Following the tradition of international No Border Camps, which over past years have popped up in (among others), London, Calais, Brussels and the Greek island of Lesbos; I find myself in a field in Bulgaria, screwing pallets together with an electric screwdriver to make toilets.
After nine months travelling I am once again “home” – not in a geographical sense, but culturally. I am with my own people – activists from around the globe whose belief in freedom and solidarity has brought them here, from as far afield as the North of England, Sweden and the U.S.A. Many faces are new to me, many are familiar.
During daylight hours it’s so hot in the open field that few can stand to work between 11-5pm. Mostly these hours are spent under tree-shaded tables outside the village’s only bar. As well as beer and coffee, the pub sells “salad”, which consists of tomatoes chopped up on a plate with a bit of cheese or onion scattered on top. The salad costs 50 stotinki – around 20p. The beer is around 50p. There is one place that could be called a shop. I found it by accident when I first went looking for the bar. I took entirely the wrong direction and met a small old man on a moped, who beckoned when I asked for water – “Magazin! Magazin!” I followed and he took me through a plastic curtain into the front room of his house. I wasn’t sure if it was a café, shop or just his house, but I asked for a coffee, which his wife made for me. I bought three bottles of water and the man gave me a big bag of tomatoes and showed me where he grows them in a greenhouse at the back of the house. I was pleased to remember him later when the camp supply team went looking for local food producers, and he and a neighbour supplied us with a lot of vegetables.
I tell you this to give you an idea of the kind of juxtaposition which has occured in this small village in Bulgaria. This man’s two sons, like many people in the village, make thier money from the border regime. There is not one family in this whole region without this kind of connection. So what happens when two hundred international activists turn up on their doorsteps to protest against the border? Well, not a lot actually. They are very congenial, very happy to sell us vegetables of course, and some even come to the camp to meet us and hear what we have to say. These people are not necessarily in political agreement with the border here, but it’s business: their livelihood.
The Media Collective arrived before the camp started and began a film screening programme in various small villages – including Siva Reka, Shtit (the closest village to the border) and Lyubimets, where the detention centre has been built. After each film screening was a discussion. I attended the first and the one in Lyubimets and heard locals speak about various clandestine people they have seen coming through their villages at night. A woman spoke of a pregnant lady, another of a man who knocked on their door and asked for water. They are not without sypmathy for these people, but they believe the state is helping them. They have all seen the shiny images of the Lyubimets detention centre on television and talk about how the men inside eat chicken for dinner and watch TV in their rooms. The reality, of course, is somewhat different.
The No Border Camp has officially begun. Day one sees three workshops, all with an interpersonal theme: a discussion about Safer Spaces – what are they and why are they here? A queer space and POC (People of Colour) Space onsite have already been the topic of some debate and controversy – but we’re No Borders! Surely we can’t be… racist? Well yes, unfortunately anarchists are not fully-enlightened beings and among the camp are many sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic ideas – albeit largely subconscious. There’s also a workshop on “looking after ourselves and each other” – about building debriefing and emotional support into our actions, and a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop. It’s my feeling that these three workshops on the first day of camp laid the foundation for a camp with a far higher level of awareness about these issues than is usual.
Another hot debate is the apparently unsolvable dichotomy between wanting to do “spikey” actions and respecting the “local context”. Basically, there are a small group of what I will call “The Bulgaria (based) Collective” who have been working for many months getting the plans for the camp together and have, as a part of that process, had to give their names and addresses to the police. There are a variety of reasons for this – it’s a legal requirement to inform the police about any kind of protest, and where in many other places it’s more-or-less fine to tell the law to fuck off and just do your thing anyway, in Bulgaria there are a great deal more fascists than anarchists, and those fascists are armed and organised. There are a very small number of No Borders activists – perhaps 5-10. We are witnessing the first baby steps of a movement in a country where none like this has previously existed. The Bulgaria Collective ask that we respect their wishes and keep conflict with the police and controversial actions to a minimum, since it’s them that will bear the brunt of what happens afterwards. This is understandable, but difficult. Camps like this are by their very nature decentralised and focused on autonomous actions within a diversity of tactics – many of them controversial and provocative of police responses.
When a staged “die-in” is called off by members of the Bulgaria Collective for being too confrontational (people lying passively on the road are causing an obstruction to the border), many begin to question what in fact they are able to do in this context.
This dichotomy gives rise to a lot of frustration and some very creative responses, for example: a small group of people hitchhike over the Bulgarian-Turkish border into “no man’s land”, declare a free state and hand out flyers; street theatre, a samba band and information boards on the streets of Svilengrad are designed to grab the public’s attention (although the streets are quiet, unfortunately); candles and shoes are laid outside the Border Police Headquarters to symbolise those who have died on the EU borders (the press said we threw the shoes at police and lit candles under car tyres!); a huge banner with a free legal phone number is erected outside the detention centre… then there are the usual flash-mobs, marches and banner hangs of course. These are symbolic actions – it’s understandable, but frustrating.
Demontrations at detention centres always feel different to me. Somehow it’s suddenly all a lot less theoretical and a whole lot more real: here is the prison where they lock up migrants who dare to seek a better life. Here are the people at the bars of the windows, shouting “Freedom!” in every language they know. Around fifteen hitchhikers came to this camp from the Hitchgathering a couple of weeks before, many as a result of the workshop Jasper and I facilitated. It’s amazing to see how people grow and change through these experiences. Some who began the week not understanding why some people “seem intent on violence” suddenly need holding back when they see a line of police protecting an immigration prison. Once again I’m seeing a camp’s power to radicalise people.
Among the other actions are a variety of on-camp discussions, presentations and workshops on topics from the situation in Calais and the Ukraine borders, to Understanding Whiteness and the privilege it brings.
At no other political camp I’ve been to has the level of self-reflection been so high. The apex of this for me was during the session on Roma Rights. Three women from Roma backgrounds put on this “workshop” (actually more of a lecture) in order to give vent to their… well, lets just say fury, at the level of unawareness and subconscious racism within the camp. Conversations about a visit to a Roma community opposite the detention centre at Lyubimets had provoked a variety of stereotyping and racists comments – you know the ones, about “gypsies”, stealing and romantic ideas of musicians… The women gave us all a firm talking to – “You are a white mob! …Do you know what a white mob looks like to these people? …This is ethno-tourism! …do you know why Roma people had to become performers? …”
Despite the explicitly non-violent context of the camp, which many participants felt to be narrowly defined and limiting, the camp seems to have achieved many of it’s aims – reaching out and awareness raising to local people who are already seeing an increase in migrants coming through their communities, growing a movement in Bulgaria and networking campaigns in other parts of the world.
Next year, Stockholm.