This is an experience I had while travelling recently and it's my wish to share it with as many people in the world as possible so that it doesn't happen to anyone else in the future. Here is my story:
TRAVELLING THROUGH BULGARIA
The train pulled out of Sirkeci Station blowing its whistle, just a few minutes late, and the passengers settled down onto their beds for the long trip to Bucharest. The two women in my compartment introduced themselves, as we would be together for the next 20 hours or so, and we got to know each other a little as the hours passed by. The night grew deeper and we stretched in our beds and slowly drifted off to sleep. The train continued to chug through the night and stopped at the Turkish border. Abruptly, everyone was woken up in the middle of the night by uniformed men shouting through the corridors and blowing their whistles. The queue at the immigration office was impossibly long and the men behind the glass windows frowned at each passport as they stamped it and shoved it back through the tiny window, gruffly demanding the next one. Eventually, we all climbed back onto the train, and officials came to check that we had gotten the required stamp, occasionally eliciting a small sum of money from passengers who appeared they could afford it.
I covered myself with the thin blanket once more and quickly resumed my broken slumber. The train proceeded down its track with the passengers once again safely in their beds. I slept for what seemed like several hours, but was actually only one and a half hours until we reached the Bulgarian immigration outpost in Svilengrad. The officers boarded the train with their stamps this time, so there was no need to alight. Sleepily, I handed my passport to the man in the doorway and closed my eyes as I waited for the document to be handed back to me. It wasn't.
The next thing I knew, I was being shaken out of my bunk and there were two men yelling at me in Bulgarian. I didn't understand what was happening. They gruffly indicated that I should bring my backpack with me and follow them. I thought they may have wanted to search it for drugs. I followed these two men, with two soldiers behind me, to their little office on a platform of the somewhat dark and dingy train station. Putting my pack down in a corner of the room, I asked if there was anyone who spoke any English. One man said he did, but his vocabulary was limited to 'you,' 'come,' 'go,' 'yes,' and 'no.' He didn't know any other words. A man I hadn't seen before came from a back room and spoke to the other men in the room. He looked me up and down with scorn and hatred in his eyes and then started yelling at me with fury and pointing at me the whole time. I had no idea what he was so angry about. He snatched my passport up off the desk and threatened to rip it up. Another man took it out of his hands and put it in his pocket. I was confused about what was going on, and concerned that the train would leave without me. I wanted them to hurry up their search so I could go. They didn't even look at my backpack. Some phone calls were made and the men spoke to each other, glancing sideways at me from time to time. Most of them were smirking and one of them spat at my feet.
I began to pace up and down, something I habitually do when stressed, and asked once or twice if anybody spoke English. No-one did. Eventually, it came to pass that one of the men spoke some Turkish. As I speak fluent Turkish, this was a relief to me and I asked him what was happening and why had I been detained. As it turned out, his Turkish was also very limited and it took a long time to make him understand my questions. He told me that they could keep whoever they wanted if they thought it was warranted. I asked why they had decided to keep me, as there were many other people on the train. He laughed and spoke to his co-workers in Bulgarian for a long time, ignoring me. I wasn't sure what to do as I'd never been in this situation before, so I just waited to see what would happen next.
The train had pulled out of the station by this time and I had a feeling it would be a long night. Maybe they would put me on the next train that came through, was the thought I had. The man who spoke Turkish asked me if I had any money and I said that it was in the passport as I knew I'd have to pay for a visa. There was USD$100 in small new notes inside the back of the plastic cover of my passport. He nodded and put the passport back in his pocket. One hour had gone by at this stage and it still wasn't clear to me why I was being detained. I asked once more and was told to wait. I didn't have to wait too long, and then I wished that I hadn't asked.
An enormous man came through the door a few minutes later and starting roaring in his native tongue. I had no clue what he was saying and stood, unmoving, in the corner with my backpack. He half turned to look at me and waved his huge fist in my direction, growling all the time and gesticulating with his other hand. He then placed his hand right over the top of his genital area and winked at me. I was horrified and looked at the floor. Once more I asked the man why I had been kept here. He told me that I was a Russian Prostitute and that my passport was fake. He said that they wouldn't allow me to work in their country.
The Romanian train I was taken from didn't even stop at any cities in Bulgaria, it went directly to Bucharest only stopping at the borders in and out of Bulgaria along the route. I couldn't believe what I was hearing and became angry at all of the men who had been giggling at snickering at me the whole time I'd been in the office. For the next five hours, I was subject to sexual harassment and verbal abuse, I was physically threatened on more than one occasion and denied both water to drink and the use of the toilet.
In my distress, I had a mild asthma attack and asked to be allowed outside the office to walk on the platform as all the men in the office were smoking. I got angry when they refused and walked right out the door anyway, desperate for some fresh air. Three men rushed out of the office with their fists raised in my face and threatened to beat me if I didn't go back inside. I took the medication from my pocket and inhaled. This seemed to convince them that it would be a good idea for me to stay outside for a while, as long as I was watched.
The soldier that came to 'guard' me continually tried to touch me and made obscene gestures with his hands. I walked in a circle around him, on the platform outside the door of the office and whenever he thought I was out of view of the other men, he approached me and made suggestions using his hands to communicate. I slapped his hands away several times and he raised his fists at me a few times, snarling and spitting at my feet. After a couple of hours had passed this way, he viciously grabbed my arm, spinning me around, putting me off balance, and tried to kiss me, placing both of his hands on my breasts at the same time. I screamed with fear and anger and all the men in the office came outside to see what had happened. The big man had a black police baton in his hand and threatened to hit me with it if I wasn't quiet. They tried to insist that I come inside and sit in the smoky room, but I refused, taking a chair and sitting in front of the door, where they could all see me. The soldier went away then, and I didn't see him again.
As the sky lightened up at the breaking of the dawn, I was ushered back into the office and yelled at some more. The big man waved the police baton around my head and I briefly wondered if he would actually use it. He didn't, but the threat was there. I was then bundled into a car and driven back to the Turkish border, the man who spoke Turkish came with the driver and they told me not to ever come back to Bulgaria. As my passport was returned to me, the money was taken out of it and I asked them to return it as I didn't have a lot of cash on me. They laughed and said it was the 'taxi fare.' The man also told me that I'd make it up again in one night and they all laughed and then one of them physically pushed me over the Turkish border telling me to 'go hawk it elsewhere.'
The Turkish police were very nice and found me a bus back to Istanbul where I took a few days to myself and started to feel like a human being again. I have never been treated so badly in all my years of travelling and I'm absolutely disgusted that this could happen to anyone at all. It's my greatest wish to prevent it from ever happening to anyone else in the future. I will be giving Bulgaria a wide berth in the future and I would strongly recommend that other travellers do the same. It's not the first, nor the last, horror story to come out of this country.
Written by Roni Askey-Doran
22nd October 1998.
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