The Edge of Europe
The sun was getting low although it was only 2:30 in the afternoon, and a few of the PhDs were beginning to level their best threats at Wojciech, a Polish Geographer who had promised to get us up close and personal with the Belarus border before sunset. “If I don’t have pictures of this border, I will cut you into a thousand pieces,” the Bosnian-Italian professor told him matter-of-factly. The Israeli doctor muttered, “you’d better sharpen your knife.”
I was attending my first ever academic conference: Border Conflicts in the Contemporary World in Lublin, Poland. The last day of the event was devoted to a 12-hour excursion to Eastern Poland. All day, we had been looking at churches and cemeteries, while most of us were itching to see the actual border with Belarus, ominously nicknamed The Edge of Europe.
Finally, we piled back into the mini-bus and Wojciech announced that the next stop would be a new border crossing at Jableczna. The sun was hanging just above the horizon, but I felt pretty smug about my chances of photographing the border in low-light conditions. I was sitting in the window seat, watching the countryside of Poland D zip by. Dilapidated houses, barren fields, hardly any stores or shops. Economic ruin still reigned this far east, and it seemed oddly appropriate to find such conditions near the border, a kind of geographical gradient, a natural slide into Asia.
Suddenly, we turned a corner and nearly collided with a line of cars that stretched for at least a mile up to the border crossing. Every car was an older model, with Belorussian plates. Many of the drivers were standing outside their vehicles, smoking, chatting, drinking from thermoses. It looked like a long wait. Our purple bus flew past the line, up to the crossing point. We stopped at the first checkpoint, where Wojciech tried to sweet-talk the guard. The crossing itself loomed ahead, a huge cement gate, painted beige with cyrillic lettering, intimidating and illegible. After a few minutes the border guard told us emphatically to clear out. Do not get out, do not take pictures, do not pass go. The busload of academics griped and moaned. Nobody understands us.
Wojciech tried to make it up to us by stopping at a border guards’ post. We were suitably underwhelmed. But the guards mentioned a nearby trail that led down to the river, the border itself. We HAD to go. By now the sun was dipping below the horizon, and we found ourselves in a hazy dusk, tramping past rusting machinery, a goat tied to a tree, and an empty field, down, down to the river. Five of us scrambled onto a sandy embankment and inhaled sharply. We were here.
It was just a river, and I was thrilled by its ordinariness. There was nothing to distinguish it. The opposite bank was a stones-throw away, maybe 40 yards. We all joked about jumping in and having a go at crossing the border, and we all imagined refugees emerging from the woods at midnight, dripping wet, cold, but triumphant. But this river didn’t look different from the Canon River in my college town, where I spent lazy afternoons drifting down the current. The water here was slow. Plenty of cover. It would have been easy, I mused. Where was Fortress Europe? Where were the desperate immigrants? Where was the threat, and the protection?
We made our way back to the bus, still parked at the guard post, generally satiated by the hike to the river. I was lingering behind and returned last to find Wojciech in an animated but polite conversation with one of the guards, encircled by our group. We piled on the bus again and Wojciech translated the discussion for the non-Polish speakers, “The guard was just asking if we had a good time and told us we could have gone to a nicer beach. We were just 50 meters away.”
Oh, that’s nice.
Despite the tranquility of the river, the easy current, the concealing brush, the guards had been keeping a tight rein on our little expedition. Cameras, microphones, and God-knows-what-else had been strategically planted near the border. The guard’s smirk flashed in my head; they had reason to be rather pleased. Fortress Europe is hidden, more effective than a wall, alive and well. My mind was blown, James Bond-ish fantasies satisfied, and I settled into the dark bus for a bumpy ride back to Lublin.