Checkmate

September 22, 1995

The Podgoritsa Archaeological Project was the first UK/US/Bulgarian collaboration since the Second World War. It was led by academics from Cardiff and Berkeley and backed by the British Academy. It promised to reveal much about a rare 7,000-year-old settlement. Then catastrophe struck. Douglass Bailey, one of the archaeologists, was arrested, interrogated and finally deported for "endangering Bulgarian national security". Here he recounts his ordeal.

I knew I was in trouble when the interrogator Mikhail Genov related the story of the policeman and the motorist. "A man was travelling on a motorway from one end of the country to the other. A policeman flags him down and asks the driver how long he has been driving on the motorway. 'Two hours', the driver responds. The policeman promptly issues a ticket. Perplexed, the driver asks what law he has broken. The policeman responds, 'If you have been driving on this road for two hours it is impossible for you not to have broken a law'."

This anecdote was my interrogator's answer to my inquiry as to why I was being detained in Bulgaria, I knew then that I had a good chance of spending a significant portion of my future in a Bulgarian prison.

Genov appeared the antithesis of the stereotypical interrogator: he was round, bespectacled, and often wore a pleasurable grin. Yet my pulse quickened with his black humour; and while by this third day of my interrogation I was certain of several things - that I was being detained in Bulgaria by the police who held my passport, and that I was being interrogated as a witness in an investigation into allegations (to my mind totally without foundation) that colleagues had damaged a cultural monument - I was increasingly confident of a different, and much more frightening, matter. It was becoming clear that the Bulgarians thought that I was a spy engaged in military espionage.

Genov's line of questioning became increasingly suspicious. What are these maps found in your luggage? Why were you working in this area? Why do you have satellite maps of northeast Bulgaria? Don't you agree that your high-tech equipment could be used for purposes other than archaeology? Clearer evidence of the growing seriousness of my situation was the apparent lack of support offered by the American embassy. Why were they not running around Sofia trying to get me released? Much later, I learned that the embassy had been told by the Bulgarian foreign ministry to "back off and let Bulgarian procedures take their course".

With the seriousness of the proceedings clarified in my mind, I sought the cause of my detention and interrogation: why was I here? With three colleagues - Ruth Tringham, a professor at Berkeley, Ana Raduncheva, of the Archaeological Institute and Museum of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (AIM-BAN), and Ilke Angelova, director of the Turgovishte Regional Historical Museum - I had spent July excavating an Eneolithic (fifth millennium bc) settlement mound in northeast Bulgaria. Tringham, Angelova and I had spent three years struggling and fighting to get this international project off the ground. We finally secured substantial funding for the beginning of what was to be an extensive five to ten-year project of excavation, documentation, analysis and publication. Three of the most important funding bodies for archaeological research had lent their support - the National Science Foundation in the United States, the British Academy and the Society of Antiquaries of London - and two major universities formed the bases for the project, (Berkeley and University of Wales at Cardiff). It was a prestigious project, and the first US-UK-Bulgarian archaeological collaboration since the Second World War.

Our preparations for the Podgoritsa Archaeological Project had not been without problems. We encountered a senior member of the AIM-BAN who had tried to turn the public and our Bulgarian colleagues against us. He contributed his opinions that the US and UK directors were not reputable archaeologists and thus should not be allowed to work in Bulgaria to several Bulgarian newspapers. His opinions were also made known to us via a leaked internal document which he sent to the AIM-BAN.

We had persevered and succeeded. Or so we thought. Then, as my Cardiff students departed Sofia airport at the end of this summer's fieldwork, they were pulled out of line, searched and questioned by custom's officials. None were detained and none had excavation equipment or documentation confiscated. It was more alarming when, departing from Sofia with another Cardiff student he and I were taken out of line, searched, questioned and relieved of Pounds 15,000 worth of computers, surveying equipment, soil probes and diskettes. Unable to prove ownership of the equipment, I was issued with a receipt and told to fly to Cardiff and return to Sofia with sales' receipts. This I did and, with the concerted assistance of the director of AIM-BAN and her colleagues, made the appropriate applications for the release of the equipment.

Bulgarian bureaucracy grinds slowly, and receiving no definite decision from the customs' officials as to a date for the release of the equipment, I returned to the UK. Or perhaps I should say, I tried to return to the UK. At the airport I was again searched and questioned. I was becoming accustomed to these encounters with the customs officials; indeed they appeared embarrassed to be looting through my baggage again. My heart sank, however, when my passport disappeared without explanation. I was told that I was not allowed to leave Sofia.

The two uniformed police who woke me from my hotel bed two days later had my passport. They also had orders to bring me in for interrogation. In the wake of my initial anxiety, occasioned by the rude awakening and early morning escort to police headquarters, the three-and-a-half days of interrogation were the least frightening part of the whole affair: no handcuffs, no abuse (physical or verbal), freedom to return to my hotel each evening, and an intelligent interrogator who appeared to be a fair man. There was no fear within me during the first three or four very long interrogation sessions. I had done nothing wrong. As I could only relate the true aspects of my work and experience, I could not contradict myself.

The interrogation sessions best resembled a four-day series of chess games. The interrogator opened with his moves; I responded with mine. Although Genov always retained the right to play white and thus to initiate each engagement, I could and did make my own counter-moves and aggressive defences against his attacks. The main difference between a series of chess matches and my interrogation, of course, was that at the end of the chess match one player walks away from the board having lost only his pride. At the end of the interrogation, I might have lost my freedom.

When fear did come, it arrived slowly and subtly. It came with the realisation of the seriousness of my situation. It came with knowledge both of the embassy's fruitless encounters with the Bulgarian ministry of foreign affairs and a gradual shift in the interrogator's line of questioning. I was informed of the penalties not only for carrying out illegal excavations (six months to ten years) but also for endangering Bulgarian national security (30 years to life).

Genov informed me of these sentences while we were waiting for an official police car to take me to the airport, where I would be allowed to board a British Airways aeroplane to freedom. He had told me on the previous day that I should book my ticket home and present myself (with luggage) at the police headquarters. I was nearly home. Or so I thought. But if the knowledge of the prison sentences for spying had started my palms sweating, my mouth went dry when I was motioned into the back of a police Land Rover for my armed escort to the airport. Around me sat four policemen.

My fear deepened as the Land Rover raced though the suburbs of Sofia. We hurtled through red lights, and I stole a glance out of the back window. My colleague, who had promised to follow, could not keep up in his Lada and had disappeared from sight. The policeman driving the Land Rover ignored the normal approach to the departures terminal, swept around the side of the airport and parked on the tarmac below the nose of the BA aeroplane. Another policeman climbed in beside me.

In the Land Rover, on the tarmac, we waited. How long? Minutes that seemed indistinguishable from hours. Then two women walked towards us across the tarmac from the airport. One was in uniform. The other was the young interpreter who had worked with us throughout the interrogation sessions. She had been a great help translating between Genov and me and had always appeared cheerful and friendly. The expression she wore as she walked towards us terrified me. She was very upset; something had gone very wrong. More police arrived around the Land Rover. My eyes met those of the interpreter and I knew that I was going to jail. She climbed into the Land Rover and the airport official started to read from an official document.

It was clear, the official read, that I was guilty of carrying out illegal excavations, engaging in geophysical and geodesic research and other activities endangering Bulgarian national security. I felt the blood drain from my face. The official continued: "on this date you are to leave Bulgaria and you are not to return for five years". The official - who was holding my passport, airline ticket and boarding pass - then told me to sign the deportation statement. I wondered if the boarding card was a confidence ploy and if the deportation order was actually a confession. I signed.

The document and the official then disappeared. In the Land Rover, I sat and waited again. Had I just signed away my freedom? Would the official reappear with police to arrest me and take me from the Land Rover and to the cells? I was told to get out of the Land Rover. I was taken up the steps of the aeroplane, told to sit in my seat and abandoned. An uncertain stewardess approached. I asked if the police were still waiting by the plane. "One at each door," she replied. How long can it possibly take to close two aeroplane doors and get under way? The captain announced an inexplicable delay in starting up the engines. He then asked to see me. Was he going to apologise that he could do nothing to stop the police from boarding the aeroplane and taking me away? The plane climbed into the heavy rain clouds which rumbled over Sofia. I was on board. I was out. I was free.

What are the consequences of my detention, interrogation and deportation? Perhaps the least important is the damage done to my emotional balance and professional reputation. Time will counteract the residual weight of interrogation and deportation, and hopefully banish my nightmares; publicity and protest will shore up the structure of my archaeological reputation.

A more important consequence of what the Bulgarian media have dubbed "the Bailey Affair" is the reality facing western scientists who plan and wish to work in modern Bulgaria. What surety of personal freedom can be offered by western funding bodies, by international exchange foundations, or by Bulgarian institutes and departments wishing to act as hosts? Is one of the requirements to be demanded of individuals wishing to carry out collaborative research with Bulgarian colleagues that such individuals be prepared to face detention and interrogation? The events which have consumed my life since early August will lead many institutions and individuals to rescind agreements and sever ties established during the dynamic period of cultural contacts and intellectual exchange present in Bulgaria since 1989. Nothing could be more inappropriate than to break these connections. By severing such ties as exist, we will only be abandoning our colleagues and friends to the whims of their darkening political environment. Lines of communication and hope must remain open, otherwise Bulgarian scientists and science will be isolated from non-Bulgarian experience, method and developments of technique, interpretation and critique. Surely this is the most serious consequence of the Sofia events and remains the least feasible to correct.

There are no easy answers, no simple programmes for action. I can think of only one way: the continuation of research - and a commitment to continue to fund research - in countries such as Bulgaria, despite the political harassment of western and local scientists. Living on the outside, we have no greater responsibility than to lend our professional support to our scientific brethren who have struggled for most of their professional lives against what I had the misfortune to experience for seven days and what many of us had thought was part of their past.

If the question of what to do next must be confronted, so must that most fundamental question: why? In some ways, this is two questions: why was an official US-UK-Bulgarian scientific project targeted for harassment, and why was it our project which was selected for such treatment? My answers are really only suggestions or theories. Recent developments in Bulgarian politics may hold some information. In 1989, the Communists were relieved of their control of power and democratic forces took control. But the democratic interregnum ended last December when the Socialists (most political observers agree to read "Socialist" as "ex-Communist") came to power. During the period from 1989-December1994 many collaborative business, cultural and social initiatives were implemented. My project was one of them. It is not beyond reason to suggest that an unwritten and undeclared goal of the post-December 1994 political forces in Bulgaria is to investigate and harass collaborative projects which struggled to life during the five-year interim. Perhaps the treatment which I received is to be seen as an example to other existing and nascent foreign collaborations in Bulgaria. Perhaps these larger political developments played a part in the destruction of our archaeological collaboration? There can be no proof of such a suggestion and it remains only as that, a suggestion.

On a more specific level, it was clear from what happened at the airport and from the questions posed by Genev that someone connected with the project must have been providing the authorities with information. In the normal course of Bulgarian airport security, 16 people do not, by chance, find themselves under suspicion and under baggage inspection. Perhaps a list of the names of suspicious characters - the members of the project - was sent to the relevant authorities.

Then there were questions about my visits to, and movements within, specific rooms of the AIM-BAN. Whoever had provided this information had visited the AIM-BAN and had noted where I had been in the institute and who I had spoken to. A question was put to me about an analytical technique which we had used at Podgoritsa this summer. Only someone who knew about our activities at Podgoritsa could have known about the procedure. More interestingly, the question as posed revealed that the informant did not have a real grasp of the procedure or why we were using it.

There are other things which puzzle me. If the Podgoritsa project is being investigated for damaging the site or engaging in alleged espionage activities, then why has the attention focused on only the US/UK participants? Why has the chief Bulgarian director not been questioned? Was she not legally responsible for the conduct of the project? Why did she offer no cautions to her US and UK 'colleagues' about their behaviour during the project? Why has she offered no help in recovering our equipment or in clearing my name and the name of the project?

Even though there are reports that Bulgarian president Zhelyu Zhelev has promised to investigate the case, I doubt that any of the causes of the treatment which I and the Podgoritsa project received in Sofia will come to light. The complexity of it all prevents answers or conclusions. I do not know exactly what (or who) caused my detention, interrogation or deportation for criminal behaviour in which I had never engaged. With each day, as more and more time separates me from the events in Sofia, I am no nearer to an understanding. The only certainty is that my love affair with the archaeology and people of Bulgaria has been terminated.

Douglass Bailey is the Cardiff research fellow in history and archaeology at the University of Wales, Cardiff.

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