Black winter birches cover the steep slope, their naked skeletons creating a colonnade which hides the foot of the hill, so the creek running there is only heard, not seen. White mist rises from the ravine, red leaves cover the ground. All around are more trees, more hills, more mist: this secluded landscape in the Rhodope, beyond the now disused barbed-wire fence which, under Communism, sealed off the border with Greece, stretches to the horizon. The only traces of a human presence here are an abandoned military post, a dirt road and a narrow path along the erstwhile border fence, whose concrete and wooden posts now lie among the undergrowth, their rusty barbed wire hidden among the leaves.
All is quiet.
"When we were kids, back in the 1970s and the 1980s, the border guards used to take us here each year," says Hayri Milezimov, a native of the Pomak village of Chepintsi, the closest settlement to this part of the mountain range. "Our task was to clear the path along the fence, so that any 'violator' crossing it would leave their prints in the soil and make it easier for the border guards to catch them. And this was when they showed us the Bone Tree. 'Look at the bones', they used to say, 'they are from a German woman who tried to escape.' And we looked and we were scared."
What Milezimov is referring to is an old birch tree which, until recently, had a collection of human bones – a weathered shoulder blade, parts of an arm – nailed to it. More bones lay scattered around the roots. The story of the Bone Tree surfaced in 2014, when a team from Deutsche Welle made a film about it and tried to identify who the bones belonged to. The journalists collected all the bones they could find and brought them to Germany for forensic analysis.
All that remained in the forest was the tree itself and the nails holes in its bark.
The Bone Tree, which the local border guards also called Germankata, or The German Woman, is one of the most macabre stories from the time when Bulgaria was the border between the East bloc on one side, and "enemies" Greece and Turkey, both of which belonged to NATO. The Bulgarian borders were strictly supervised by the military and State Security. For one reasons or another, however, some people in Communist East Germany and elsewhere, however, thought that these borders were easier to cross than the Berlin Wall or the "inter-German" border, and came here to attempt what would often turn into a deadly run.
Bulgaria fenced off its borders soon after the Communists consolidated their grip on power in the Soviet-backed coup, in 1944. According to the propaganda of the time, the barbed-wire fence and the brave Bulgarian guards were the only things keeping Bulgarians and Socialism safe from an enemy attack.
The guards and the fence, however, were only the last line of protection. The territory close to the borders was under special command and people needed a permit, the so-called otkrit list, to enter. Suspicion, paranoia and constant vigilance were nurtured among the local people by the authorities. Whole villages which found themselves in the one- to three-kilometre wide area between the klyon, or the first border fence, and the actual border, were resettled.
Hayri Milezimov by the Bone Tree, marks of rusty nails clearly visible
In a more severe security measure, in the late 1940s-early 1950s, the state even forced a number of Turks and Pomaks who lived close to the borders to move inland. The reason? As Muslims, they were seen as a threat to Bulgaria and as a "fifth column" of Turkey. Hayri Milezimov's family was one of these. "After they made them leave their homes, the authorities told them: Take a good look at your homeplace, as you will never see it again," he recalls.
The border of Communist Bulgaria was guarded by the Granichni Voyski, or Border Army, a special military force. In the conscripted army which Bulgaria had at that time, serving on the border was probably the toughest assignment. For soldiers, it meant two or three years on a posting far from civilisation, with time hanging heavy between long patrols and exhausting drills, and training alarms bells. The constant brain-washing by the political officers, who used to tell the soldiers that they were the only protection of the Bulgarian nation and that the people from the neighbouring villages were secretly plotting to rise against them, added to the psychological pressure.
What the soldiers were actually there for, however, was not to stop a possible invasion from Turkey or Greece. Their true task was to stop anyone trying to leave the heaven of Socialism by crossing the border.
Chepintsi had three such border posts. One of the posts was in the village itself, another was along the still closed road from Rudozem to Greece, and the third was near the Bone Tree.
Relations between the locals and the border guards were complicated, varying from mutual suspicion to reserved tolerance.
The soldiers manning the checkpoints on the roads often did not take their duties too seriously and were not too diligent when checking travellers' documents. The villagers, for their part, pitied the soldiers for their onerous service. Some of them even played practical jokes on them.
One local, who was travelling in the bus to Chepintsi, could not resist the temptation and stole a rifle cartridge from the soldier who was checking the documents in the bus. When the private discovered that a piece of his ammunition was missing, he panicked. The passengers laughed and the prankster took pity on the guard and returned the cartridge, saying that it had just fallen off. The boy could have ended up in jail for eight years. A Bulgarian jail...
Stairs for the border guards by one of the killing zone checkpoints
Another story concerns an old shepherd who was extremely insistent on grazing his flock beyond the first border fence (locals were allowed to go inside to take care for their fields and gardens, but were under constant supervision). Finally, however, the border guards got fed up and made a plan to scare the man away from the border zone. They waited for him to cross the fence, and set their German Shepherd on him. The old man, however, did not react as they expected. Instead of taking flight, he stood his ground and, when the dog attacked him, he grabbed its collar and started to squeeze, strangling the animal. "Let it go!," screamed the guards, out of fear that they would lose an expensive tracking dog. "If you're going to have a dog, you'd better keep it leashed," said the shepherd, calmly, before releasing the animal. The guards never bothered him again.
In spite of such episodes, however, the inhabitants of Chepintsi could never forget what the real task of the border guards was.
Milezimov remembers the open-door days at the border posts, when the soldiers would give demonstrations of how their German Shepherd dogs could sniff out and catch refugees – a clear warning of what would happen to anyone who decided to cross into Greece. At night, the village streets were lit by a bright military searchlight. The men of Chepintsi were also "involuntarily volunteered," as Milezimov ironically says, to participate in a local vigilante group, which would often be mobilised to search the border zone for "violators."
Violator, in the military jargon, meant a person who was trying to escape Bulgaria and the East bloc. The local people still use the same word, 25 years after the fall of Communism.
The collapse of the regime in 1989 slowly eased tensions along the borders. In the 2000s, they were demilitarised and the newly-formed Border Police took over the protection of Bulgaria's fringes. The old posts were abandoned and gradually fell into disrepair. When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, the barbed wire from the fence along the border with Greece was left to locals to cut and sell for scrap.
The fence by the Bone Tree, however, still survives, a reminder of the times when a civilian caught here was in serious trouble.
Under Communism, the border fence and the soldiers who guarded it worked with a sinister, clockwork precision. The fence was divided into sections and the soldiers of each post were responsible for only one particular section. They patrolled the cleared path beyond the fence at regular intervals, checking for signs of "violators." The fence had two types of wire – one was barbed, and the other was electrified. Every touch of the latter, be it by a wild animal or a human, would send a signal to the respective border post, pinpointing exactly where the contact had been.
Each signal for a "violator" would trigger a massive manhunt with soldiers and dogs, who would cover the widest area possible.
What made crossing the border even more difficult was a certain crucial detail. The barbed-wire fence only marked the beginning of a deadly buffer zone. The real border, marked with whitewashed concrete blocks, was one to three kilometres further on. The escapees, however, would not know that and would think that by climbing the barbed wire fence they had left Bulgaria and were free. This fatal mistake, combined with a terrain whose topography they were not familiar with, made them an easy target for the border guards.
Some people did manage to escape. Hayri Milezimov knows of at least two successful attempts made by villagers from Chepintsi. How did they do it? "They were locals, they knew the landscape, they knew where to cross the fence and they knew how to use the topography to outsmart the border guards," he explains.
Chepintsi village seen from the edge of the killing zone. Pomak populated, Chepintsi is now a lively place, but during Communism its residents were gripped by fear and paranoia
For Bulgarians from other parts of the country, and for the citizens of other Eastern bloc countries, crossing the border was much more difficult. Many were caught. An unknown number of them were killed on the spot by Bulgarian soldiers who were too stressed out, or too high on adrenaline, or were just trigger-happy, or (according to some accounts) were motivated by rewards varying from several days leave, to new wristwatches, to cash rewards.
The victims were often buried in the border zone, in unmarked graves.
Their fate remained unknown to Bulgarians not only during Communism, but also after 1989. The 1994 feature movie, Granitsa, or Border, caused an outcry with its depiction of trigger-happy soldiers who killed "violators" just to get some precious days away from the hated border post. The general public refused to believe that this had really happened, and condemned the film-makers as liars and cheap sensationalists.
However, the stories of those killed while trying to escape from Bulgaria were still remembered by relatives and people living on the border, their traces buried in the archives of State Security and the Bulgarian People's Army.
Abandoned border military base
In the mid-2000s, some of these began to emerge, triggered by the investigation of a German historian, Stefan Appelius.
In 1974, Bulgaria and the then East Germany had signed a cooperation agreement. Among other things, it included situations when citizens of any of the two tried to illegally cross the borders of the other. This meant that Bulgarian border guards could now exercise the full power of their authority on the East Germans who were trying to escape to the West via Bulgaria.
How many Germans, or Bulgarians for that matter, were caught at the border is still unknown. Some sources point to about 2,000 East Germans who tried to escape. Between 13 and 17 of them were executed on the border. Appelius, however, thinks that the escape attempts number at least 4,500 and the casualties amount to 100. The graves of most of these people are unknown, and their relatives in East Germany were often told that their sons and daughters had lost their lives in, say, a road accident. Few bodies were retrieved by the families.
Vagabond reported on Appelius's findings back in 2007. For the general public in Bulgaria, however, the topic surfaced only in 2013-2014, when the coming 25th anniversary of the "democratic changes" renewed interest in what had happened during Communism, and the debate about whether Socialist Bulgaria was a heaven or a hell intensified.
Story after story began to emerge, told by local people and posted on Internet forums by former border guards. Reading and hearing about unarmed refugees gunned down by officers who were just fed up with the manhunt, about women gang-raped and youngsters imprisoned in squalid conditions, is truly depressing and one still continues to wonder to what extent these memories have been self-censored, or if the one recollecting the death of a particular escapee was not, in fact, the one who betrayed the escapee to the border guards. The suspicion and fear, which once prevailed on the Bulgarian borders, still linger there, decades later.
The actual border with Greece, near Chepintsi. The opening of an international road has been postponed for years
What makes the experience even more nauseating is the defiance of former border guards, who claim that they were indeed protecting Bulgaria from enemies and – in a manner seen at the Nuremberg Trials – depict themselves as soldiers who were simply obeying orders. Unlike Nuremberg, however, no one has been investigated or brought to trial in Bulgaria.
The same contradictions surround the Bone Tree.
According to former border guards who served at Chepintsi and were interviewed by Deutsche Welle, the bones had been unearthed from some century-old cemetery by a fox or some other wild animal. They were nailed to the tree and attributed to a fictional German woman only to instil fear in new conscripts.
The bone analysis, however, showed that the person they belonged to was born around 1955. In the search for possible victims, the DW journalists discovered two stories of escape and death in this particular part of the Bulgarian border, in the late 1960s and the 1970s. One was of a young East German couple and the other of three teenage boys from Western Bulgaria. The bones, however, have not been linked to any of those five victims.
Their identity remains unknown, unsolved, as are the names and graves of all those who were killed on the Bulgarian border while trying to achieve the greatest thing missing from life in the East bloc – freedom.
The German Woman Tree, minus the human remains, still stands at the border between Bulgaria and Greece, a ghastly reminder of the Cold War years that so many in Bulgaria would like to sweep under the carpet.Killing zone, where escapees would get lost, falling easy prey to the border guards
This series of articles is supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.