INTERVIEW: Kapka Kassabova on a ‘journey to the edge of Europe’

INTERVIEW: Kapka Kassabova on a ‘journey to the edge of Europe’

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Kapka Kassabova on a ‘journey to the edge of Europe’

Police vehicles patrol a fence erected at the Bulgaria-Turkey border near Malko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. AFP photo

The border between Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria is described by writer Kapka Kassabova as “the last outpost of Europe.” Bulgaria is the poorest member of the EU, Greece remains mired in economic woes, and Turkey is steadily heading down the path to authoritarianism. The history of the borderland between them is even more troubled than the present, marked by war, ethnic cleansing, and decades of hard division during the Cold War.   

In “Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe” (reviewed in HDN here), Kassabova visits this outpost, hearing the voices of local people and chronicling their fragile traditions. Kassabova spoke to HDN about her book on the past and present of this edge of Europe, as well as the remarkable locals she found there. 

What was it that prompted you to write this book at this time?

What first intrigued me was simply the sense that there were a lot of untold stories in this border region. I stumbled into a border village in the summer 2013 and saw pagan rites being performed by the locals. I got talking to local people and started hearing all sorts of stories, legends, personal histories that I thought were absolutely fascinating. I wanted to learn more.

You were born in Bulgaria and emigrated to New Zealand in your late teens. Now you live in Scotland. Talk a little about your childhood growing up in this area.

I seem to have come full circle. I grew up in Sofia in the 1970s and 80s during the dying days of the Cold War and totalitarian Communism. Like most people in the Eastern Bloc, growing up I was quite aware of the nature of hard borders. The Iron Curtain was the ultimate hard border. I've always been intrigued by different manifestations of borders, the shapes they take physically and in people's minds and hearts. How do borders shape people's lives? I was always going to make a journey back to the border of the old Iron Curtain. But it turned out to be much more than that, a much older place haunted by older ghosts and histories.

The book gives plenty of opportunity to reflect on the many ironies of this part of the world. This was once an area in the Balkans of extraordinary diversity and mixing, but it is now the site of very hard, blood-soaked borders and strong nationalism. The book shows people in the cracks between these apparently hard positions. Was it a deliberate attempt to seek out those ironies?

I didn't go in with any kind of agenda or preconceived idea because I was simply ignorant about this area. I didn't know what I was going to find. All I knew was that I wanted to hear people's stories and try somehow to make sense of what happened on this border. I received the wonderful gift of stories from a range of different people. These stories were full of ironies, echoes and paradoxes. Many of them were tragic but there was also a lot of humor. It was fascinating to observe how people survive and make sense of events. How they make sense of their own lives, how they tell the story of their lives and their ancestors lives. All I had to do was listen.

During the Cold War thousands of people tried to flee the Soviet bloc through Bulgaria and into Greece and Turkey, which were both members of NATO. Many were killed trying to escape. Today there is another human flow, with refugees from Syria and elsewhere heading in the opposite direction.

The channels of migration - the corridors of escape - are the same but the direction has changed. It was especially striking to see how locals on all sides of the border responded to this new influx of mostly desperate people. I encountered a range of reactions. There was great kindness, generosity and compassion, which often came from people's own ancestral histories because a lot of people who live along the border in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey descend from refugees of the Balkan Wars 100 years ago. But I also saw resistance and fear of the other among locals against the refugees. So the whole spectrum of human emotions was there. What I found most affecting was to spend time with the refugees themselves and to hear their stories. 

This has been an area of great human migrations for hundreds of years. One of those migrations was the expulsion of Turks from Bulgaria in 1989, which was basically an ethnic purge in which 340,000 Turkish Bulgarians were forced out. It happened just months before the Berlin Wall came down.

That's another of the terrible ironies: It happened just before the border effectively opened up. It was the largest movement of people in Europe since World War II and it happened in peacetime, which makes it more appalling and extraordinary. This purge was inflicted by the state on its own people, it was entirely an internal purge. It was one of those situations where a dying dinosaur of a regime, in this case the Bulgarian Communist government, was looking for ways to distract the population from obvious problems such as the failing economy and the lack of civil rights. The winds of Glasnost and Perestroika were blowing, so it was a kind of diversionary tactic. It was a very cynical, orchestrated hate campaign on the part of the state against the ethnic Turks of Bulgaria. It wasn't the first such campaign. There had been earlier attempts to change Muslim names or to effectively Christianize people, though that in itself is ironic because religion was banned, and if you aren’t allowed to go to church what logic is there in Christianizing people?

But the upshot was that around 350,000 people left the country and migrated to Turkey, often in quite dramatic circumstances having lost everything. Many others stayed and took on new names. Families were divided. Many returned from Turkey a couple of years later but it changed their lives forever.

In the book you travel around the region in an old Renault. When you first arrived how did you plan to go about meeting people? Was it just a snowball effect or was it more deliberately planned?

It was a combination of the two. I was counting on travelers' luck but there was also a degree of preparation. I always planned to visit the twin cities on either side of the border, Svilengrad in Bulgaria and Edirne in Turkey. They are very much border cities in terms of their mentality, their trade, their people. Once I was in Edirne it was very easy to meet Bulgarian Turks, as there are entire neighborhoods in Edirne and Istanbul where Bulgarian Turks have settled. Most are migrants from that traumatic exodus in the summer of 1989. There are many untold stories among these communities, very moving stories of ingenuity and survival. 
What I found particularly moving was that almost all the Bulgarian Turks I spoke to in Turkey had somehow managed to retain a positive attitude to Bulgarians at large. It was as if they understood, or wanted to believe, that it was a state campaign against them rather than a civilian campaign. I found that very humbling. 

Despite the often grim history of Bulgaria as a Soviet satellite state, you note a sense of nostalgia today among many locals for that era.

That sense of nostalgia is not only in border villages. It is also elsewhere across the former Communist countries of the Eastern Bloc. But it is particularly acute in the border areas that have been devastated by the crash of the economy, by outward migration, by sudden change. I guess many people who feel nostalgic simply miss having people around them. These are half-empty villages: There are very few young people because there is effectively no economy. It's a kind of devastated area. I found a similar thing on the other side of the border in Greece, and to a lesser extent in Turkey. 

But still you see people trying to make the most the situation, drumming up small jobs for themselves, somehow scraping by. They also have a love for their native villages and these beautiful fertile forests and fields. It's very moving and very sad and it begs the question of what the future holds. If there was enough smart government policy for eco-tourism, encouraging small businesses, that could be one way to go. These are stunning natural sites. Given a bit of infrastructure or publicity, they could attract travelers, tourists, nature-lovers, hikers and bird-watchers - not just poachers and smugglers. 

So there is a way forward but what I found was that the vision was lacking. There were locals with tremendous ideas, but there is no capital or help from the government, and there is also environmental depredation going on, which you see in some of the natural parks on both sides of the border. In a sense, nature is the last remaining wealth of the border. Rivers, forests, rare plants and animals - that's all that is left.

You write about traveling in the forested area between Greece and Bulgaria where the trees bear initials carved by people trying to flee in various directions at different points in the 20th century.

It was an extraordinary place, a haunted place, a forest of names and dates. They showed different eras of desperation. Earlier there were wars, including the Greek Civil War, during which people were fleeing north into Bulgaria and Albania. While some of the initials carved into the trees were from as late as the 1990s, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when the Greece-Bulgaria border was still "hard" because Greece was in the EU and Bulgaria was not yet. The 1990s were a decade when many Bulgarians were out of work. It was a decade of unemployment and recession, so many people found themselves crossing the border illegally, with the help of smugglers. Many of them left their initials in the trees of the forest. It's an extraordinary thing to see. 

And during the Cold War if people didn't make it across the border they would often be caught by border guards and likely shot dead.

In the book I mention one of the last victims of the Bulgarian-Greek border. He was an East German guy who was 19 when he tried to cross on his own. He was shot by a Bulgarian border guard his own age. Such things happened countless times. It's impossible to exactly say how many were killed at the border. There are records for some of the victims but not all of them. But we can safely assume that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of all nationalities in Eastern Europe - from Poles, to Czechs, to Chechens, and of course Bulgarians. The greatest number of successful escapes were of Bulgarians, who knew the area best and knew the most vulnerable parts of the electric border fence. So there are also fascinating stories of successful escapes.

The book is a highly lyrical and there’s actually a spiritual dimension to it. You reflect on the idea that this is a very mysterious land of wild, deep-rooted ancient rituals, and that decades of Communist dogma were just a brief interruption of this more essential character in the region. You also write at one point that Christianity is just a kind of "fig leaf for a primal spiritual practice.” 

There's a tremendous sense of ancientness in some of these areas. In particular there are two regions that I spent time in: The Rhodope range between Bulgaria and Greece and the Strandja range between Bulgaria and Turkey. In the Rhodope mountains there's a specific music tradition linked to Thracian Orphic rituals. It's hard to trace things that far back because there are no records, but there is a tremendous sense of timelessness. Sometimes you see it in the local houses, which are fortress-like. You even see it in the faces of people to this day, there is something stony and ancient about them.

The paganism is especially strong in the Strandja range, especially on the Bulgarian side. Certain rites are still performed, somehow revived from the freeze of the Cold War. You can still see fire-walking and a certain form of fire-worship that is very old, perhaps going back to Dionysian and Orphic practices. It is certainly traceable back to the late Middle Ages. There are certain things that have survived almost miraculously through many great upheavals.  

The book is published at a very apposite time, with hard borders going up everywhere, particularly in Eastern Europe, and a resurgence of nationalism. Was that something you were aware of when you started writing? 

I wasn't particularly thinking along those lines because I started writing the book more than three years ago. I wanted to focus on the legacy of the Cold War above all, as that's close to my heart because of my childhood and the knowledge of what went on. But history unfolded before my eyes as I traveled, so unplanned stories and voices wrote themselves into the book. All I had to do was listen. 

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