By Rick Schwertfeger, Captain, Frontier Partisans Southern Command, Austin, Texas
Pancho Villa crossed the border in the year of Ought Sixteen
The people of Columbus still hear him riding through their dreams
— Tom Russell, “Tonight We Ride”
This Bulgarian beach was on the border with Turkey. East German summer vacationers were called “the sandals,” because in their sandals and beach clothes they would sneak into the forest at night, aiming to escape into Turkey. “ACHTUNG GRENZZONE!” Many tried anyway to cross the wall of electrified barbed wire. With predictable results.
— Kapka Kassabova (KK): “BORDER: A Journey to the Edge of Europe” (2017)
Much of the Frontier Partisan world involves borders. Armies invade across borders. Opposing armies defend their borders; or may not. Partisan fighters raid across borders. Or try to escape across a border. Winston Churchill escaped from a Boer prison across a border to safety in Portuguese East Africa. Even official armies may raid across borders. During the Apache Wars the U.S. Calvary sometimes chased warriors into Mexico, avoiding Mexican troops unhappy with the incursions. And General Black Jack Pershing led a U.S. Army detachment into Mexico on a futile pursuit of Pancho Villa.
Borders have consequences.
Life inside a country can become such a living hell that desperate people try to escape across the borders. Risky. You can get stopped by guards on your side who prevent people from leaving — sometimes with consequences worse than the hell you were living: death; brutal beatings; rotting in a fetid prison. One’s “life becomes less valuable the closer you get to the border.” (KK)
Or, get across somehow, only to get captured by border guards on the other side. Internment in a prison, eventual deportation likely results. Deportation can have dire consequences. Get sent from the U.S. back to a Central American nation run roughshod by drug cartels, and your life may not be worth much. U.S. Border Patrol agent Francisco Cantu found “a young man wailing in the desert, abandoned with a half-liter of water. He recovered the body of a man dead from exposure in the August heat. He received emails daily with photos of dismembered corpses, men skinned alive, a decapitated head–the handiwork of Mexican cartels.” (J.R. Sullivan, “Boundary Issues,” Men’s Journal, February 2018, p. 38.)
Borders can have powers beyond being official limits.
To indigenous peoples of North America, borders were curiosities. Indians called the Canadian-U.S. border The Medicine Line because, while it meant nothing to them, they understood that it was “strong medicine” for Whites. On the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas, gaze across to Juarez, Mexico, so close you almost could reach across and touch it. Grab your passport and you could walk across the bridge. But would you? A lifelong resident of El Paso who went to Juarez frequently in his youth told me he hadn’t been across in 30 years. So dangerous today, Juarez just isn’t worth it!
Borders can be stressful.
The Greek-Turkish border:
“The Greek officials waved me through. The Turks greeted me with camouflaged soldiers. Customs officers dismantled my car. They even unscrewed a small whirling dervish souvenir I’d bought. ‘Hashish? Cocaine?’ he said almost hopefully. I thought of Midnight Express and tried not to sweat. Studying my passport he said, ‘You entered Turkey from Bulgaria last month. Why?’ ‘I’m writing a book.’ He said he’d let me off the hook, just this once, and slammed the door. Even with the right passport, in plain daylight, with nothing to declare, the stress of border crossings like this is hard to convey; it is on a cellular level.” (KK)
A favorite pastime of the victors of a conflict is redrawing borders to ones that suit their interests. BUT, frequently they are myopic. The new borders don’t make sense to the people living there. To wit: The Middle East since World Wars I and II. We live and fight today with how European powers screwed that up. Or, someone decides to make up nations — e.g. Yugoslavia. How’d that work out?
Borders can separate people by the ideologies of the powers that be.
During the Cold War armed, alarmed, electric barbed wire, vicious dogs borders separated the glorious workers’ paradises of the Warsaw Pact from the evil, imperialist capitalist nations of NATO. Of course, no one was trying to cross the borders illegally to get into the workers’ paradises.
“If you look at the top of the wire, parts of which still stand, you see that it points to the real enemy: inwards.” (KK)
Borderlands can have characters of their own.
Frequently they are “different places” than the central regions of the countries they divide. Mixtures of peoples from both sides, with various degrees of integration, peaceful coexistence – or continual enmity and tensions. Yet, a borderland can have more of the flavor of one of the nations than the other. Slowly drive down the main street of McAllen, Texas. You’re in the United States. But it sure looks and feels as if you’re in Mexico.
What prompted these observations? Kapka Kassabova’s “BORDER: A Journey to the Edge of Europe” (2017). Kassabova grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria, while it was a Soviet client state. Once the Cold War ended, her scientist parents moved the family to New Zealand, where dad taught at a university. Kassabova now lives in the Scottish Highlands with her Scottish husband.
Seeking to understand her native land she’d left 25 years before — and the bordering lands in Greece and Turkey — Kassabova returned and explored that triple border region. Reviewers describe the resulting book as “dazzling,” “remarkable,” “marvelous,” “lyrical, disturbing.”
Through the lens of an American who has experienced little genuine hardship, Kassabova had me disturbed, thinking deeply, pondering evil and hard lives. She artfully weaves in the waves of history that have swept over the region. The results: Many residents she met endure various degrees of desperation resulting from painful histories of being conquered, relocated, dislocated, even renamed. Much of their pasts get hidden, unspoken; but certainly not forgotten. Many get ground down spiritually. Some carry on in refugee camps with little hope of salvation.
But Kassabova also shows that on the borders, against significant odds, many people make happy, vital lives. And she lyrically links the current lives of village folks to pagan spirits and practices still alive in daily life. “Borders” is a tour de force. Highly recommended.
© Rick Schwertfeger, 2018. Used by permission.