Border: A journey to the edge of Europe

Kapka Kassabova
Format: Paperback Pages: 400 pages Publisher: Granta Books Publication Date: 02/02/2017 Category: Memoirs ISBN: 9781783782147
by Kapka Kassabova

SRB Diary: Europe’s Last Border

November 3, 2015 | by Kapka Kassabova

Along an old drove road in the forest between Bulgaria and Turkey, there is a drinking fountain locals call Kreynero. It’s a distortion of the original Greek, kryo nero, cold water.

The stone still bears a faint Soviet star that someone carved in 1971 when the Cold War was never going to end. The spring itself can’t be dated, for this is a mountain 300 million years old. Kreynero is not only cold but heavy with iron; no matter how much you drink, you can’t be sated.

Drink from it thrice, locals say, and you’ll return to this spring that tells a story of three countries and two continents. Though it feels like a place without a country or a continent. Two years ago, I accidentally drank from Kreynero and my life changed. The water drugged me into a deep journey, now a book called Border. True, it wasn’t completely accidental, because to get here, you drive from the Black Sea coast through dense oak forest, reach the last village at the bottom of a valley where the road ends, abandon your car, run over a swinging bridge, and enter lush hills empty of humans. Vipers cross your path and jackals come out at night with eyes like lanterns from the underworld.

But nobody walks here at night. Nobody except the night walkers from Turkey, those souls who carry the remains of their lives in plastic bags, with no way back. Because this is the last border of Europe.

The natural border is a meandering river that empties into the Black Sea. Turkish poachers send boar across the river, and the Bulgarians send deer to their colleagues. Both sides dig for Thracian crafted gold three thousand years old. In brief, things are pretty friendly, and you can even swim in the river.

Not so in my childhood. The whole mountain was out of bounds because a wall of electrified barbed wire ran along the border: an easternmost cousin of the Berlin Wall. Its portals were locked well into this century.

When you wade into liminal places and wildernesses of history, you enter deep time. Although this mountain is untouched by the Ice Age and only home to a few thousand people, its human story is old. Here, then, is a diary of a drinking fountain that has seen it all.

* * *

The Ottoman Empire, ‘the sick man of Europe’ in the words of politicians, was so sick that its former subordinates wanted rid of it. Montenegro, Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria united against Turkey in what became the First Balkan War (1912) but should have been the last. The Second Balkan War (1913) became a precursor to World War I. Its immediate result: a macabre merry-go-round euphemised by politicians as ‘exchange of populations’, which sounds more like a game of Scrabble than a deadly march across mountains. Refugees darkened the drove roads, like the road of Kreynero. The Greeks who lived near Kreynero fled to Greece. The Bulgarians who’d lived in Turkey came here and moved into their houses. The Muslims of both countries were expelled to Turkey and moved into the houses of the Bulgarians. Brigands of all nationalities robbed the refugees and each other. You lost a homeland and most of your possessions along the way, gained an empty house in another country where the kitchen pots were still warm and winter filled your heart. In a few years, the centuries-old Ottoman quilt was unstitched to shreds by militant nationalisms, in what historians call ‘the unmixing of peoples’.

A hundred years is in living memory. I spent a month in the border village by Kreynero. Next to me was an abandoned Greek house with a missing door: the grandchildren had come as soon as the Cold War was over, to salvage something of a lost ancestral world.

In an abandoned Turkish village on the other side, I met a lone shepherd.

‘See that pear-tree?’, he said. It was next to a ruined Bulgarian house. Under the pear-tree, a local had dug up a pot of gold coins.

‘But those coins were not his,’ the shepherd shook his head.

‘Why did they bury the pot here anyway?’, I asked him and he looked at me, surprised. His parents had been kids when they were expelled from Greece.

‘Because every exile hopes to go back, one day,’ said the shepherd.

* * *

1980. Not far from Kreynero, behind the electrified barbed wire, were the border barracks of no man’s land. The buildings are now a wilderness of snakes, but a slogan remains over the gate:

‘On the national border, national order!’

Young recruits were drilled to shoot every moving thing in sight, even a hedgehog, but especially a person. For the hedgehog, you got no reward, but for the fugitive who could be German, Czech, Polish, or anybody who lived between here and the Berlin Wall, you got a medal with Lenin on it and extra leave. Or just a medal with Lenin on it.

Let me make this clear: the border was not there to stop people arriving. It was there to stop people leaving. That’s why the top of the barbed wall pointed to the real enemy: inwards.

One summer’s day in 1980, a corporal was on patrol with his mate. The corporal went into the bushes and when he came back, he saw his mate making a run for it across the river. This happened with border soldiers – being so close to the border, it looked so easy. The corporal had a moment of hesitation, or maybe he didn’t, then he lifted his rifle and shot his mate in the back.

On the Turkish side, the border barracks bore the profile of the father of the nation Kemal Ataturk and his slogan:

‘Happy is the one who can say I am a Turk!’

Near-by was a picture-perfect village full of orchards and half-empty of people. Because in the 1970s, the army moved in and locals moved out. I have a friend who grew up in that village and spent the summers grazing horses by the river. But parts of the river were a no-go zone. Soldier patrols were posted every few hundred metres and you didn’t want to meet them.

One summer’s day in 1980, a neighbour took his horse to the river. On the other side were people working in a field. He waved to them. ‘Merhaba’, he shouted, Hello. They waved back.

A patrol heard him; he was taken away in an army truck.

‘And we were too scared to ask where they took him,’ my friend said. ‘But his horse knew. She stopped grazing and died in the winter.’

The man was convicted of treason and jailed for fourteen years.

Near Kreynero, I met the corporal who shot his mate in the back. He is eighty and lives alone, wearing military camouflage. It’s not that I expected a confession (and I didn’t get one), but what I especially didn’t expect was this: that I would sit under his vine and cry with him. A few years after he shot his mate, his own son was serving in the army. That’s where an accident in a quarry tore him to pieces. ‘I had a son,’ he kept saying, ‘I had a son.’

You only had to scratch, for this border to throw up the sins of the fathers. Some said it hadn’t been an accident but a suicide.

* * *

2015. In a Turkish town near the border, there is a café called ‘Luck’ where you drink the last tea before Europe. It’s what the patrons do, because the patrons are about to board a truck. I came to this café where no woman comes, and spoke to the gallant but cagey owner who didn’t let me pay for tea. Meanwhile, unshaven men with rucksacks snuck into the back where wads of banknotes changed hands.

In the smokey fog, a clean-shaved guy in a Great Gatsby jacket stood out. He looked strangely out of place, like a philosophy drop-out, though he was a car mechanic. His name was Erdem. A few weeks later, I saw Erdem on the other side. He sat in a café near the border called ‘Dream’. He offered me a Bulgarian cigarette. A few weeks, many borders, and thousands of euros later, he made it to Germany. Some weren’t so lucky.

In the Turkish village with the lone shepherd, truckloads of people are dumped every week by Istanbul traffickers and told ‘Welcome to Europe’.

‘And they come running to me, crying Bulgaria, Bulgaria? And my heart sinks when I say No, Turkey, Turkey,’ the shepherd said. ‘Because the border is just over there, but see that forest? Not even boar can get through. Let alone a child.’

The good shepherd shared the little he had but their needs were beyond his means. The few who did make it over the hills would sit by Kreynero and drink its heavy water, before they were arrested by border patrols.

I will remember Erdem, and other night walkers I met, as a man whose destiny was out of joint with his nature. That’s what it is to be a refugee: to be pushed down the wrong corridor of history, narrow and one-directional like a birth canal unto the underworld. And all along, to carry in a plastic bag the hope of going back, one day.

In September, my harvesting of stories was over, and it was time to come home to Scotland and begin the effort of shaping them into an effortless narrative.

I returned to Kreynero because – you guessed it – I had drunk from it thrice. The Soviet star was fainter, but nothing else had changed in the last few thousand years. The water was still good but unquenching, as it was a century ago when the Greeks left their village temporarily with bundles on carts, and drank from Kreynero one last time. Though they didn’t know it.

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