-“Daddy, why are some borders like straight lines?” – she asked, while she was looking at the map.
– “Because, you see, they only go through the desert, and there are no mountains or rivers to use as delimitation. In the desert you can trace a long straight line and there wouldn’t be one single house to go around.”
How interesting, she thought, and she went on with her studies.
-“Daddy, why are some borders like straight lines” – he asked, while he was looking at the map.
-“Because, you see, someone far far away drew them on a piece of paper, without ever having been in the country, and people built the frontier through towns and even houses, so you might end up on one side, and your brother on the other.”
How interesting, he thought, and he went on with his studies.
And they both grew up, and kept on studying, and learning about the world and its countries, and memorizing each country’s capital, even though Africa is always the hardest. They lived in a global world and had many relatives abroad, hers were called expats and his were called immigrants. She saw many volunteers depart and he saw them arrive and take photos with local children. They were both young and bright and, who knows how or on what pretext, one day they fell in love.
But even though the heart knows no borders, the truth was that they lived separated by the equator. Not the geographic one but the one which divides the legal and the illegal people. So when he tried to apply for a visa to go visit her, the woman at the booth rejected him without even looking at his papers and the elaborately written invitation letter.
He was heartbroken, but not surprised. And he decided to act. He found a trafficker, one of the simsar, who promised to get him through the Mediterranean with a group of Syrians and even gave him a life jacket of unconfirmed quality all for 2,300 euro. They were intercepted a couple of times by the coastal guards and returned to the shore, but he kept trying until one time the boat was so loaded that when a bigger wave came it started sinking under the weight. Everyone started struggling to stay on the surface and he felt two arms grabbing him and pulling him underwater.
He then decided to jump the wire fences at the Spanish-Moroccan in Melilla with the Senegalese boys. They woke up early in the morning and walked for hours towards the border and once there, they climbed up the 6-meter fence, full of barbed wire, blades and anti-climbing mesh. They heard the sirens and his friends urged him to hurry up, but he touched his armpit and saw that one of the blades had cut through his artery. He felt the blood running down his body and told them to continue without him before fainting and falling down from the fence.
The next option he thought of was paying a coyote a fee of $4,000 in order to be smuggled through the Mexico-U.S. border along with some Mexicans. They jumped the wall together and spent hours hiding in the bushes at night. They wanted to avoid the Border Patrol and took a longer route through the hot Sonoran desert. At one point the coyote told them he would leave for a couple of hours to check the route, but when he did not return until the end of the day they knew he had abandoned them. After one more day, they went out of water completely and he felt how his body was becoming weaker and weaker, his mouth dry and his face red. He saw everything melt into black and he crumbled onto the ground.
He then tried to enter Bulgaria through its border with Turkey. He joined a group of Afghans and had to pay another smuggler some 1,000 euro in order to cross the border at night and take a long trek across woods and rivers. They had to sleep during the day and trek by night because of the monitoring cameras. It was supposed that a car had to wait for them close to the nearest village but suddenly they heard the sound of motors. Some ATVs were approaching them but they were only civilians so the group calmed down. However, the men on the ATVs attacked them, beat them and pushed them to the ground, shouting “Back to Turkey! Go, now! Turcia! Obratno! No Bulgaria for you.” He decided to quickly run away and escape but one of the men took out his gun and shot him in the back.
He also tried sneaking into a plane traveling from Delhi to London, together with a boy who was fleeing from accusations of pertaining to Sikh militants. They payed a man for information on how to get into the luggage cabin of the plane through the wheel cavity and bribed some baggage handlers to not report them when they hid next to the plane. But then, when they mounted on the wheel and the plane started to take off, they saw there was no access whatsoever to the luggage cabin. The plane was ascending and the two of them hid in the wheel cavity, shivering from the freezing cold and panting from the lack of oxygen. He saw the boy curl and pass out and he himself lost control over his body, shortly before falling.
He then decided to join a group of Iraqis fleeing in a van towards Austria. They were about 90 people and they had paid the driver 1,200 euro per person to get into the back of the van. They traveled stuffed like cattle for hours and they weren’t allowed to bring in much water or food. After six or seven hours everyone started feeling much more heat. The air conditioner has stopper working, they thought, and started banging on the walls of the van. But the driver told them to shut up because they were near a check point and the police was going to hear them. They kept banging and screaming and the boy felt how he was suffocating and was being trampled by the rest of the people struggling to escape the heat.
He could not bear it anymore. He called her, and begged her to come, he was dying to see her, and he loved her so much. She was also so eager to see him and found a great deal with some low cost company, so she packed her luggage.
He came for her at the airport and when she came out of the gate he hugged her tenderly, breathing in the smell of her hair and skin. They kissed and laughed and she complained about the awful food on board, and they talked about politics and everything else. At one point she said, “Oh, borders are so artificial. I can’t believe I believed my father when he once told me that story about the borders in the desert. Borders today are just a vestige of distorted nationalistic and colonially imposed thinking, some stupid lines on a Mercator-projected map.”
The boy said nothing, just smiled, hugged her and thought:
How many people have lost their lives because of a line on a map?
All seven stories are partly or in whole based on real life cases: read more about the drownings in the Mediterranean here, the deaths at the Morocco-Spain border at Melilla here, the crossings of the desert at the Mexico-U.S. border here, the civilian militias at the Bulgarian border here (with first-hand video material here), the story about the two stowaways from Delhi here and the deaths by suffocation in trucks here (also inspired by the novella “Men in the Sun” by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, which tells the story of three Palestinians fleeing from a refugee camp in Lebanon in the empty barrel of a water tanker truck and suffocating to death because of delay at the Kuwaiti border; it can be found here).
Gloria Anzaldúa said in her book Borderlands/La Frontera: “The U.S-Mexican border is an open wound where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” Anzaldúa talks mainly about the lifeblood of the two worlds merging to form a third country, the borderlands, inhabited by people who are crossroads themselves but are frequently voiceless. However, what interests us here is the process of tracing the border and the grating and hemorrhage which are formed all along the non-geographic equator or, as Sousa-Santos refers to it, “the abyss.”
Border studies sustain that the key explanation for partition and the creation of borders are the pressures of democracy and defining the people, frequently combined with external influence which sought to “divide and rule” territories which were left only with the “divide” when the “rule” was removed from the formula.¹ The maps are full of straight lines and externally-imposed borders, such as the Radcliffe line, serving as a frontier between Pakistan and India, the linings after Sykes-Picot, and above all the partition resulting from the Scramble for Africa.
As Robert Hayden points out, “co-incidentally, but not by coincidence” the dismembering and borderization in some states, like Yugoslavia in ’91, takes place at the same time as the opening of frontiers in others, such as the members of the European Union after the Maastricht treaty in ’91.² The “Global North” lifts up its internal barriers, while more barriers are put in the “Global South.”
The process of frontier creation and increased border control is also accompanied by a tendency of trade liberalization treaties: while there is more and more free movement of goods and capitals, people remain hostages to borders. The global economy produces bigger migration flows from “developing” (exploited) countries, while “developed” (exploiting) countries implement restrictive immigration policies.³
More and more border-walls are created, meant to “prevent illegal movement” such as between the U.S. and Mexico, or to “protect civilians from terrorism” such as the West Bank barrier.⁴ These walls reflect the fear of the circulation of the violence that has been created – the other side of the equator is plagued by economic insecurity and militarization, a “violence continuum” which starts with the devaluation and dehumanization of the people on the other side of the equator.⁵
This post is about life at the two sides of the abyss, about the people who try to escape the violence continuum, about the closed doors they encounter and about the smuggling industry which grows like poison ivy on these closed doors.
- O’Leary, Brendan. “Partition.” Companion to Border Studies. Eds. Wilson, Thomas M. and Donnan, Hastings.Wiley-Blackwell, March 2012. p.34. Print.
- Hayden, Robert. From Yugoslavia to the Western Balkans : Studies of a European Disunion, 1991-2011. Brill, October 2012. p. ix. Print.
- Massey, Douglas S. “Patterns and Processes of International Migration in the 21st Century.” Conference on African Migration in Comparative Perspective, 2003. p.21. Print.
- Borneman, John. “Border Regimes, the Circulation of Violence and the Neo-Authoritarian Turn.” Companion to Border Studies. Eds. Wilson, Thomas M. and Donnan, Hastings. Wiley-Blackwell, March 2012. p.120. Print
- Boehm, Deborah A. “US-Mexico Mixed Migration in an Age of Deportation: An Inquiry into the Transnational Circulation of Violence.” Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol.30, no.1. 2011, p.11
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/video/2016/jul/04/can-i-jump-palestinian-artist-at-mexicous-border-video?CMP=share_btn_fb – “Can I Jump?” An exploration of the ideological boundaries between the US and the Middle East by the Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar at the Mexico-U.S. border
http://www.elmundo.es/internacional/2015/09/15/55f7ca37268e3e2f178b45aa.html – The messages on the life jackets of refugees crossing the Mediterranean
http://www.borderfilmproject.com/en/ – The Border Film Project: An art collaborative that distributed disposable cameras to undocumented migrants crossing the desert and American Minutemen trying to stop them.