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Sunny Beach Camp – Lovech

In August, 1959, after the Politburo of the Central Committee of the BCP approved the decision to establish the Belene camp on Persin island, another new camp was established in Lovech with the agreement of the senior communist leadership of the MoI – SSS. The labour camp near Lovech was to become infamous as the “Sunny Beach” camp (1959 – 1962). The name which referred to the Black Sea resort of Sunny Beach was used cynically by the communist authorities as a threat and warning to anyone who dared raise their heads against the regime.

In 1959, when the closure of Belene was being discussed, the then Minister of the Interior, General Georgi Tsankov, told the Politburo that 166 prisoners remained in the camp. The authorities classified them as “incorrigible recidivists” and that the MoI proposed they not be released from Belene but sent to a stone quarry near Lovech, where they would be “re-educated through heavy physical labour”. Although no written instruction was issued to establish the Lovech camp, the Politburo did not object to Minister Tsankov’s proposal.

The first group of remaining prisoners from Belene were transferred to Lovech at the beginning of September, 1959. They were housed in a few huts left over from the youth brigade which had built the Lovech – Troyan railway line. The camp was situated on the right hand side in the direction of Troyan at the site of the branch line to the village of Hlevene. The first director of the Lovech Labour Camp was Ivan Trichkov. He was formerly director of Belene camp and remained only temporarily in charge of Lovech. Slightly later, Petar Gogov, the deputy director of Belene, was appointed director.

Todor Minkov, a former prisoner from Sofia, was arrested in 1957 during one of the government’s campaigns against “hooligans”. He was sent to Belene without trial or sentence and was one of the first to be transferred to Lovech. According to Todor, the date on which they were transferred was the 10th September, 1959:

“We were put in a long hut with double bunks. The first evening we were there, we were beaten by the police. The next day we were taken to the site of the future quarry to hew rocks. We had to carry them running over a distance of 150-160 metres and pile them in heaps. We had to run through a corridor of policemen who would beat us with stick from both sides as we ran.”

From the 166 prisoners who were initially interned in Lovech, within a couple of months the number had risen to about 1000. When the new prisoners were brought to the camp, a special “ritual” was performed under the command of the camp guards. The old prisoners were lined up on the parade ground as a “guard of honour” and they were ordered to beat the new arrivals. Anyone who did not carry out the order would be beaten.

The daily routine for the prisoners began at 4-5 a.m. whatever the season. “There was no summer, no winter. We were taken to the quarry where we worked until late at night, since many men could not fulfil the daily quota”, recalled Todor Minkov, a former prisoner. They were allowed one hour to rest at lunch time. The train had to be loaded within 5-10 minutes. The daily quota for the prisoners was between 8-20 cubic metres of stones. All the work was carried out at a run.

The food usually contained no meat – vegetables, beetroot, spinach, bean soup. In the morning they were given cold tea with a portion of marmalade. The daily portion of bread was about 700 grams. It was given in the evenings and the prisoners normally ate it in one go. They bathed once a week on Sunday in the Osam river. The prisoner wore old army clothes. They were ridden with lice and the huts plagued with woodlice and other parasites, preventing the prisoners from sleeping. For the first year there was no medical treatment. The women’s part of camp was moved to the stone quarry near the village of Skravena, Botevgrad region, in 1961.

Neno Hristov, a former prisoner from the village of Izvorovo, Stara Zagora region, stated: “I had never in my life seen infected wounds on men’s bodies with worms in them. The only thing that could be done was to ask someone to urinate on the wounds on your back to get them to heal. There was no other way”.

No written instructions about the camp regime were given. The camp guards acted on the verbal instructions of the Deputy Minister of the Interior, General Mircho Spasov. He was responsible for the creation and functioning of the concentration camp and one of the closest friends in the MoI-SSS of Todor Zhivkov, the First Secretary of the BCP. Camp director, Petar Gogov, admitted in 1990: “There were no regulatory documents. Everything was done on the basis of the verbal orders of Mircho Spasov”.

During its existence until April, 1962, more than 1500 prisoners were interned in the camp. After the fall of the communist regime, the military prosecutor established that 151 prisoners died in the camp. The bodies of the deceased were not returned to their families. Secret instructions were issued that they be taken to Belene where a specially designated inmate from the prison operating on the site of the former camp, would bury their remains on one of the deserted islands near the larger Persin island.

The remaining archive documents show that prisoners in the Sunny Beach camp included former agrarian members of parliament who had survived the communist repressions, traders, lawyers, musicians and actresses, as well as ordinary peasants who had refused to cooperate with the collective farming system.

The camp would have continued to function for much longer, if it had not been for an escape attempt by a group of prisoners who were caught when attempting to leave the country illegally. During the investigation they gave evidence to the investigating organs that they had fled from the murders in the Lovech camp. The case was reported to a higher authority and reached the Politburo.

A special commission led by Boris Velchev, a member of the Politburo, confirmed the inhumane regime in the camp and the daily beating and cases of murders of prisoners.

At a secret meeting of the Politburo in April, 1962, Todor Zhivkov ordered that the “camp be closed without any noise”. The directors of the Labour Camp group were given "party punishments” and Mircho Spasov, who carried most of the blame, was criticised by Zhivkov for being overzealous. However, at the same time Zhivkov referred to him as a “golden man”, loyal party member. His punishment was limited to a “reprimand” and he was later promoted to director of the “Overseas Personnel” department of the Central Committee of the BCP.

An independent medical commission appointed in 1990 by the military prosecutor’s office published shocking findings about the situation in Sunny Beach camp.

“The prisoners were unable to talk to each other, or to main contact with the outside world. They were unable to complain or object or preserve their human dignity and confidence”. On admission to the camp, and during their entire period of internment, most of them were cruelly beaten with sticks and rubber hoses without reason… The living conditions were marked by unjustified sadism”.

In 1990, after the fall of the communist regime, the crimes committed in the Lovech camp began to come to light and the military prosecutor’s office initiated an investigation on the matter (see "Criminal Investigations” part of the site for a more detailed description of the investigation into the camps).

In March, 1990, shortly before the BCP was renamed as the BSP, Petar Mladenov, the Chairman of the State Council and the General Secretary of the BCP, visited the stone quarry at the Lovech camp, in order to inaugurate a memorial plaque to the victims. However, he was met by the local supporters of the opposition and citizens of Lovech with a poster, “The murderers return to the scene of the crime”. They were protesting against the exploitation of the victims of the communist regime by the socialists in an attempt to portray themselves as “democratic” by means of single gestures.

On the 23rd March, 1990, the local organisation of the UDF, organised its first pilgrimage to the stone quarry of the former camp. Since then, every year without interruption, in March the democratic community in Lovech and the region have participated in the traditional procession from the centre of the town to the stone quarry where priests from the Lovech Bishopric and Bishop Gavril hold a memorial service to the memory of the victims.

Two plaques have been placed on the walls of the quarry to the memory of the repressed victims in the camp, and a cross has been placed on the highest point. At the foot of the cliffs beneath the camp, close to the Lovech-Troyan road, a plaque has been placed to the memory of the victims of the camps by the Lovech Diocese.