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Belene Concentration Camp

The Belene Concentration Camp was established on the 27th April, 1949, on the basis of a secret decree of the Council of Ministers, led by the Prime Minister, Vasil Kolarov. The Communist government took the decision to create a Labour Education Hostel (LEH) and the Ministry of the Interior was given the responsibility for establishing the camp on the Danube islands of Persin, Golyama Barzina, Malka Barzina, Milko, Magaretsa, Sovata and Predela.

This was to lead to the creation of the biggest camp for the opponents of the BCP in regime during the communist period. It became known as the Belene camp and was built on Persin island, the biggest of the Danube islands. It became known as the Second Site in the Eastern part of Persin, where in July, 1949, the first group 300 prisoners were convoyed here from the Bogdanov Dol site.

The opponents of the communist dictatorship were forced to live in inhuman conditions – daily physical labour, intolerable demands and under constant armed guard. They were forced to live in bunkers and huts which they built themselves with whatever materials they could find. Hunger was the most terrible thing they were subject to.

Tens of thousands of prisoners passed through the camps. After Stalin’s death in 1953, political exile in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was stopped. In 1956, however, after the Hungarian uprising it was reintroduced. Between 1953 and 1956, the First Site in Belene, in the South West past of the island, was used to isolate opponents of the regime from the whole of the country. Their sentences were handed down at show trials.

In August 1959, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party took the decision to close Belene camp, when information was published in the West that Bulgaria still had concentration camps.

Although Belene was closed in 1959, it continued to house political exiles, mainly members of the agrarian movement, in 1960. At this time it was transformed into a prison.

In 1985, more than 500 Bulgarian Turks arrested for opposing the forced renaming process of the BCP regime were interned in the Second Site of the Belene camp. In April, 1986, the internees went on hunger strike for 30 days. At the end of May, 1986, most of the prisoners were released from Belene and exiled to different parts of the country.

After the collapse of the communist regime in Bulgaria, in 1989,  Belene became a site for remembrance of the victims of the prison camps during the BCP government. On the 7th June, 1990, the first organised pilgrimage to the Second Site on Persin Island took place at the initiative of the Club of the Repressed. The pilgrimage turned into a rally. Thousands of people from all over the country took part, including many former prisoners and representatives of the political opposition.

Every following year at the end of May or the beginning of June, an annual pilgrimage to the site of the former Second Camp is held. A pile of stones has been erected on the site. On top of it stand a cross and crescent symbolising the presence of Christians and Muslims at the camp.

At the beginning of the 21st century, repressed agrarians began the construction of a memorial, but the concrete foundations remain incomplete. In 2005, a memorial plaque was placed on one of the abandoned buildings by the Bulgarian National Agrarian Union – National Union – Pleven Region.

In April, 2014, the local Catholic priest, Paolo Cortese, sent from Italy to serve in Belene founded an initiative committee to build a memorial to the victims of the Second Camp. The residents of Belene, former prisoners and citizens of Italy and France also took part. The priest organised group visits of remembrance to the former prison site for Bulgarians and foreigners.

In May, 2015, in Belene an annual service of remembrance for the victims of the communist camps was organised by Father Cortese and his companions. For the first time, a ceremonial military regiment and military orchestra took part and the service was attended by the Chairperson of the National Assembly, Tsetska Tsacheva, and Nikolai Nenchev, the Minister of Defence.