THE village was at the end of the road. Big woolly sheepdogs ran alongside my car like shagpile carpets. At dusk, a roadside inn sold me a jar of sheep’s yoghurt. While I ate a small bear crossed my path.
The hills were twiggy-brown with pockets of snow. The days blazed with the sun but in the morning the hills were steamy with frost. The only warmth was the woody smoke of chimneys and the breath of barking dogs.
Then the faint call to prayer — or the church bells if it was Sunday — joined in with the dogs and the sound rose over the fortress-like houses, making me feel I’d been here before.
But I hadn’t. In the late 1970s, I’d come to these mountains with my grandparents but not here. The village was known for two things: the springs where a major river began and the longevity of its people. From the late 1960s, the communist state had manufactured parts for armed vehicles here to export to Iraq, Algeria and the USSR.
The factory later became a sewing factory but after the fall of the regime in 1989, it was privatised and the owner paid his seamstresses so little, my hostess quit her job in anger.
Now she and her husband ran the family home as a guesthouse. They were a peaceable couple in their fifties and, like most in these parts, they were Pomaks: descendants of long-ago converts to Islam.
As the human symbol of the Ottoman past, Pomaks absorbed the collective angst about residual orientalism. Despite representing less than two per cent of the country’s population, throughout the 20th century they endured all manner of indignities because they were indigenous but also of Islam — as if we must only be one thing at a time. To make matters worse, they were also people of the border — and all who lived along this hardest of borders, the Iron Curtain, were closely monitored by the state.
Those who worked abroad eventually returned to the village where you lived forever. Unless you died a violent death.
‘There was a German guy, in 1982,’ my host recalled. ‘He’d made it across the wire without setting off the alarm. He climbed above the village and, thinking he was in Greece, sat down to eat some apples. That’s when a shepherd saw him. That’s how it went. We were so brainwashed, it was unthinkable to see a stranger and not raise the alarm.’
Guilty until proven innocent, Pomaks were under double pressure to prove their loyalty to the regime. The German with the apples was taken into the army barracks and killed.
Children from border villages were taken in brigades to the ‘furrow of death’, where the alarmed wire passed. Their task: to smooth the soil with rakes so not even a hedgehog could cross it without leaving a trace.
It had to be the children. That way, by the time they weren’t children, they were under the shadow of the border. That way, handing a runaway to the soldiers felt more like housekeeping than murder.
This is an edited extract from Border: A Journey To The Edge Of Europe by Kapka Kassabova, longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction