37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Batak is located in Pazardzhik province, set against the rolling green contours of the lower Rhodope Mountains. At the time of the  April Uprising it had an important role to play – managing stores and supplies, keeping the rebels fed while blocking the Turkish supply lines in return.
After launching one successful attack on the Ottoman supplies however, the rebellion in Batak was reported and a detachment of 5,000 bashi-bazouk was sent to deal with it. Many of them were Pomaks – Bulgarian-speaking Muslims – and their vicious leader, Ahmet Aga, came from the village of Barutin in southwest Bulgaria.
Battle broke out near the town, but the elders of Batak soon called for a ceasefire and negotiations. Ahmet Aga promised that the town would be spared, if its rebels laid down their weapons. The rebels consented, they surrendered, and then they were beheaded en masse.
Some of the rebels managed to escape, but soon the Ottoman forces drew a cordon around the town and massacre commenced. The bashi-bazouk moved from house to house, setting fires and shooting at anything that moved. As Batak began to burn, those hiding inside the houses were dragged out, stripped of their clothes, their valuables, then brutally beheaded, impaled or burnt alive.
The mayor of Batak, Trendafil Kerelov, tried negotiating with Ahmet Aga. His son’s wife would later recall the scene:
“The words he used were ‘Shishak aor,’” she said, quoting the Turkish term for cooking meat on a skewer.
“After that, they took all the money he had, undressed him, gouged his eyes, pulled out his teeth and impaled him slowly on a stake, until it came out of his mouth. Then they roasted him while he was still alive. He lived for half-an-hour during this terrible scene.”
Next, they took her baby: “Ahmet Aga’s son took my child from my back and cut him to pieces, there in front of me.”
Following the execution of the mayor, the bashi-bazouk ran riot. They burned down the school, killing the 200 people sheltered inside. Then they turned on the Sveta Nedelya Church, where the last of the townsfolk were hiding. A siege ensued; the old, stone church was barred from within, and the Ottoman soldiers could do little more than wait. Eventually though, the villagers were forced to surrender. There was no water in the church, and they had been driven to drinking the oil from lamps, the blood of the fallen, or digging with bare hands in the earthen floor in search of moisture. After three days they gave up, and opened the doors.
Ahmet Aga and his bashi-bazouk offered them a choice: convert to Islam, or face execution. In the end, so many of these Bulgarian villagers chose death and dignity, that the Turks had too few people to repopulate Batak as a Muslim town – as had been their plan. Instead, they levelled Batak out of spite. Ahmet Aga gathered the survivors outside the church, separated the 300 men from the group and had them killed on the spot. Those women who protested were raped, and then killed as well. That same day a further 300 Bulgarians were rounded up on the wooden bridge in Batak. First their arms, their ears and noses were cut off, and then they were finished as their townsfolk had been.
According to most sources, the 1876 April Uprising claimed an estimated 15,000 victims; around a third of those died in Batak alone. These events were so awful, so utterly hopeless, that the name of the town has worked its way into contemporary Bulgarian language as an expression for a terrible situation beyond any possible remedy.
As Denyo explained to me: “The single word ‘Batak’ describes everything about those Ottoman barbarians. Such incredible cruelty – not only in Batak, but the widespread cruelty during their suppression of the uprising – has never been seen elsewhere in human history.”
One afternoon we decided to drive there, and see Batak for ourselves. The town itself was so pleasant, so picturesque, that it was difficult to keep in mind the severity of the awful things which once happened in this green valley.
We started on the hill up above the town, taking in the 1976 monument that gazes out over the valley. On the path up to the plaza, a carved stone bore a quote from Todor Zhivkov:
“In the legendary deaths of all the fighters who have fallen, you can hear the voice of the great power that makes the Party unstoppable and the nation unconquerable.”
The monument was composed of three forms, tortured figures pinned up high on marble columns. The official title was the Monument to the Three Generations of Fighters; a fairly standard BCP trope celebrating the soldiers who fell during the 1876 April Uprising, the 1923 September Uprising and the 1944 Socialist Revolution. I couldn’t help but find it a little disrespectful. Rather than being remembered for the events that happened here, the town of Batak was presided over by a monumental complex that stood to remind its citizens how their struggles had all been part of the greater movement towards a communist utopia.
In the town itself, we looked inside the church where the worst of the massacre took place. There were bloodstains on the walls, faded now to black; rough pits in the ground showed where villagers had dug with their hands, in a futile search for water; in a golden sarcophagus lay the skulls and bones of the massacre’s victims. It was not an easy place to visit.
Back outside, reeling slightly from the horrors of the church, we got talking with a man sat on a bench in the village square. His name was Ilya and as it turned out, he too was on something of a pilgrimage to Batak.
“I am Turkish Roma myself,” Ilya explained, “but I was born in Bulgaria – in Karlovo, the hometown of Levski. I may be a part of the minority here but Bulgarian history is very dear to me.”
Ilya told us that he was 47, and had wanted to visit Batak since he first heard about the massacre as a child. “When you met me,” he said, “I had just sat on this bench trying to gather myself from the shock. I’m still trying to understand how this massacre ever happened.
“They were cruel people in those days,” he concluded, sadly. “I’m still thinking about it now. How they could kill unborn babies, even. A terrible thing happened here between the two nations and no matter how many generations pass, this will not be forgotten.”
In nearby Plovdiv however, I heard a very different opinion on the massacre. It came from Constantin, the young barman who’d previously expressed his distaste at my interest in ‘dead concrete.’
“People make a big fuss about the massacre at Batak,” Constantin told me, “and some Bulgarians use it as a reason to feel sorry for themselves. But war is war, and these things just happen sometimes. In school here, we all learn how great the Bulgarian Empire used to be, and as a nation we’re very proud of that. Bulgaria once controlled three seas… but are you going to tell me we achieved all that without killing any innocent people in the process?”