A large part of my experience of going to Ukraine, was spent in no-man’s land, at the border. For much of my time, I was based in Slovakia and travelled into Ukraine with a volunteer group to transport donated supplies from Europe into Ukraine, to various destinations that were supporting internally displaced Ukrainians.
Being a part of this volunteer group was a mix of things for me. It was both a relief to have a safe base and a means to do what I wanted to do – to meet Ukrainians, talk to them and to get to know them. But it was also a frustration, because it meant that I was based in Slovakia for much of the time, of which I had not expected or particularly wanted and every time I went into Ukraine, I’d have to cross the border!
Having lived in a few African countries, crossing borders is nothing new to me – but this was something quite different for me and a new kind of border-induced ‘unpleasant! I was not only ‘a nobody’ in no-man’s land, I was South African! I was more than nothing! I was bad. It was my first experience of being in a place (the Slovakian side of the border post) that I felt guilty for just being there, like I had a few bombs attached to my waste beneath my Woolworths jacket, or that I was not actually South African but instead an illegal immigrant from somewhere with a stolen passport, posing as a South African in Ukraine, wanting to make Europe my new home! Either way, I was treated with suspicion and with tremendous caution.
I remember my first time crossing into Slovakia from Ukraine on foot. It had been a particularly stressful day.
That morning I had had a few interviews lined up at a centre for internally displaced Ukrainians in a town near the border of Slovakia. But after that, I had absolutely no plans, no place to stay and no place to go. Staying at a hotel was not possible because all available accommodation was being used to accommodate the thousands of Ukrainians who had fled the Russian invasions happening in other parts of the country.
The reality was dawning on me. I was far away from everything I knew. I was in a country that was at war and in a place that made no sense to me, from the language to the writing. I could not speak to people or ask people questions and to add to my anxiety, I was still ‘all shook up from the day before, when I had been arrested by the Ukrainian military for being ‘suspicious!’ I felt alone and vulnerable. There were many moments that day that I fought back the tears or held my phone up high above my head, hoping by some miracle I’d get signal and receive a message from someone from my world and I wouldn’t feel so alone, even though I was.
The reality of this experience was that I was alone and all I had was who I am and the choices I make. Here, I was nobody and everything that seemingly holds so much weight in the way of who I am and how I perceive myself and others, and getting out of a tricky situation, did not matter one bit. No-one cared that George the fifth was the distant cousin of my mother’s brother’s wife’s father’s great, great uncle!
All that mattered was how I chose to approach a challenging situation without being able to ‘pull any strings,’ phone a friend for help, give my opinion, or complain. Depending on how I handled each step or situation, would have one of two outcomes. A good one or a bad one. The outcome simply had everything to do with what I put on the table. If I put out rotten eggs, I’d get twice the number of rotten eggs back! The outcome was solely in my hands.
At the time, I felt my only choice was to follow up with a contact I’d been given for a volunteer group that was based in Slovakia and to join them. That, or I needed to surrender to the possibility of sleeping in a Ukrainian forest and share territory with some wildlife I am not familiar with, like bears! Though quite unlikely, still possible! After not much thought, I contacted the volunteer group and asked them if I could join them, trying hard not to let on the level of desperation I was starting to feel that day! I didn’t want to join them, I needed to!!
It was the first of many border crossings. And also, the place I learned that there is one other thing that really matters…
The mood of the Slovakian border officer really matters, especially if you’ve got an African passport (and you are white…which they thought was just plain weird and suspicious) and evidently, if you are one of the thousands of Ukrainians trying to enter or exit Slovakia! Either way, or with either passport, you should expect delays!
At this point, I had some relief. I met two friendly Czech guys waiting in the border queue who could speak fluent English. Better yet, they were also volunteers from the same volunteer group I would be joining. For a brief few minutes, I felt like I belonged! Like I was not alone in this strange world! English speakers…these people were my family! They seemed quite relieved too, mostly because they had bought a number of cartons of cheap Ukrainian cigarettes and they were over their quota. They gave me half to take across the border. We were instantly friends. It was a win-win situation.
But unfortunately for them, they soon learned what entails traveling with a South African. They’d be delayed, simply by association! By the end of my time with this volunteer group, a whole lot of us would spend a whole lot of time at the border post, waiting and watching while the Slovakians mulled over my African passport!
My first day at the border post went something like this:
I was standing in the queue with my new Czech friends, waiting to enter ‘Passport Control.’ A large uniformed man appears and gestures to everyone in the queue to reveal their passports. Ukrainian, Ukrainian, Ukrainian, Ukrainian Czech, Czech, Ukrainian, South African ….and he stops. He takes my passport and holds it up to the light, inspecting each page. He then looks me in the eye, scanning my face with his laser blue eyes in what feel like an attempt to unveil my soul and to detect the ‘deception’ he already believes is there. He looks me up and down, momentarily stuck at the sight of my ‘proudly South African’ leather Veldskoen shoes with bright red laces, thinking to himself…what kind of an African are you?!
Evidently, a dodgy one!
He looks at me even harder. I look back at him, attempting the most genuine fake smile I can muster. And he says in his best English, assuming that I am English and not Swahili or Xhosa speaking, ‘YOU, you go there. He points to the other side of the room, to a row of empty chairs, glancing at my shoes once more – and tells me, ‘You wait.’
In the meantime, my two new Czech friends reassured me and told me not to worry and that they will wait for me. They’d evidently done this border run a number of times before, and they appeared a whole lot more confident than what I was I feeling. I also had half of their cigarettes.
I sat on my chair on the other side from them, like a good girl, wondering if the Ukrainian military had alerted Interpol about my arrest the previous day and my passport number now had a big red flag next to it that alerted every official in Europe that this woman is a suspicious woman. That she claims that she is from South Africa – despite being white-skinned – and that she is a photographer who was ‘innocently’ doing street photography in a war zone. That she is a mom who loves to go on Safari and who attempted to bribe her way out of a situation by inviting the Ukrainian military on safari to the Kruger national park in South Africa when the war is over. Watch out for this person.
An hour passed. In that hour, I watched. I watched people come through this border. I observed how they were treated. I observed the classic, rather stereotypical border experience; when there is a border official who holds all the power and it is his job. He does it every day – he gets to be powerful in this small world, because of how much it means to the person crossing the border. I observed the ‘border crosser,’ escaping a war, women leaving behind their men, leaving their homes and everything they have worked for this life, leaving what they know. Reluctantly leaving, but desperate to leave, because to go forward they have to leave what they love. I watched their behaviors, of the person who has the power to change someone’s life and the person who needs their consent to do so.
It was on hour of observing how people behave when they have power over someone and they know it. How some people get drunk on their daily supply of having people need them and depend on them and they abuse their position because for a few fake minutes it makes them feel bigger than what they are. But they are empty inside and it’s not long before they need their next fix.
Then you get the true leaders; who use their power to uplift, to be compassionate, to be kind, to be fair, to want to understand. I saw all of this while waiting at the border.
Border control is neccessary and it’s important because many ‘border crossers’ are not innocent – but the true test of character is ‘how’ you do it. That is a choice and it reflects on who we are and not the person you we have the power over.
My friend cracked open a beer. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This is true freedom, I thought, of being European crossing a European border and being able to crack open a beer at the border post without being locked up or being denied access into Europe! It was perfect. Though I think he genuinely just wanted to have a beer to pass time – it was that small, rebellious, but brilliant moment of cracking open a cold beer in that stuffy border post room when he shouldn’t, in front of the border official who was already ‘drunk on power.’ He took a big swig of fizzy liquid, then released the most glorious of burps! And for a few stunning moments, there was balance and their was the truth!