This reportage was realized on April 20-24th 2017
on assignment for “Gli Occhi della Guerra”

Hundreds of civilians in military clothing blend into the forest of Bulgaria to prevent illegal crossings from Turkey: they are the guardians of the border.

Following the barrier of barbed wire and concrete built in 2013, border authorities and Frontex agents, have been flanked by the “Vasil Levski” Bulgarian Military Veterans Union and the “BNO Shipka” Bulgarian National Movement. They move silently, are well-trained, communicating through walkie-talkies or bird calls in the dense woodland of the Strandja Mountain, on a tiny patch of land suspended between the East and West, facing the Black Sea. Vladimir Rusev, a retired officer from the Bulgarian army, is in charge of the men. His movement has 800 regular volunteers and thousands of supporters. They have been self-financing for four years now and they take turns in groups of 30-40 people to patrol the 230 kilometers of border with Turkey. There are veterans, students and masons in their ranks. They can also rely on some women, a florist and the head drill-instructor who works as a lifeguard during the summer. There is also Lachezar, a lawyer, and Kemal, a Muslim baker and many other people who don’t wish to reveal their place of provenance, name or occupation. Therefore, almost all of them wear ski masks: they swear that ISIS has even put out a reward for them. They are also concerned about the national government which has not taken any action against them as yet, but which, in the collective imagination, represents a den of corruption, conspiracy and foreign interference, plus being one of several causes for the decline of the European dream, after 10 years of poverty and unemployment since joining the EU.

BORDERLINE GUARDIANS from Matteo Bastianelli on Vimeo.

Volunteers want to distance themselves from extreme-right groups, they consider themselves partisans. They don’t want to be labeled as migrant-hunters; they say they just want to defend the border where the mafia runs human, drug and arms trafficking. Essentially, they want to block whoever they find in the forest, abiding by the “Criminal Code” which prohibits the entry into Bulgaria “outside the designated areas”. Many non-governmental organizations state that their movement operates on the fringes of legality, because they are masked, armed with knives and additional blunt objects. Until now only border authorities have been accused of violence experienced by refugees, and also in Harmanli, where a refugee camp houses approximately 3000 refugees, no one has ever reported being attacked by hooded men in the forest. “When we find them, we simply call the police. Defending the Country must be our duty – Chief Commander Vladimir Rusev claims citing Article 59 of the Constitution – and a matter of honor for every Bulgarian citizen”: a heterogeneous movement that escapes definitions and appears to be composite, hybrid and luminal: Borderline, precisely. Like the identity culture of Bulgaria, as defined in the studies of Jordan Ljuckanov from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Literature. Not just a duality of East-West, Europe-Orient but also an invisible line that, for patriotic Bulgarians, represents the last bastion to defend from the Islamization of both Bulgaria and Europe. Fear and resentment are rooted in the 500 years of Ottoman dominance and the almost 50 years of Soviet dictatorship. It is no coincidence that the two movements are named after “Vasil Levski” and “Shipka”. Levski is a national hero and a revolutionary loved by all Bulgarians, known as the “Apostle of freedom”. He was hanged by the Ottomans in Sofia in 1873. Whereas, “Shipka” refers to the city that symbolizes the Bulgarian-Russian victory over the Ottomans. History is a never-ending circle in the Balkans, where today’s problems have merged with events from the past, often taking possession of the present. In Yasna Polyana and in the vicinity of the Nestinarka camp-site, facing the Black Sea, research operations in the forests are alternated with training sessions. «This is the place where thousands of economic migrants enter the country every day -Vladimir Rusev claims. They are not refugees escaping the war in Syria, but radicalized Muslims among whom also ISIS fighters hide». A 31-year-old man originally from Burgas, echoes him by saying: «I decided to join them because our government doesn’t want to protect us. Nobody will defend us, and therefore, we take it unto ourselves. This is a planned invasion. Those who illegally cross the border are soldiers, not just migrants». In the last few years, about 400 thousand asylum seekers have passed through Bulgaria to reach the heart of Europe; 13 thousand of them are still there. Personal belongings and clothes found in the forests are removed by volunteers to clean up the environment, but also so as not to leave tracks for those who will pass through in the future. Into the unknown, beyond a border which is divided between sheltering and rejection, humanity and propaganda: the first barrier that has to be crossed for those who hope to escape to safety in the “Fortress of Europe”.