If there was a competition for the most surreal road sign in Bulgaria, Belene would be a top contender. The standard signposts in the centre of this 8,300-strong town on the Danube list the following places of interest. First is "Municipality," the building of the City Council. Then comes the Bus Station. And then – hold your breath – you can choose to go to either the Nuclear Power Plant or the Prison.
In fact, there isn't any nuclear power plant in Belene. Planned in the 1980s, it is one of the favourite ghost projects of modern Bulgaria. Since 1989, several governments have turned construction on and off, while costs have surged and public opinion raged. Today, the fenced-off area of the non-existent power plant consists of undergrowth and a huge frog pond.
Gate to Belene prison
However, the Prison arrow of Belene's signpost leads to a very real and very grim place. Belene's "Men's Prison" is on the eponymous island which, with an area of 41 sq.km. It is Bulgaria's biggest island. Connected to the mainland by a pontoon bridge, Belene Island is off limits for visitors unless you apply for a permit from the Ministry of Justice.
The prison, however, is not an ordinary correctional facility. Under Communism, several hundred metres away from it there was a political prison, one of the scariest places in the Bulgaria of the time.
Entrance to Nuclear Power Plant
When the Communists seized power on 9 September 1944, killings and illegal arrests of people considered dangerous to the new regime proliferated. Tens of thousands real or imaginary "war criminals" or just anti-Communists died in the first months after the coup, including former prime ministers, the military elite, MPs and the regents of the underage King Simeon II.
When the dust settled down a little and passions cooled, the new government quickly realised it needed places where its opponents could be detained under guard. In early 1945, the first camp for political prisoners appeared near the train station of Sveti Vrach (today's Sandanski).
Pontoon bridge with sign: "It is forbidden to transport people over the bridge"
Railway line that used to carry trainloads of political prisoners
The first camps and prisons would soon become too small, and on 24 June 1949, the government set up a special facility for political prisoners on the island of Belene. According to the initial plans, the new prison would receive all political "enemies" of Communist Bulgaria who were not already imprisoned.
The official name of the new prison was fashioned along the lines of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia: Labour Camp for Reeducation. Both men and women, who had committed "crimes" such as nurturing democratic ideas, telling political jokes or criticising life in Communist Bulgaria, would be sent there. Seemingly innocent acts could also get you into Belene. Those included, but were not limited to, wearing "decadent" tight pants or short skirts, and listening to American rock-and-roll music. All kinds of people mixed at the prison: former politicians and doctors, lawyers and scientists, students and priests. One of the inmates was Konstantin Muraviev, the last prime minister of Bulgaria before the Communist coup.
Remnants of prison buildings
As a rule, these men and women had been sent to Belene without any court trials. The Communist government considered them "hooligans." Typically, they would be made to live side by side with common criminals, who had also been sent to Belene for "reeducation" but were often used as overseers of the much more dangerous intellectuals.
Life in the labour camp was an endless pattern of exhaustion, suffering and sheer terror. Even after the 1989 democratic changes, many survivors refused to talk to their families about the Belene part of their lives. The accounts of those who did talk, however, are hair-raising.
Monument to political prisoners killed in the camp
In Belene, inmates lived in shabby blocks with leaking roofs. Everyone who did not accomplish their allotted daily work was badly beaten. Food was scarce and bad. When inmates did get meat, it was a soup of maggot-swarming chicken intestines. Torture, rape, harsh punishment and death were part of everyday life, and some wardens were much-feared sadists. Medical care was non-existent.
Nature added to the torture. The Danube is romantically beautiful in this part of its course, with lush greenery and plenty of swamps, but in summer the air is heavy with humidity, heat and legions of blood-thirsty mosquitoes. Winters are equally bad, with strong winds blowing from the vast plains of Eastern Europe in subzero temperatures.
Crossing the pontoon bridge to Belene island
About 10 percent of all inmates did not survive Belene. Those who died there were issued with death certificates claiming "heart attack" as the cause of death. No bodies were sent to relatives. Deceased inmates would be buried in shallow graves, and semi-wild pigs would roam about digging up and eating corpses.
Meanwhile, the citizens of Belene were reportedly oblivious to what was happening on the island. Some elderly folk still remember that some days the passenger train would stop a kilometre or so before the station, and a group of men in tattered clothes would alight and be herded towards the prison. The truth, however, is that the overwhelming majority of the people of Belene were taught that the inmates at the camp were dangerous enemies of the state – and they should be treated as such. Why no one managed to escape was not so much a matter of strict security, but of the fact that any stranger seen in town would immediately be turned back in by the residents.
Belene Labour Camp was a secret, and ordinary Bulgarians knew about it only through rumours. The government closed and opened the prison several times. The first closure was in 1953. At that time, 1,913 men and women lived there and 1,732 of them were incarcerated for "counterrevolutionary activity." 1,337 inmates were released after that initial period.
Public sign in central Belene
Three years later, concerned about a possible replay of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, the government reopened Belene. The camp remained active until 1959, when it was officially closed down. The remaining prisoners were transferred to a brand-new labour camp near Lovech. The "best" staff were sent there, too. The Lovech camp gained notoriety as the deadliest in Bulgaria.
In the early 1960s, in a wave of a relative liberalisation spreading through the East bloc, all labour camps were closed down. The opponents of the regime would be sent to prisons. The island of Belene remained only a prison for "ordinary" criminals.
But whenever the Communist government felt threatened, it quickly remembered the Belene camp and how to use it. In 1985-1989, Bulgarian Turks opposed to the forcible name-changing campaign would be sent there. By 1989, the number of the men and women held there was 517.
Monument in local Catholic church
The number of Bulgarians imprisoned for their political ideas from 1944 to 1989 is estimated to be about 285,000. According to Tsvetan Todorov, the French philosopher of Bulgarian origin, proportionately more people died in Bulgaria's labour camps than did in the Soviet Gulag.
Hardline Communism collapsed in Bulgaria on 10 November 1989. Investigation of atrocities committed in the labour camps began in 1990. The first trial would ensue in 1993. Former deputy interior minister who was responsible for overseeing the Lovech camp, Mircho Spasov, justified himself with "the spirit of the times." He died later in 1993, bringing the trial to a halt. In 2002, the trial was abandoned due to statutory limitations. The State Security representative at the Belene and Lovech camps, Nikolay Gazdov, the Lovech camp director Petar Gogov, his deputy Tsvyatko Goranov and the main female warden at the two camps, Yulia Razhgeva, were acquitted. Razhgeva committed suicide.
Today, the remains of the political prisoners' camp are still on the island of Belene – a ghostly collection of buildings in a state of dilapidation. The island itself is a key part of the Persina Nature Park, established in 2000. Once a year, at the end of May, the prison gates are opened and those interested are allowed to visit. In the 1990s processions of survivors and their families used to go on a remembrance march. In 2013, no one turned up.