VESSELA SERGUEVA - “Here, feel the bullet, it was never taken out,” says Ibrahim Byalk, presenting his arm where a bullet is still lodged 40 years after he was shot at for refusing to change his name to a non-Muslim one.

Sixty-five years old with a weather-beaten face and a small moustache, Byalk belongs to Bulgaria’s 200,000-strong Pomak minority, whose Christian Orthodox ancestors were converted to Islam during the Ottoman domination between the 14th and 19th centuries.

Under a forceful assimilation policy in the early 1970s however, these people who had lived for generations in Bulgaria and spoke Bulgarian were made to change their Muslim names to Christian ones by the Communist regime.

On Friday, they will mark the 40th anniversary of the brutal repression in the tiny southern village of Kornitsa that silenced the local resistance movement against the policy.

Non-Muslim names were first required for newborns. Adults followed later. “Women used to hide their pregnancies and give birth at home, which resulted in a number of fatal incidents,” Simeon Stoynov, who worked as a doctor in Kornitsa in the early 1970s, told AFP.

“I took it as an insult: wasn’t I always a loyal citizen?” said Husein Sarnaliev, who was a state farming cooperative official at the time.

The Pomaks’ assimilation was just the beginning. Eleven years later, the Communist regime also moved to rename the 800,000-strong Muslim minority of ethnic Turks, seen as foreign agents of Nato member Turkey.

A ban on headscarves, circumcision and speaking Turkish in public was imposed and in the summer of 1989 some 320,000 ethnic Turks were forced to emigrate to Turkey. In Kornitsa, protests started in January 1973. But on the night of March 28, police stormed the village, opening fire at men holding vigil in the square.

“There were mounted police, a police dog jumped on my back,” Byalk recalls of the night he was shot in the arm. Our people threw stones to defend themselves. The police opened fire but what I remember most is the fire engines’ water cannons to disperse us.”

Stoynov, the doctor, remembers: “They were shooting directly at the people, I saw several people killed.” News about the incident spread quickly and Pomaks from two neighbouring villages, Lazhnitsa and Breznitsa, rushed to help, armed just with sticks. They too were dispersed by police. The authorities managed to keep the crackdown secret however, revealing the truth only after the fall of communism in 1989.

Byalk says he remembers being taken to hospital: “The room’s windows were nailed shut, civilians beat us and hurled insults at us.” And this is why he still has a souvenir of the incident: “The doctor bandaged my wound but refused to take the bullet out.”

He finally bought his freedom by accepting a new name, Ivaylo Belkov - the authorities customarily kept the person’s initials - and was deported to the other side of the country, where he stayed for 10 years. His wife and two children were sent elsewhere, unaware of his fate.

Sarnaliev, the state farming cooperative official, was wounded in the leg and jailed for eight years, accused of “organising a group that sought to undermine the economy and oust the regime.” His wife thought him dead, their house in Kornitsa was confiscated and she was deported to the northwestern town of Vratsa. Sarnaliev and Byalk were later reunited with their wives. But six people were killed on March 28, 1973 and a small plaque commemorates them at the square in Kornitsa, with memorial services held every year.

Both Bulgaria’s Pomaks and ethnic Turks regained their Muslim names after the toppling of the Communist regime. The painful memories and the bullet in Byalk’s arm however remain to haunt the minority, who still say they often feel discriminated against and fear history may again repeat itself.                 –AFP