wars (1912-13).

Two-and-a-half million Muslims died in these wars, according to Justin McCarthy, a professor of history at the University of Louisville. A further one million emigrated. Even after these levels of casualties, Bulgaria remained the country with the highest concentration of people of Turkish origin.

“What happened to the Turks in the Balkans was one of the worst things that has ever happened to human beings,” says McCarthy. “It is one of the greatest disasters that has ever been and yet no one knows about it. No one knows anything about it.”

This film tells this little-known story of the how the Bulgarian Turks suffered discrimination, detention, even mass deportation, over their names, language and cultural identity throughout much of the 20th century – and how they continue to fight for equality in the country they call home.

Successive governments acted in different ways towards the Turkish minority in the last century under a policy of so-called “assimilation” – but under Communist rule, schools were closed, their language was banned and they were forced to change their names to Christian ones and undergo mass baptism.

Resentment led to revolt in the 1980s. Demonstrations became violent, protesters were killed and activists jailed or deported. In May 1989, more than 300,000 ethnic Turks were expelled en masse in what became known as “The Big Excursion”. Turkey ended up closing its borders during the exodus and some families were forced to turn back.

After the fall of Communism, Bulgarian Turks launched the Movement for Rights and Freedom party (MRF) in January 1990 and entered parliament that year. They set about reviving and rediscovering their Islamic and cultural heritage. In 2012, the Bulgarian parliament condemned the previous policies of assimilation.

Nevertheless today, covert discrimination against Bulgaria’s Turks persists as does more blatant racism from extreme nationalists and far-right political parties. Bulgaria’s Turks continue to face challenges as they look to achieve complete religious freedom, education in Turkish, their cultural heritage and to fight for equality in a land they’ve inhabited for generations.

Kadir Usman, a teacher, acutely remembers the brutal assimilation policy under the Communist regime [Al Jazeera]


By Yelda Yanat Bagci

The year 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the Balkan Wars, and at the time I wanted to make a historical documentary about the wars. But during my research I realised just how little we know about what really happened in Bulgaria during the wars.

I discovered that the issue was much bigger than I initially thought, and that the legacy of the Balkan Wars continues. In November 2012, I travelled 12,000km across Bulgaria and spoke with more than 100 Turkish families who suffered under Bulgaria’s policies towards Turks. Even though we in Turkey live just two hours away, we knew nothing about the pain and suffering of Bulgarian Turks. I spent three weeks speaking with politicians, historians, and families.

I was shocked to learn that they still struggled for their rights and freedoms in 2012. For me, Bulgaria was a European Union country and things should have changed a long time ago. But they had not.

The second thing that surprised me deeply was people’s reactions when they learned I was from Turkey. Elderly people cried the moment they heard the word “Turkey”, and the common reaction was people hugging me tightly and shouting “Welcome!”

It was incredible. Even though I’ve been making documentaries for quite a long time now and have been in many countries, this was the most moving experience. And of course my  journalistic side began to ask, “Why?” I needed to know why they were acting this way. I was certain that there was a very deep pain behind this.

The more we spoke, the deeper I got into the stories of how they were forced to regret their identity, to forget their mother tongue, to give up their religion and even change their names into Bulgarian ones. Then they took me to their graveyards. This was another shock for me because most of the gravestones were broken or names were scratched on to them.

This happened during the Communist era when Turkish people were forced to change their names. The regime wanted to destroy all the evidence of Turkish identity, so they broke or destroyed all the graves which had Turkish names. It was the first time I realised how important it was for them to keep their names. Some people even died for this.

After three weeks of collecting stories, I came back to Turkey and started to write the script. Meanwhile, I was chasing historians to interview. During my research I kept coming across two names: Justin McCarthy and Kemal Karpat.

Everybody told me it was impossible to get those interviews because they both were living in the US and overbooked, and I was quite late to arrange an interview with them. After weeks of trying I was just about to give up when I remembered it would not be the first time that I had managed an impossible task. People told me it was impossible to film the largest Turkish street gang, which had never been filmed before, but I was able to and I made the documentary 36 Boys.

So I kept trying and after a while fate decided to help me. I got a phone call from one of my journalist friends who knew I was trying to reach McCarthy or Karpat, and he said: “You will not believe who is coming to Istanbul for a conference!” I said: “Kemal Karpat?” He laughed. “They are both coming, my dear.” That was the moment that I was once more sure this film should be made and this story had to be told.

“What happened to the Turks in the Balkans was one of the worst things that has ever happened to human beings,” says historian Justin McCarthy [Al Jazeera]

After I interviewed Karpat and McCarthy, we went to Bulgaria in December 2012 to film the rest of the story.

There was a small detail that hit us on the first day: the weather. It was below freezing outside and it was impossible to stand for more than two minutes. Even if you could stand the camera would freeze after a while. It was really difficult for us to get used to the weather and to work outside. We could not work more than three or four hours in the first days.

We stayed in Bulgaria for almost a month and met people who shared their untold stories with us. We witnessed the inner and painful side of the Bulgarian Turks’ history. Most of the time I could not help crying during the interviews and tried to look elsewhere to stop, but then I saw the cameraman and the soundman were also crying. I think this was one of the most sincere, emotional, sad stories I have ever filmed. And more importantly, it was a hidden story, which happened so close to us. As a storyteller I feel proud of delivering this precious story which was entrusted to me.

Filmmaker Yelda Yanat Bagci is photographed with cameraman Zilan Karakurt as they interview Emel Balikci Sakir in Bulgaria in 2012 [Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera

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