Hundreds of civilians in military outfits conceal themselves camouflaged within the forests of Bulgaria to prevent illegal immigrants crossing over from Turkey; they are the borderline guardians. In 2013 it was the building of barbed wire and cement barriers; then came the frontier officers and Frontex agents. Now in addition to these there are the volunteers of the Bulgarian Veterans Military Union Vasil Levski and of the Shipka Bulgarian National Movement. They move stealthily, they are well trained, they communicate using walkie talkies and bird whistles in the thick mountain vegetation of Strandja, an area of land suspended between East and West, facing the Black Sea. Their commander is Vladimir Ruscev, a retired former officer of the Bulgarian army. His movement counts 800 volunteers and thousands of supporters. For four years they have been financing themselves and in groups of 30-40 take it in turns to patrol a portion of the 230 km border with Turkey.

A profile of the volunteers

Their ranks include veterans, students and manual workers. They can also count on a number of women, a florist and the chief military instructor who during the summer works as a life guard. Lachezar is a lawyer and Kemal a Muslim baker. And then there are many more who will not reveal who they are, where they come from and what they do. This is the reason why most of them wear a balaklava; they say that Isis has put a price on their heads. And they also fear their government, who until now hasn’t taken any measures against them, but which in their minds is a haven of corruption, conspiracy and foreign interference; as well as bearing, amongst others, the responsibility of the decline of the European dream, 10 years since entering the EU, a period marked by poverty and unemployment. The volunteers like to keep a distance from the extreme right movements, they consider themselves partisans. They don’t want to be labeled as immigrant hunters, they say they just want to defend the border against the criminals trafficking in human beings, drugs and weapons. In actual fact they want to stop anyone they find in the forests, on the basis of their Criminal Code which forbids entering Bulgaria from areas other than the “designated entry zones”. Many non-government organizations have declared that their movement operates on the fringes of legality with members going masked, armed with knives and other weapons. To this day however all acts of violence reported by the refugees have been attributed to the border authorities and to Harmanli, the refugee camp that hosts approximately 3000 refugees; nobody has ever denounced any injustice at the hands of the masked men of the forests. “If we find them we call the police. Defending our country is our duty,” declares Commander Vladimir Ruscev quoting article 59 of the Constitution, “It is a question of honour for every Bulgarian citizen”.

On the margins of Europe

A heterogeneous movement which defies definition and appears multi-faceted, hybrid and liminal. Borderline we might say. Like the Bulgarian cultural identity presented in the studies by Jordan Ljuckanov of the Institute of Literature, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Not only an east-west, Europe-East dualism. But an invisible border which for Bulgarian patriots represents the last bulwark to be defended against the Islamisation of Bulgaria and Europe. Fears and resentment have roots deeply set in 500 years of Ottoman rule and nearly 50 of Soviet dictatorship. It is no coincidence that the two movements have given themselves the names of “Vasil Levski” and “Shipka”. Levksi is a national hero and a revolutionary loved by all Bulgarians, known as the Apostle of Freedom. He was hanged in Sofia by the Ottomans in 873. Shipka takes inspiration from the city which is a symbol of the Bulgarian-Russian victory over the Ottomans. History is circular in the Balkans, where current problems are entwined with events of the past which often take over the present. At Yasna Polyana and at the Nestinarka camping site, opposite the Black Sea, forest patrolling and training activities alternate.

Fear of invasion

“This is where hundreds of economic migrants enter every day,” states Vladimir Rusev. “They are not refugees fleeing from Syria, but radical Muslims amongst which Isis fighters also hide.” A 31-year-old man from Burgas adds: “I decided to join the movement because the government will not defend us. Nobody will defend us and so we do it ourselves. It is a planned invasion. Those crossing the border illegally are soldiers, not simple migrants.” In recent years approximately 800,000 asylum-seekers have crossed into Bulgaria to reach the heart of Europe. 13,000 are still there. The volunteers pick up any personal objects and clothes they find in the forests to clear up the environment, but also so as not to leave any traces for future migrants to follow. Heading towards an unknown fate across a border divided between reception and refoulment, kindness and propaganda. The first obstacle to get through for those hoping to find refuge in the “European fortress”.

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