The Cold War lives on at the Bulgarian-Turkish border, where dozens of half-entrenched rusting tanks continue to defend Bulgaria from a NATO ally. A state secret, according to the MoD
If you enter Bulgaria from Turkey through the border checkpoint at Lesovo the first thing you'll be greeted by after passport control will be some tanks lurking on both sides of the new, EU-sponsored road.
Don't panic. They've never fired on anyone, thankfully, except for drills. You can even stop to inspect them if you like. No one will halt you, which will lead you to surmise that the decrepit pieces of machinery have been abandoned, save for the clusters of snakes that have made them their homes.
When you look at the sunken tanks, of which only the turrets and muzzles stick up above the ground, you may think that you have chanced upon the set of some third-rate Jean-Claude Van Damme action movie of the kind shot in Bulgaria in recent years, for it is difficult to come up with any another explanation for the rusting steel and dilapidated concrete-covered dugouts.
However, the tanks are not abandoned movie props. They belong to the Bulgarian Ministry of Defence and used to be one of the best-kept secrets of the now nonexistent Warsaw Pact. Ironically, since 2004 when Bulgaria joined NATO as a full member, they seem to have become an Allied secret as well.
Absurd, isn't it? The apparently derelict machines on the hills along the Bulgarian-Turkish border are the last thing to be associated with top secrecy. You won't have to be a Cold War spy to find numerous other locations where antiquated tanks are lurking in the ground.
All the tanks in the alleged Krali Marko Defence Line are freely accessible
Without even getting out of your car, you can see the guns sticking out along the roads around the villages of Fakiya, Voden and Sharkovo, obviously within firing range of Turkey.
You are bound to get a better idea of what "Top Secret" means in this neck of the woods when you ask the locals what these tanks are doing in their fields.
The road ends at Fakiya, a village almost at the border that was once a frontier. Just before you see the dilapidated road sign, you pass through two "defence" installations. The first consists of some empty tanks scattered on a nearby hill, and the second is a rusty border guards' booth. If the weather is fine and they have nothing better to do, Border Police may check your IDs: or maybe they won't.
Of course, it could have been worse. Under Communism, to enter the Bulgarian territory in the vicinity of Turkey - the "probable enemy" in the military jargon of the time - was only possible on an otkrit list. Without it, people could not enter or leave - even if they lived in the villages inside it. Visitors could not obtain an otkrit list easily. They had to apply, cite a "valid" reason for wanting to travel, and undergo a check for "ideological reliability". The Border Zone was in effect cut off from the rest of Bulgaria.
In Fakiya, the democratic changes and Bulgaria's membership of NATO seem to be a bit of an abstraction. The locals are still preoccupied with their Cold War times suspicion of "outsiders" - before looking at you, they will look at your car number plate.
The antiquated Russian and German tanks adorn the southern Bulgarian countryside like the bunkers in Albania
"What are you doing here?" is the only reply you will get from them no matter whether you ask about the weather, the tanks, or Fakiya's landmark, a cement statue of a lion in the village centre. The monument, as the inscription on the pedestal informs, is dedicated to the villagers who died in the so-called Fatherland War. Under Communism, this was the official name for Bulgaria's siding with the USSR in 1944-1945.
But once they get to know you, the local inhabitants will open up. "They were suspicious at first, but they know us now and call us the 'tank guys'," says Konstantin Zaykov from the Regional Tourist Association in Yambol. The other "tank guys" are members of the Bulgarian Association of Historical Weapons Enthusiasts, the Atlantic Club in Yambol and the district organisation of reservists. For three years now, they have been going around the border zone with Turkey looking for tanks. They have not had any problems with the authorities so far. "The Border Police sometimes want to see our IDs, but they are usually polite," says Hristo Terziev, one of the committee members.
Today, these guys have a large amount of information, collected "in the field," from local people and in unofficial talks with officers from the nearby military bases. "The tanks are positioned all along the Turkish border, reaching the village of Bosna in the Strandzha to the east. Then the terrain becomes impassable," Zaykov explains.
The tanks are reportedly a part of the defence line codenamed "Krali Marko," which in turn used to be a part of the "Triangle of Death". Bulgarian men of over 40, for whom doing conscript military service was at least a two-year break in their lives, still remember the "Triangle," as the area between Grudovo (present-day Sredets), Elhovo and Zvezdets used to be referred to. It used to house formidable Bulgarian military power up until the early 1990s.
According to the Communist military doctrine, if the Turks attacked, the Bulgarians would have to hold out until the arrival of the 1.5- million-strong Soviet army deployed in Ukraine.
"It was the line of the doomed, and those who did their service here knew it. Many reservists still believe that the Turkish army would have been unable to get north of Yambol," Zaykov says.
At the onset of the Cold War, the nuclear race and the use of space for military purposes, the Bulgarian Army command devised a defence concept to ward off any NATO military intervention in Bulgarian territory until the Soviets came to the rescue. The "permanent firing points," as the burrowed tanks were called, were reportedly a part of that general defence concept. From those the conscripts would target the enemy until they ran out of ammunition or were killed - whichever happened first.
By an odd twist of fate, the first tanks entrenched in this fashion in the name of Communist security had been manufactured by... Communism's archenemy, the Third Reich.
Bulgaria joined the Axis in 1941, and during the Second World War bought or was given as a gift over 100 Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks by its ally Germany. They remained operational until 1947, when they were replaced with more politically correct machines, the Russian T-34s. Nobody knew what happened to the decommissioned Panzers and this gave birth to military myths.
"Allegedly, their Maybach engines were installed on military barges on the Danube. Later one of them was reportedly stolen and fitted on a fishing boat in Nesebar. There are also reports that, before they left, the Germans buried two brand new tanks under the military airstrip in Kazanlak," Terziev says.
He and Zaykov are happy that they have found some of the missing Panzers entrenched along the Turkish border.
The tank known as "Queen" is one of them. "Hunters, who sometimes use these tanks as rain shelters, claim that until about 10 years ago the Queen had a plaque saying it was a gift from Hitler to Bulgarian Queen Giovanna, the mother of former Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg", Zaykov explains as he brushes some fallen leaves from the tank. The Queen is located near Fakyia, but you will need a guide to find it because of the thick undergrowth. Scrap metal collectors, however, know where to look for bounty. They have stripped the plaque and all other parts which are easy to detach and light enough to carry. For a kilo of scrap iron, they get between 10 and 30 stotinki (3-10p).
The Defence Ministry assures the tanks are being regularly serviced by expert personnel
"Each time we come to the tanks, we find that more and more parts are missing. Soon, only the useless shells will remain," says Terziev. He has just discovered that one of the machines near Sharkovo still has its original bolts, miraculously. "You can often see parts of military equipment among the metal waiting for reprocessing," he says while producing a plate with some drawings on it from inside the tank. It may come from the last field exercises involving the tanks, which Terziev and Zaykov's sources claim took place in the 1980s.
For the group of enthusiasts in Yambol, the tanks are not just a heap of rusty metal, but impressive specimens of old weapons. They have established that at least two of the Panzers in the Krali Marko Line are of the Sturmgeschutz III type. These were common during the war, because they were inexpensive and quick to manufacture, but after 1945 they became a rarity. Zaykov, Terziev and their colleagues want to dig out a tank or two, restore them and exhibit them in the as yet non-existent Museum of the Cold War in Yambol. Their other idea is to use parts of the better-preserved Panzers and assemble a whole tank to use as a tourist attraction. In their wildest dreams they see a third possibility: sprucing up a whole section of tanks (they are usually in groups standing some 250 feet apart).
The T-34s, which are entrenched along the border to guard Bulgaria in unlikely cooperation with the German Panzers, are of no interest to the Yambol enthusiasts. "Any Bulgarian man over 40 has seen a T-34," says Zaykov.
However, he and his associates can't put their idea into practice, because the tanks in the Krali Marko Line are property of the Ministry of Defence. "We sent Defence Minister Veselin Bliznakov a request for cooperation regarding the removal of several tanks at our expense," Terziev remembers. "The machines are now only good for museum exhibits. The cost of pulling them out from the ground would probably be higher than the price anyone could get if they sold them for scrap."
But are these tanks yet another addition to Bulgaria's Communist tale, and if they are, why are they not consigned to where they belong, the junkyard of history?
Interestingly, the National Museum of Military History in Sofia and the Military Archive in Veliko Tarnovo told us they knew nothing about the entrenched tanks. This led us to believe that perhaps they were still being used for some reason or another, and if they were, the defence minister would know. We wrote to Minister Bliznakov and General Zlatan Stoykov, chief of the General Staff.
Minister Bliznakov did not reply. The General Staff did. In November 2006 we received a fax signed by Colonel Dechko Ivanov saying that the tanks were "classified information" whose "exposure in the media is forbidden". No grounds or any other official information was given, contrary, our lawyers told us, to the Access to Public Information Act.
The MoD paid more attention to our second letter, which we wrote and filed with the assistance of an experienced counsel from the Access to Information Programme (www.aip-bg.org). In the relatively short time between the two requests the tanks had not been declassified, but we did receive a more enlightening note.
"The buried tanks... are treated as armament and equipment of the Bulgarian Army" and were "maintained by military experts," Plamen Kolev, head of the Administrative and Information Services Department of the Ministry of Defence, told us in a letter. There were "plans providing for their seasonal technical servicing," Mr Kolev said. The machines had to be "permanently in the open air," which explained why they were outside the tank hangars. The fact that they lacked permanent supervision posed no threat to the population whatsoever, because their special combat equipment was dismantled and kept under the "necessary conditions".
The tanks, we were told, had a "mobilization function in view of current defence objectives". In accordance with the Plan for Organisational Development and Modernisation of the Armed Forces until 2015, they will be decommissioned by 1 July 2013.
Before this date there is no point in taking any steps towards turning the tanks into museum exhibits, because these tanks are not considered "unnecessary armament and equipment". Therefore, the possibility of their sale "has not been considered".
The tanks were deployed in the area in 1980, the MoD told us.
In his letter, Mr Kolev concluded the matter by asserting that "any other information regarding the above-mentioned machines is of confidential nature and constitutes a state secret". There was no reply to our questions about when the classification documents were issued, what category of classified information they were under the Access to Information Act, and what harm or danger to national security their media exposure could incur.
Yambol enthusiast Konstantin Zaykov inspects a relatively well-preserved German Panzer near the village of Fakiya
The enthusiasts from Yambol had lost hope that they would achieve anything more from the MoD. "Nothing will come out of it. Don't waste your time like we did," Konstantin Zaykov told us, watching the tourist attraction he dreamt about rusting in the bleak rain.
Zaykov is not absolutely right. After the Ministry of Defence's official reply, we feel obliged to warn you: when driving to the new and relatively unknown border checkpoint at Lesovo, don't loiter near the pointed guns of the tanks. The rust is only a cover for a great Bulgarian military secret. The only way to understand anything about it is to communicate with the authorities through lawyers. And then you will find out that this "fortification" guards the Bulgarian border with countries that are in fact NATO allies.
The Silence of the State
"I was faced with a concrete wall of silence," says Dr Stefan Appelius about the obstinacy with which the now democratic Bulgarian institutions keep the secrets of the Communist regime. When he began his documentary book Death in Bulgaria dealing with the murders of East Germans at the Bulgarian border when they tried to flee to Turkey, Appelius wrote to the Interior Ministry.
A year earlier, using his personal contacts, he had managed to get in touch with Interior Minister Rumen Petkov, and hand him a list of the missing people he needed information about. "They should have given me easy and complete access to the archives. I have not received a single document to this day and I suspect that my list has only been used to hide the documents," says Appelius in an interview published by www.mediapool.bg.
What is Bulgaria afraid of? The answer is simple: many of the victims' relatives would probably sue the state for premeditated murder.
Panzer III, the Tank That Lost the War
In 1937, two years before the Germans invaded Poland, the first 10 Panzer III tanks came off the assembly lines of Daimler-Benz. The medium-sized tank would soon become a major weapon in the army of the Third Reich. The main advantage of the Panzer III was its light weight of less than 24 tonnes, high average speed of 35 km/h and turret crew of three. But when the German Army began its offensive in the east, it met the Soviet T-34, a rare exception to the rule that the Germans make better machines than the Russians. German engineers turned their attention to developing an improved version, the Panzer IV, and from 1942 the previous model was mostly used for infantry support. In some places, however, it fought until the end of the war: the armies in North Africa used it until 1944.
How To Drive a T-34
The armoured T-34 only looks difficult to drive. All the driver needs to do is manage to climb on the 2.7-metre high tank, get used to watching out for protruding objects in the cabin, and mind his head. The smell of petrol, limited visibility, fits of claustrophobia, chilling cold in winter and sweltering heat in summer, fume from the shots (if using the gun as intended) and fuel consumption of a litre of diesel per half a kilometre are just details. Everything else is easy: the clutch pedal is soft, to make turns you use the levers on either side of the seat, and once you get used to the gear stick, you won't bang your head when you pull out. Now you know why the Russians won the war.