On August 19th, 1989, 600 East German citizens used “the Pan-European picnic” at the Hungarian-Austrian border, during which a border gate was opened for a few hours, to escape to the West.
This first mass flight was the beginning of the end for the German Democratic Republic (GDR), with the fall of the Berlin Wall following on November 9th.
A symbolic act: Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn (r) and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock (l) cut through a piece of the Iron Curtain between Hungary and Austria near Klingenbach on June 27th, 1989, just shy of two months before it fell. Photo: DPA
Today many citizens in the countries along the former Iron Curtain still remember the former divide. The is little sign of the border at Brashten, a village nestled in Bulgaria's beautiful Rhodope mountains and only a stone's throw from fellow EU member Greece.
However, 82-year-old resident Shehim Solakov remembers a time when the village was on the frontline of the border that split Europe in two.
Amid the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, some are still struggling to shed light on deadly events on this stretch of that long frontier.
One incident in particular sticks in Solakov's mind — when two East Germans were shot dead as they attempted to flee to the West by crossing the border.
“They loaded them onto a mule like firewood,” Solakov says, referring to the soldiers who later removed the bodies by car to an unknown location.
Historians say the total toll is still not known, but there are 21 documented cases of East Germans being killed while trying to escape via the Bulgarian border, including an incident in 1980 which matches Solakov's recollection.
At least 695 are thought to have made it safely across, with more than 1,500 attempts being foiled.
The last known case resulting in a death was that of 19-year-old Michael Weber, who was shot in July 1989 just weeks before the Iron Curtain crumbled for good.
Victims or 'trespassers'?
One of those who failed to make the crossing but survived is Frank Meier, who was also 19 at the time of his attempt in September 1983.
Like many East Germans, he thought that escaping via Bulgaria would be easier than trying to cross the heavily militarized inner-German border.
Claiming that he was going to Bulgaria on holiday, he travelled as far as the town of Dospat, some 11 kilometres north of Brashten, before setting off on foot with only his knowledge of the stars to guide him.
But as he approached the border the next day, he fell foul of a crucial component of Bulgaria's border enforcement — local residents.
The minutes of his subsequent interrogation by Bulgarian border guards reveal that they were alerted to his presence by two local boys who spotted him heading towards the border.
He was then deported to East Germany, detained and interrogated by the Stasi secret police.
The following year Meier had a stroke of luck after a relative in West Germany pressured the authorities there to agitate for his release and transfer to the West.
As for those who weren't so lucky, researchers are still trying to piece together the details of their stories — and to counter the official narrative of the cases.
Stoyan Raichevsky, a historian and co-author of a recent study on escape attempts by East Germans, says that collating information on the deaths is “very difficult, because there is no summarised data in the archives”.
The Stasi archive was often more helpful in this regard, he says.
Moreover, according to Raichevsky, the topic has been virtually taboo in Bulgaria.
“Up until now it has not been talked about, there's silence,” he adds.
“These people are not even recognized as having been persecuted in our legislation because it is a delicate topic”.
Raichevsky says he and colleagues are working on proposals for changes to the law so that the victims are no longer seen as “bandits, criminals and trespassers”.
'Courtyard with no fences'
Metody Slishkov, 75, served for 26 years as a sergeant in the border force, right up until 1989.
His desk at an office of a veterans' association in the western town of Kyustendil may nowadays be adorned with an EU flag, but he still sees the issue of those trying to flee from communism very differently.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets former East German refugees during celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the so-called Pan-European Picnic. Photo: DPA
For Slishkov, who won two “Hero of the Border Army” awards for the 11 “trespassers” he successfully detained — all but one of them Bulgarian — protecting the country's borders was part and parcel of safeguarding citizens' security.
“We took an oath to guard the state,” he says, adding that citizens along the border sometimes pine for the old days.
He describes the current situation with a Bulgarian idiom: “A yard with no fences”.
Does Frank Meier have any bitterness towards those who thwarted his escape?
Despite nightmares of being back in the prison where he spent years after his failed attempt, he has some understanding for those who caught him.
“I have no personal grudge against Bulgaria or the people from that time,” he says, adding that their thinking was “infiltrated” from a young age by the system that they grew up in.