Kapka Kassabova returns to Bulgaria’s borders to meet people on the move
A kaleidoscope of migration on Bulgaria's borders
In 2014, Kapka Kassabova made a return pilgrimage to her native land, Bulgaria. She then ventured out on a journey along that country’s border with Turkey and Greece. “I became curious about my Balkan peripheries,” she writes in Border, her remarkable account of the eventful trip. “I wanted to know what was happening there 25 years after I had left.”
At the start of her book, she explains why this frontier region “hums with an especially siren-like tone”. “One, because of unfinished business from the Cold War; two, because it is one of Europe’s great wildernesses; three, because it has been a continental confluence ever since there have been continents.”
Starting at the Black Sea coast, Kassabova explored previously militarised border towns and villages, ancient forests, rivers and mountain ranges. It was forbidden territory in her childhood, and for many today, it remains terra incognita. However, her focus was more on people than place – “the human story” – and so her travels are peppered with tales from those whose lives have been affected by the border and the lie of the land.
When I speak to her, Kassabova is in Edinburgh for the International Book Festival. She has lived in Scotland since she was 30. “It absolutely feels like home,” she tells me.
Living in Scotland, “a borderless country”, gave her the incentive for her border journey. Did it not feel like a homecoming? “It was an ambivalent homecoming,” she answers. “I have a difficult love for these places.”
Growing up behind the Iron Curtain instilled in Kassabova “a kind of hyper-awareness of borders and that feeling of being on the right side of one”. In an early chapter of the book, she remembers being 10 years old and playing on the beach in a Black Sea resort – “the red Riviera”. She learns of a nearby electrified barbed-wire fence – its purpose, to prevent Bulgarian holiday-makers from entering Turkey. She realises she is living in “an open-air prison”.
“I think all children are sensitive to imbalances and injustices even at that subconscious level. I had a strong instinct to cross a line. If there is a line drawn in the sand I will want to cross it. I think it is curiosity, a kind of innocent impulse in people to want to do that. If you don’t want to do that, then perhaps you’ve internalised the border.”
Kassabova endured six more years of “twilight totalitarianism” until she was free from that prison. When the Berlin Wall fell, the family crossed “some other imaginary border over the Pacific”, and made a new life in New Zealand. At the age of 18, she began writing in English. “I came late to the language. I was reading a lot of [Russian-born novelist] Nabokov at the time and thought: ‘Well, if he can do it…’”
In New Zealand, Kassabova published her first book of poems. Since then she has written novels and several books of genre-juggling non-fiction. Border, her most acclaimed book yet, is also a dexterously woven patchwork of genres; a fusion of memoir, history, folklore, travelogue and reportage. “The multi-faceted nature of the border dictated the form of the book,” Kassabova says.
The motley range of people she encountered and the multi-voiced testimonies she recorded adds further variegation. We meet psychic healers and ritual fire-walkers, shepherds and lighthouse-keepers, hunters and rangers, border guards and treasure hunters, people smugglers and migrants. “I discovered a huge spectrum of personalities and destinies,” she says. “The good ones are for me the unsung heroes of the border.”
Not all were good. Kassabova spoke with a former Bulgarian State Security bigwig who complained about the “gypsification” of his country, boasted about the treatment of snared fugitives (or “trespassers”) and, in the end, issued a warning: “Don’t go around digging up old graves, my lovely.”
“He was a particularly sinister sort of human manifestation of that system which has gone away,” Kassabova says, before adding: “But has it really?”
She also relates a story about an East German couple who were “liquidated” while trying to cross into Turkey. “Killing was the norm on this border, from about 1945 until really 1990. This case was one of hundreds, possibly thousands. The numbers are unknown. Former East Germans have access to their own Stasi files, but the Bulgarian State Security destroyed a vast amount of documents because some of these people are still in power. It is chilling that this information is not still available.”
The book’s subtitle is A Journey to the Edge of Europe. Kassabova introduces the area as “the last border of Europe”. A more trenchant description, however, comes from a woman who declares: “We are the back door of Europe.” Kassabova met many migrants desperate to get in.
“You see them on the road in all three countries of that border, carrying their possessions in plastic bags, wearing sandals in the middle of winter, arriving at places where they are not wanted.”
As in the Cold War, the border was a danger-zone. “If you go there, if I go there, we’ll be OK. But if you’re a refugee trying to cross illegally you might get raped or shot at or beaten up. People do – I’ve heard this from border guards and refugees.”
On many an occasion, Kassabova came up against unsympathetic locals. “I was amazed to find so many people are afraid of migrants from the Middle East. The Balkans is not Western Europe. Incomers are not so different from people in the Balkans. I talked to many locals who were descendants of refugees and today they have refugees knocking on their doors. Some help, some don’t.”
One individual who tried to help was Ziko, an ex-people-smuggler. Unlike many traffickers who scam refugees and dump them on the wrong side of the border, Ziko only took money if people had it and delivered them safely to their destination along what he termed The Road to Freedom.
Since Kassabova made her trip, the region has seen some drastic changes. “A new wall has been built between Turkey and Bulgaria and some of the places I visited are not accessible any more – they fall within a new border zone. The Greeks built their wall first and the Bulgarians followed. And the Turks are building the same wall with Syria. So things repeat themselves in this border zone.”
The return of hard borders here and elsewhere in the world has prompted Kassabova to speak out. “New borders will fail just as old borders failed,” she wrote in The Guardian.
Have borders really never been effective? “I suppose it depends on how you approach it,” she says. “If you want to stop certain groups of people coming in and crossing the line, then temporarily, a big roll of barbed wire will be successful. But I question that success in human terms. And actually if you look at the history of all borders, the Iron Curtain was a particularly hard border. But it fell. Those of us that were on the east side of it, we thought the Berlin Wall would be there forever, it cast such a long shadow into people’s lives. But it fell.”
Border catalogues tragic tales of persecution and failed escape, but it is counterbalanced with happier stories. There is harmony in the Rhodope Mountains, the heartland of the Pomaks, indigenous Balkan Muslims. Mosques and Orthodox churches stud the hills; people of both faiths coexist. In a town in the border plains of Thrace, Kassabova witnessed komshulak, or neighbourliness, during a midnight Easter service: half the congregation were Christians, the other half Muslims. Kassabova enquired about one man’s nationality. “Don’t ask me what I am,” he replied. “I’m a human being. Isn’t that enough?”
Take away the border, Kassabova says, and it feels like you are in one country. “It’s like what it was at various points in the past. For example, the Ottoman Empire, where borders did not exist and people were more intermingled, the only difference being religion and language. On all three sides, I found people were telling similar stories, but in three different languages. They were singing the same songs about exile and displacement – from the Greek-Turkish War; from the Balkan Wars; from more recent events.”
I mention the inevitable: we are living in a time of looking inward and shutting out, of breaking down bridges and building up walls. “Things do look bleak at the moment,” she agrees, “but this is the paradox of the border for me. Meeting all these people left me feeling optimistic. I set out to write a book about a border which divides, but what I was left with at the end of the journey and at the end of this book was an overwhelming sense of human connectedness. And that gives me hope.”