‘I think in Bri­tain we are about to dis­cover how awk­ward bor­ders are’

Kapka Kass­abova un­cov­ers a tragic his­tory on the edge of Europe

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - TEDDY JAMIESON

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

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