CONVERSATION AT THE BORDER
Posted 11 months ago by John
A Border Conversation: One Hundred and Twenty Sins
by Kapka Kassabova
In 2013-2016 I embarked on a journey across the mountainous borderlands where three countries, three alphabets, and two continents meet: Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece. During the Cold War, two enemy ideologies met on this border which formed the south-easternmost stretch of the Iron Curtain. On each side of this triple border, I met with a diverse range of people, both locals and refugees from the Middle East. My encounters with extraordinary ordinary individuals and communities resulted in the book Border: a journey to the edge of Europe (2017). This conversation on the Bulgarian side of Strandja Mountain is a glimpse into the life and minds of border guards, who are true insiders of the border forest and also perpetuators of border culture, with all its secrecy, enforced masculinity, and ambiguous humanity.
* * *
This is how you defang a viper, said the border guard. You drop the viper in a plastic bag. You make a cigarette burn in your army-issue jacket and let the viper’s head out of the bag. Hold it firmly. The viper is drawn to smoke and the moment it sinks its teeth into the burnt fabric, you yank it back. The fangs remain on the fabric. It’s a way to pass the time on patrol.
But you could also kill it. Because for every viper you kill, you atone for forty sins, so the saying goes. And from May onwards, the forest twitches with vipers.
Along the broken forest road between the Black Sea and the Turkish border, the car radio flickered between stations: syrupy Turkish pop ballads gave way to the summer edition of the local station which served the news in careful Bulgarian, English and Russian. The odd village plunged out of sight as soon as you glimpsed it. The only thing on the road was the occasional booth marked BORDER POLICE. Inside the booth were two border guards. I pulled over.
‘Nah. There’s nothing to tell, it’s a life like any other,’ shrugged the older guard. ‘The shifts are long, no dogs anymore, things have changed since the old days. This used to be the most dreaded army service, and now.’
‘Now it’s not army anymore, but police,’ said the younger one.
He kept his arms crossed and appraised me with cagey eyes. He had familiar chiselled cheeks, but I couldn’t place him.
This forested border between Bulgaria and Turkey was where the European Union began. It was also where the easternmost section of the iron curtain had run into the Black Sea. Here, through the lush Mediterranean forests and green rivers of Strandja Mountain passed the only land route of migration from Asia into Europe, now as ever.
‘I’m retiring,’ the older guard said. ‘Gonna fish all day. You know the spring of Saint Marina?’
‘Things used to be quiet, but it’s been busy since the Syrian war,’ said the young guard.
‘Saint Marina, protector of snakes. You go to her to heal yourself,’ said the old guard.
‘All sorts come across now,’ said the young guard. ‘Some are even armed.’
‘I remember the fugitives from the old days. The East Europeans. Every single face,’ said the old guard. ‘They ran the other way, south. We arrested so many. Two German guys in their twenties. I remember the night. We surrounded them, eighty of us with dogs and just two of them. Their trousers were in shreds from the wire. The projectors were on them. And they stood there, I’ll never forget it. Because they looked defiant. Even though their lives were over. I opened a passport. His girlfriend’s photo. But what can you do? Fate. They had signed their own sentences.’
‘Last week, we found a pregnant woman,’ the young guard said. ‘Her husband had grenade wounds. Syrians.’
‘One guy, Klaus Hoffmann,’ said the old guard, ‘1986. I see him like it was yesterday. Forty-five-year-old radiologist from East Germany. I remember spelling his name on the form. Handsome, smart. He deserved better.’
‘Some destroy their identity papers and give themselves up,’ the young guard said.
‘Fate,’ the old guard said. ‘Everybody who passed through the arrest room was recorded in these thick green logbooks. Which have now disappeared. I’m retiring next year. Gonna take my memories with me.’
‘They’re starving, exhausted, there’s no point hiding,’ the young guard said. ‘They give themselves up and we do the paperwork and they end up in the refugee camp.’
‘One time,’ the old guard said, ‘Late ’70s, me and my mate found a rucksack in the forest, stuffed with US dollars. We found the footprints but never caught him. Thousands of dollars. So what did we do, dutiful soldiers to the People’s Republic? Took the rucksack to the boss. Thinking he’d reward us for our honesty. Hah!’ He opened a packet of chocolate biscuits and offered me some.
‘The patrol up the road found this woman in the forest,’ said the young guard. ‘Left behind by the rest of the group. She’d frozen to death.’
‘The hardest time was the late ’80s,’ said the old guard, ‘when our ethnic Turks started leaving ’cause of the name-changing campaign against them. Remember?’
I did. I remembered watching on TV the long columns of refugees darkening the roads on their way to Turkey, as if after a war. But it was peace time. I was sixteen, the Berlin Wall was about to come down and our world would be changed forever, though nobody knew it yet. The younger guard didn’t remember, he was too young, he’d been a small child in the 1980s. The younger guard looked at his watch and said:
‘You learn one thing in this job. People survive things you can’t imagine.’
‘Summer 1989,’ said the older guard. ‘This road was black with cars, carts, buses, taxis. Three hundred thousand people emigrating to Turkey. Some came back. I remember one woman. She’d been raped by soldiers on both sides.’
‘The other week, two Palestinians popped up in the forest,’ said the young guard, ‘Wouldn’t talk for days. People crack up when they’re given food, but those two had eaten plums and weren’t hungry. It was the cigarettes that did it, on the third day. They inhaled like hoovers. And they broke down. The story came out.’
What was the story?
He looked at me with mistrust and I recognised him. Of course – he was the accordionist’s son, from the Sunday party! How a uniform and a gun changed a man.
‘Well,’ he said and his face didn’t move, ‘I recognised you. It’s my job.’
The old guard started telling another story, but the young one interrupted:
‘Let’s run a check on you,’ he said and went inside the booth. ‘We have an identity-verifying system that can look you up. You can see how it works.’
‘Oh leave it,’ said the old guard, embarrassed.
But the young guard was new school, scrupulous. He picked up the radiophone. He gave my name to a woman at the other end and as we waited in the sudden silence, an old chill crept in. The chill of being found out, hunted down, a projector shone on you. A border chill.
The old guard wanted an audience. The young guard didn’t; he had turned the tables on me. Then the calm female voice came back with my details, adding:
‘No criminal convictions.’
‘That’s you verified,’ said the young guard and went off to nap in a forest hut behind the booth.
‘Oh well,’ said the old guard apologetically, ‘a job’s a job. Now, one time I went fishing in the river by Saint Marina. Had a heavy heart, the way you do sometimes. I slipped and fell in the river, ripped my hand on a sharp rock. Ripped it right into the palm. Blood everywhere. What happens next? I wash my hand in the Saint Marina spring, and the wound closes up. Bloody hell, like nothing’s been there! Nobody believed me.’
‘That’s nice,’ I said.
‘Nice my foot,’ he said, ‘Because listen what happens next. I go back the following week and what do I see? A knot of snakes by my feet. Bloody hell, I took a stone and crushed their heads. Three snakes it was. You kill one viper and that’s forty sins taken care of.’
‘That’s one hundred and twenty sins,’ I said.
‘But here’s the catch,’ he said. ‘Saint Marina is the protector saint of snakes. You mustn’t touch the snakes at her spring. They might be, you know, something else. What devil got me to kill those snakes after the miracle with the hand?’
He undid the top button of his uniform. The tarmac was melting under our feet.
‘When you visit, keep away from the vipers. ’Cause one thing is sure, by Saint Marina. We sign our own sentence.’
I couldn’t get Klaus Hoffman out of my head – because of all the victims of the border that I heard about, he alone had been named by a border guard. When I contacted the expert on cold war German fugitives, a political scientist living in Berlin, he did find a Klaus Hoffman in his files. But several things didn’t match. The Klaus Hoffman of the files was younger, and he wasn’t a radiologist. The year was different too. After his arrest, he had spent several months in a Bulgarian jail, followed by a long sentence in the hospital section of Hohenschonhausen, Berlin’s notorious Stasi prison. Most mismatched of all was the following detail: the Klaus Hoffman in the files had been shot and beaten by the soldiers before they had entered his name in one of those green log books that have gone missing.
Were there two Klaus Hoffmans? Or was the remembered Klaus Hoffman a fictionalised creation of my border guard, an amelioration of reality for everyone: Klaus Hoffman, the guard, and me?
I waved as I drove away, and the older guard waved back, holding his arm up in the air longer than usual, a strangely final gesture. Perhaps he was afraid that if I stayed, he might get carried away and make a confession so awful, so intractable that once it was uttered, it would become the only reality there is. And who would want to live in such a terrible world?
Kapka Kassabova grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria, and now lives in the Scottish Highlands. Whether she is writing about her homeland (Street without a Name) or about her passion for tango (Twelve Minutes of Love), her writing is charged with the enquiring mind and sympathetic eye of the poet and of the travel writer, whose travels to understand better both place and self. Border – a Journey to the Edge of Europe – was the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year in 2017.