Vesselina NikolaevaThe first time I heard about the Bulgarian-Turkish border was in my last year of high school. The boys in my class were afraid that they would be sent to the army if they did not get accepted at the university. Their worst option was serving as border watchmen and especially at the macabre border in the south.

The 1878 Ottoman Empire’s recognition of the sovereign nation state of Bulgaria put an end to 482 years of Ottoman presence and drew the first physical border between the two countries. In the next 120 years, the border shifted five times, with the last correction in 1997, making this the most fluid political boundary in the Balkans. In 2007, Bulgari’s border with Turkey marked the new edge of the European Union.

On a psychological level, the collective memory of the Turkish presence has been passed on from one generation to the next, along with it distrust and hatred towards our neighbours to the south. This collective frustration was socially acceptable before the fall of communism. It is now politically incorrect, yet alive even if unspoken, nestling in the minds of most Bulgarians. The Communist party used this conflict in their propaganda, letting the southern border embody the battlefield between Christianity and Islam, good and evil, us and the enemy.

After 60 years of media ban, I received the first permission to photograph the border and began working on this project. I had no preconception about the way it would be, what it would look like, if it would be frightening, what kind of secrets had been kept and guarded there for decades. What I knew was that the Bulgarian-Turkish border was the crossing point for illicit narcotics and illegal migration between the Middle East and Asia and Europe. I also knew that there was corruption at the border checkpoints long before the media began discussing it. And Brussels knew that soon this border would no longer be a problem just for Bulgarian national security but also that of the EU.

While I was photographing, two border watchmen accompanied me, escorting me to no-man’s-land, leading me to the border pyramids and unlocking shelters and forts abandoned over 15 years ago. The structures were corroding like the concrete skeletons of the past.

It was difficult to define time in no-man’s-land. It was out of history; the past was the future. It was a different world, perhaps even a different country, populated with soldiers who guarded laws and regulations only they understood. It was a male-oriented micro-society living with myths of heroic battles and victories. It was built on the communist idea of border protection and control, demonstrating the patriotic responsibility to disarm and destroy deviant-espionage groups and other enemies crossing illegally.

In 2001 the Bulgarian military archive was made public. Four years later, after numerous requests and inquiries, I was able to read some of the reports the border services had presented to the Ministry of Interior (MoI) in the past. It was in the MoI reading room that I realised how the so called ‘Agents apparatus’ maintained the entire system. A group of agents spied on civilians, another group of agents spied on the civilian spies, a third group of agents coerced and tested either of the others; all agents would report to the MoI on a monthly basis about the people they were spying on. The civilians whom the MoI spied on were people suspected of clandestine trade, or of people trafficking, or of producing immigration propaganda, or former MoI employees who could leak information to the enemy, or the inhabitants of border zones, or all those previously accused and convicted and all those who had family members living abroad.

I didn’t fully understand what I was beginning to do when I planned this project. In time, I came to realise that I was looking for personal answers to the truths about a system I hardly knew. I was reconstructing a time which nobody, not even our closest relatives, talked about. I can now imagine how, living in the inescapable conditions of the totalitarian state, no individual could keep his sovereignty and wholeness no matter how carefully he kept his deepest secrets. In such a life, all internal boundaries are broken and the only border left is the national border.

Vesselina Nikolaeva