It is a sunny, warm day when we walk the streets of Stara Zagora. Probably not high on the to-see list of visitors, it turns out to be an interesting city with lively streets, a Museum of religions housed in an old mosque which was built on top of a church and temple, and the almost inevitable Roman ruins. We have lunch in a lovely setting on an islet in a pond. In the bustling market (Covid-19 measures seem to be unheard of here) we find delicious cherries. On our way out, we decide to stop at the Branitelite Park. Unlike the city, we find the place empty. We walk across an open square, with an intricate pattern on the floor, which has lines of corrosion adding to the patterns, and see the enormous sculpture at the other end of the square. The closer we get, the smaller we feel, until we have to put our heads in our neck to look up.
Roughly carved faces look down on us, with a solemn, eternal stare. Bayonets are pointing sharply towards the sky. Fists are clenching on their weapons. These are the defenders of Stara Zagora, the lovely town we have just visited. Back in less peaceful times, the city was defended by an alliance of Russian soldiers and their Bulgarian volunteer helpers from the city, against the Turks, in a bloody battle back in July 1877. It was the beginning of the Russian-Turkish Liberation War, and Stara Zagora was in the line of fire. A large Turkish army was far too big for the Russians and Bulgarians to contain, and they had no choice but surrender after 6 hours of heavy fighting. After their defeat, the Turks then massacred the population, reportedly killing more than 14.000 civilians, taking women and girls with them for sale on slave markets, and destroying all buildings but the old Eski mosque.
It is the darkest day of Stara Zagora, the old city in the centre of Bulgaria. Eventually, after the loss of the city, the war was won, and it has managed to become a lively city again, with modern buildings on top of the layers of ruined versions of its older self. At the 100 year anniversary of the battle, in 1977, the monument was unveiled. Its brutalist and grim appearance certainly leaves an impression. The silence around the monument further adds to its weight. We climb the stairs to what looks like a banner, or flag, with colourful mosaics high abov us. The tower is closed, and behind it, we find trees. When we walk back across the open space, we feel the stares of the Bulgarians and the Russian in our backs. We have seen the dark side of the city, and can only be glad that they managed to overcome the deep grief of that terrible day.
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