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"Overnight, my school emptied": the story of a European border checkpoint

At a busy checkpoint between Turkey and Bulgaria near the Greek frontier, a long history of displacement and exile emerges.

“Bye-bye, komshu,” said the taxi driver. The Turkish word for “neighbour” is used throughout the Balkans.

We had reached the vici­nity of the Kapikule/Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint and he could go no further. We had driven past the mile-long queue of lorries waiting to be processed into the ­European Union. Some drivers waited for days and had come prepared: fold-up stools and portable stoves lined the road. I wondered what the sealed bulks of the lorries contained, and how much of it was fully known to their drivers.

A week earlier, I had crossed the other way – into Turkey – and witnessed a distressing bust by Bulgarian police of young Kurdish stowaways. The lorry driver seemed genuinely shocked, and he was in trouble. Lone women crossing this border in rented cars were regarded with suspicion, too: a Rom­anian woman had recently been caught with hard drugs inside the seats. In another recent incident, a smuggler had accelerated through customs and run over a border cop standing in his way. The smuggler was now in jail, the cop in a coma.

“Hello, arkadash,” said the new taxi driver as he loaded up my bag. Arkadash is Turkish for “mate”, also widely used in the Balkans. This driver had two cars: one with Turkish number plates, for domestic use, and another with Bulgarian plates, for border
purposes. We drove into customs. Slowly.

I was leaving behind the ­mosque-studded border town of Edirne and would soon reach the factory-filled border town of Svilengrad. Ruined factories, that is. For centuries, before the wounded leviathan of the planned economy collapsed, Svilengrad had produced silk. Today, it produced nothing. It was a transaction terminal for the pleasure-seeking populace of the three border nations: Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. Here were casinos called “Pasha”, “Ali Baba” and “Saray” that promised “shows, prizes and many more surprises”. On the outskirts of town, in a former border army building, was a refugee camp that promised nothing.

The twin border cities of Svilengrad and Edirne sat in the fertile plains of Thrace where a section of the Roman Via Diagonalis passed and where everything grew: vines, sunflowers, cotton, wheat, and what early travellers described as the best watermelons in the Levant. Now the Greeks came across the border to both cities, to get what they needed, cheaply – including haircuts in Bulgaria and fake Levi’s jeans in Turkey. The checkpoint with Greece was just a few miles to the west, and from the last sleepy Greek town, Kastanies, across the swollen waters of the Evros-Maritsa River, you could see Edirne sprawled like a concubine in the haze of the Thracian plains.

The three border rivers (Arda, Tundja, Evros-Maritsa) flooded almost every year: if a dam upstream in Bulgaria opened a sluice, both Turkey and Greece would be flooded. Indeed, this border has seen many spillovers and upheavals over the years, including the catastrophic “exchange of populations” after the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when borders were redrawn and many in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey found themselves in alien territory overnight. They had to run for their lives across the new lines.

The road under the wheels became bumpy, a sign that we had crossed into Bulgaria. Ahead of us in the haze rose the communist-era apartment buildings of Svilengrad. In my youth, this area – like all towns, rivers and mountains that fell within 30 kilometres of the national border – was a militarised zone.

The border was a taboo subject. Hidden by Balkan peaks and electrified by Soviet technology, it was everywhere, like the state. The border was that which never slept. It was near the Black Sea beaches where, in my childhood, we went for holidays along with the East Germans, Poles and Czechoslovaks – some of whom went swimming towards Turkey, or made a run for the land border and got shot by Bulgarian guards. It was near the mountain villages where we went to pick berries and climb fir trees from which you could see Greece.

“Do you go to Greece?” I asked Ibrahim, the taxi driver. He had once been a schoolteacher.

“What would I do in Greece?” he replied, smiling. “I don’t speak Greek. This is my patch, here, Turkey and Bulgaria.”

Ibrahim was an ethnic Turk but his family had lived in Bulgaria for many generations. Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks account for roughly 10 per cent of the population, a natural effect of the long cosmopolitan centuries of these once Ottoman lands. But in the summer of 1989, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ibrahim and another 340,000 Bulgarian Turks passed through this checkpoint with all their worldly possessions. It was the largest exodus in Europe since the Second World War – but in peacetime.

They had been left with little choice in communist Bulgaria, where assimilation campaigns had been waged against them and other Muslims at frequent intervals during the Cold War. The last such campaign forced ethnic Turks with Muslim names to change them to Christian (Slavic) ones. In some parts of the country, even the names of the dead were changed in registries and on gravestones – an act of violence that strikes me as especially cruel.

This self-wounding campaign by the communist state was a diversionary tactic: despotic regimes need enemies. Ethnic minorities are easy prey. Those who resisted were told by the state to clear off to Turkey, and Bulgarian officials opened this checkpoint. Until then it had been closed to all Bulgarian citizens and was used only by Western travellers to Turkey or Turkish Gastarbeiter to Germany.

Ibrahim had been a young teacher in a town at the foot of the Balkan Mountains. “But what is a teacher without kids? Overnight, my school emptied,” he said.

Ibrahim decided to follow, although he spoke no Turkish. He departed alone, leaving behind his mother and sister, who couldn’t face a life of exile and took the new names instead. For the first few years, he lived in a leaking tent in a huge refugee camp in Edirne – where he saw some of his former pupils. He attended evening Turkish classes and eventually found his feet.

Many of those who had crossed the border that summer returned to Bulgaria after the collapse of the communist regime in 1990, reclaimed (or bought back) their houses, and started again. But many remained in Turkey and made new lives for themselves. Families were split down the middle. Today, entire neighbourhoods of Edirne and Istanbul are populated by Bulgarian Turks; one nation’s loss became the other nation’s gain. Then there were those, like Ibrahim, who continued to live a split life.

“Because my memories are all here, you see,” he said, without malice. “My mother, my sister, the old neighbours. But my wife, my kids, my business, are there.” He gestured back towards Turkey.

How do you feel, I asked him, when you see the refugees today? He shook his head. “It’s your pride that goes, you see. Back home, you were a person. With a history, with a future. When you become a forced exile . . .” He trailed off. “The life of an exile is worse than war.”

We arrived at the hotel in Svilengrad where I had booked a room. Ibrahim took out my bag and placed it on the pavement. “Bye-bye, arkadash,” he said; and standing by my bag, I watched him drive down the broken road back to the border.

Today, the Kapikule/Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint is said to be the world’s busiest land crossing. But back in 1989 Ibrahim had crossed this checkpoint alone, on foot. I will always think of him like this: a young teacher with a suitcase, walking through no-man’s-land, into the unknown.

Kapka Kassabova’s “Border: a Journey to the Edge of Europe” is published by Granta Books 

This article appears in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda