"There is, in fact, no 'other side'. The border taught me this." Kapka Kassabova on the future of Europe
We are delighted to run this exclusive piece from the award-winning travel writer Kapka Kassabova, whose book Border: A Journey To The Edge of Europe has won and been nominated for many literary prizes. In the course of A/UK's co-initiator Pat Kane's engagement with Kapka, as part of his FutureFest curation, Pat posed her a question about the future shape of Europe. This was Kapka's written response.
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Borders have been with me all my life. This is probably true for many who grew up behind what used to be the ultimate hard border – the iron curtain. Once it has been a part of your life, it casts a cold shadow over you. I returned to explore this border because I wanted to see what was left of the iron curtain and how its legacy affected the people who lived there.
This is a triple border: Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, once "guarded" by three national armies. I travelled there between 2013 and 2016, during the so-called refugee crisis. The border between Turkey on the one hand and Bulgaria and Greece on the other is the only land route of migration from Asia into Europe.
Here are some of the facts on the ground:
The Iron Curtain is an actual place, not just a metaphor. It was built at the same time as the Berlin Wall, 1961. It was an electrified, alarmed, barbed wire fence that separated Soviet Europe from Western Europe. It ran from Finland to the Black Sea, severing Europe in two halves.
The fence was guarded by a border army who were under instructions to arrest, or alternatively shoot and kill any trespassers. The number of the victims of "my" border are unknown, but probably run into the thousands. They came from different countries in the Eastern bloc, and were mostly young people, couples, and sometimes entire families.
Many were buried in unmarked graves in the border forest. I met a retired border guard in a border village who had executed an entire family. He was a genuine killer. However, among the young border recruits of the entire Iron Curtain there were countless suicides. The pressure of defending this border was intolerable to many young men.
Border zones are extreme peripheries, margins where the fabric is thin. This is why archetypes appear clearly: the border defender (armed), the border trespasser (unarmed fugitive or refugee), the border native (locals who become involved with the border against their will), the border smuggler (who profits from the existence of the border).
Part of the Iron Curtain still stands near the Black Sea road between Bulgaria and Turkey where you can go and see it. The rest of it has been sold as scrap.
The Middle Eastern refugees of today walk the same paths as the fugitives of the Cold War. Only the direction of travel has changed. The smugglers come from the same families – there are generations of smugglers in the border villages and towns, who have an intimate knowledge of the landscape.
This mirroring and repetition in time is symbolic of borders that persist in time, and whose wounds have not been acknowledged or healed: that which has not been laid to rest returns to haunt us. The psychology of the border is very stark. We could even apply this definition, by pioneering American psychologist Selma Freiberg: “Trauma demands repetition”. Until it is resolved.
This is also the spectre that may be invoked at the Irish border, by the advent of Brexit: another traumatic border of very recent history that should be handled with utmost sensitivity.
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Here are some of the paradoxes in the culture of hard borders I found, and which apply universally.
A hard border does not create the safety it seeks, even if it successfully stops the ‘other’ from coming in, or (as in the case of the Iron Curtain) stops us the natives from leaving. It creates a culture of paranoia and insecurity and it spreads internally.
Words like “traitor”, “patriot”, “deserter”, “the people” and “in the name of the people” become common currency. Ironically, they come to mean the opposite of what they say. A hard border creates distortions and a culture of lies. We are beginning to witness a culture of lies in Britain, borne out of Brexit.
The most enduring hard border is in our minds. We can observe this happening insidiously in post-Brexit Britain and in Trump’s America. The hard border has not materialised physically, but is already taking shape in people’s minds and has real consequences for those on the receiving end.
A hard border is binary (as in ‘us and them’) only on the surface of it. In reality, it is multiple – it holds up a mirror to ourselves. So countries like today’s Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria which have closed their borders to all refugees can see their true image in the mirror that their shiny new fences offer: as societies fundamentally lacking in compassion and wisdom, and therefore societies which will not thrive, in the long run. Which will eat themselves out.
Austria is now taking over the EU presidency from Bulgaria. Austria’s motto has been announced: "Protecting Europe" (from migrants). This is chilling, and has clear parallels with the 1930s, when Nazim claimed to "protect" Europe from various enemies within. We know the results.
The Asian equivalent of ‘my’ border is the Poi Pet border crossing between Cambodia and Thailand. Until the late 1990s, the road there was heavily mined. The lessons of history there involve refugees from Pol Pot’s regime, and Thailand’s rejection of them.
Do we need the EU? Yes. At least until we have something better.
Some European countries are small, vulnerable, and fated to be in geopolitically sensitive and volatile regions: the Republic of Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo. They need the protective umbrella of a larger international body, to simply protect them from possible repeated wars.
I am alarmed that Western European leaders are so narrowly preoccupied with local issues of power that they don’t see the bigger picture. The bigger picture includes the smaller European players, like vulnerable Balkan countries.
Europe is dying demographically. Eastern Europe and the Balkans in particular have a brain drain problem of catastrophic proportions. An example: Bulgaria has 7 million people. 2 million Bulgarians live as expats, like me.
I have seen empty villages in south-eastern Europe, where houses are empty and crying out for new settlers. A trend has already begun in Bulgaria and Macedonia: western settlers buy property and breathe new life into these villages.
There is no practical reason why refugees, currently imprisoned in dire camps, could not be resettled in these European villages. Has anyone seen the Bulgarian-Finnish documentary The Good Postman? It is about just such an experiment in a border village.
The only obstacle that stands in the way of this creative solution is political: governments that spread hate and paranoia about incomers, instead of welcoming them to their demographically shrinking countries.
Maya Angelou said: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again".
We need to face everything coming our way with courage. This means not giving in to fear and hate, and remembering that we share more with those on the “other side” than that which separates us. There is, in fact, no other side. The border taught me this. ]
Border: A Journey To The Edge of Europe is available on Granta