‘I think in Britain we are about to discover how awkward borders are’
Kapka Kassabova uncovers a tragic history on the edge of Europe
TAKE a map of Europe. Follow your finger down and to the right from Scotland to where Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria converge. Terra Incognita? Borderlands on the edge of Europe, lapped by the Black Sea. Much of it wilderness. A remote expanse of mountain and forest, where bears and wolves roam.
Yet history has happened here too. This is the site of ancient Thrace. This is a land of Cold War borders where men and women were killed trying to escape. This is a place of repression, resistance, religious persecution, exile and repatriation.
“There are so many unmarked graves and buried secrets in that zone,” Kapka Kassabova points out. She knows because she has sought to uncover them.
Born in 1973 when the Iron Curtain covered half of Europe, Kassabova is a Bulgarian poet and author who lives in the Highlands. A woman with a hunger for stories. That hunger and a fascination with this little known region has resulted in Border, one of those books that elevates travel writing to art (one reviewer has even suggested Kassabova is a better guide to the region than the much-lauded Patrick Leigh Fermor).
Between 2013 and 2015 Kassabova travelled to the border region and met the people who live in an area that has undergone gradual depopulation. The result is a harsh, often tragic narrative. Time and again stories of resistance and repression fill these pages. As recently as 1989 some 340,000 Bulgarian Turks were forcibly resettled in Turkey. Many didn’t speak Turkish.
It’s a little known story. As is that of the outlaw Goranyi, forest bandits in Bulgaria, whose resistance to the Communist regime was, she says, the longest-sustained resistance movement against Soviet state terror in Eastern Europe. No one knows how many of them were killed, but now, Kassabova writes, “their mouths are full of earth.”
And yet there are also encounters with people who are full of life and hope; like the Turkish shepherd and his wife who live in a completely depopulated village who felt to Kassabova like figures from the Bible. “Those people I met who really believe in whatever they are trying to protect or to preserve – I found that very moving.”
On her journey she met peasants and businessmen, former border guards and the victims of border guards, hunters and hunted, traffickers and trafficked, firewalkers conducting their ancient rituals and refugees carrying their lives in a plastic bag.
From a certain angle, it’s her story too. “It ended up feeling a little bit like an attempt at exorcism,” Kassabova admits, “as if I needed to name the bones.”
There speaks a child of the Cold War. What is striking reading the book is how the people of the region engage – or rather don’t engage – with the legacy of the Cold War. The Iron Curtain has lifted physically but perhaps not psychologically. It feels, I suggest, that the wound of those years remains open.
“Yeah, absolutely. It seems that it takes a couple of generations before certain things can be named. People kind of avoid your eyes when they talk about it. It’s just too raw still.”
History, of course, keeps happening. As she searched out stories for the book the area began to feel the fallout from the Greek austerity crisis and the impact of people fleeing for their lives from the conflict in Syria. As one of her guides tells her: “When people cross a border, they don’t run from good. Kapi. They run from bad. Sometimes very bad.”
“It wasn’t very visible when I first started going there in 2013,” she says now. “I didn’t know at the start how big a part those narratives would play in the book. But by the time I returned some months later already it was becoming a kind of crisis.
“As you pass through that area, those post-communist towns look looted and post-apocalyptic. And then you see these people with plastic bags. It brought another dimension to what I was already interested in which was really suffering and resilience and survival.”
And where is Kassabova in all this? She is at times threatened, fearful, inspired by the people she meets. “It’s my journey very clearly and from the beginning I was very emotionally invested in this journey. I had strong emotions associated with the border. There was anger and there was also almost an enchantment. Like a fateful attraction and repulsion.
“But I guess these encounters were very intense and these stories were great gifts from people. You can’t really remain an observer. I felt very emotionally involved with every story I heard, even though it wasn’t my story. I