A Balkan Archipelago? Part 2

Another island prison in the Balkans in not located at sea. Rather, Belene is on an island in the Danube, the island belongs to Bulgaria, but the river constitutes the actual border at that location, the north bank is Romania.

(A lost Danubian world – an interface of crumbling Habsburg and Ottoman empires – is beautifully captured in Elias Canetti’s memoir of childhood, The Tongue Set Free.[1] Canetti was from a Ladino-speaking Sephardic family from Ruse/ Ruschuk, a town that was home to Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Roma, Romanians, Bulgarians, Russians and their various languages.)

This island was the site of a notorious communist prison, which was used mostly in the repressive years of 1949–1959, when for example, several religious figures were imprisoned there.

After years of disuse, it was re-opened in the 1980s, when Bulgaria underwent a brutal assimilation program of the country’s Muslim population – the Turkish minority and the Pomaks (Slavonic Muslims). This so called ‘rebirth process’ (vazroditelen protses) was a manifestation of nativist populism that was against the ideology of international socialism. Later, in 1989, the year of miracles in Eastern Europe, the Bulgarian government suddenly expelled 360,000 Turks and Pomaks, driving them over the border into Turkey. This later episode was called the Big Excursion (goliamata ekskurziia) and was an exercise in ‘ethnic cleansing’ – a term soon to enter the world’s lexicon due to the conflict across the Yugoslav border.

This understudied episode has finally been given a book-length treatment in Tomasz Kamusella’s Ethnic Cleansing During the Cold War, The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of the Turks From Communist Bulgaria[2].

As for the Belene camp, as Kamusella states, “In the good Stalinist manner, with snow and rain falling on their heads, the first contingent of inmates actually had to re-build the camp for themselves.”[3] He argues that statistics were falsified and that many people who officially died by suicide or illness during the 1980s, were in fact victims of beatings and summary executions.

There is still a prison in operation on Belene Island – the island also hosts a nature reserve.


The mass expulsion was seen as an immediate disaster by the Bulgarian state; not on humane grounds, rather they belatedly realized that they had lost a vital workforce. After only months, the expelled started to move back to Bulgaria. Subsequent Bulgarian regimes have apologized for the episode.

[1] Granta Books, 1979 (1977).

[2] Routledge Studies in Modern European History, London, 2019.

[3] Ibid., 42.

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