from At the Borderline

Set in the border triangle of Iran, Irak, and Turkey, Im Grenzland [At the Borderline] is the story of an Iraqi Kurd who makes his living as a smuggler. Having bought a map of landmines from a former soldier, the smuggler negotiates a path through the war-torn border region to bring items that have become luxuries (due to embargo) back into his country. On each trip he unearths land mines on his way out of the country and buries them on his way back. He reads the empty landscape like a book and observes and interprets each change carefully. Each voyage accross the border is a tightrope walk between life and death.

The smuggler passed the slope and walked on toward the minefield, measuring each of his steps with increasing care. Bluebells bloomed and blades of grass, flattened by the wind, spread across the ground, trying to hide themselves in the stone-filled meadow that ran up to the hilltop in a gentle slant, beyond which lay the cliffs and the pass. No minesweeper had come to this place; there were no barriers, no warning signs.

The smuggler stopped at the meadow's edge and walked a few steps to the side and back to determine his exact point of entry. The location and positioning of stones served as his clues. He quickly found the spot he was looking for--the meadow had remained the same. He took out a metal rod and glanced around one more time.

Above the slope emerged the first cliff from the yellowish gray soil. The plateau hung above it like a pulpit. Two wretched, almost bare trees with dangling branches bowed over the abyss. He thought of the nocturnal voices and felt as if he had departed a house having left something behind.

He adjusted his backpack and crawled into the meadow. Only from far away did it seem lush. Blades of grass covered the dry, loose ground in random patches. This was what made the terrain so treacherous. Contrary to what it appeared to be, it provided an ideal ground for those flat mines that looked like three disks stacked one upon the other, with the smallest disk on top, burrs running vertically around the edge of the disks, most likely to give the mine a better foothold in loose soil. This made these contraptions--they were hardly bigger than one's palm--look like toys.

After excavating a mine, the smuggler would always become aware of the gravity of his situation when he recognized the lettering on it, which was located exactly where a foot would press down on its topmost disk. These characters, whatever they indicated, were not at all decorative. They were inscribed on a small greenish-brown area, covered with soil, not meant to be read, intended to disappear within the explosion, into a wound and pain, thereby delivering their message. An inscribed countdown before detonation.

The smuggler kept his head close to the ground and slid forward on his knees.

Shielded by his straw hat's brim, he saw directly in front of himself a clearly marked path that had narrowed further. Pebbles that he himself had positioned as markers guided him, but only centimeter by centimeter, as he had to recover their positions from his memory. Once he hit upon one, he immediately paused to take a slip of paper from his coat pocket and compare the sketch with the ground in front of him. The pebbles' positions, the ones on the drawing and the real ones, matched. He folded the piece of paper and put it away. Then he removed his hat and, with the back of his hand, wiped his forehead. It was tremendously important to prevent sweat from running into his eyes. Therefore he rummaged through his coat pocket to find his handkerchief and dried his face with it. Then he draped it on his head so that it covered his forehead, securing it with the help of his hat.

He carefully leaned forward and rested his elbows on the ground, re-examining every square centimeter around him. After he thought he had found the first position, he briefly closed his eyes one more time. Then he began to drive the metal rod into the ground, at a slant angle, very slowly, millimeter by millimeter. He had--and that was what now caused the sweat to run down his temples--to be ready to stop at the slightest resistance that wasn't caused by the soil. He stared at his fingers to feel this resistance, as if, by doing so, he could heighten their sensitivity. The metal rod bore its way further into the ground. It lay there at an angle and, therefore, remained close to the surface. Should the rod come upon it, it would hit the mine sideways, where the burrs were located. Sure enough, the rod's tip touched something. Pausing again, the smuggler removed his tool cautiously from the ground a moment later. He put it next to him and started digging up the drill hole and pushing clumps of soil to the side with his fingers. The drilled channel turned into a funnel with a widening mouth. The mine's lower edge, weathered like the wall of a miniature ruin, appeared. The slow wiping brought the mine's gradation into view. The smuggler inched ahead and removed sand from the second disk. He now wished that he could blow away the remaining dust, but he couldn't. Pressure from above must not be imposed under any circumstances. After uncovering the entire lower disk, he raised his upper body and straightened his shoulders. He looked down on this object--exposed as it was now, it seemed almost pathetic--and felt a certain pride because of his victory. The triumph of escaping or circumventing a trap was his most dependable feeling. He breathed deeply, then held his breath. This time he didn't rest his elbows on the ground but leaned forward. Spreading the fingers of both hands he reached under the edge of the disk, so that he could lift the mine from all sides. After he had raised it from the ground in very slow motion, he tilted it slightly: the remaining soil fell off the top disk. He put the mine down at the invisible edge of his trail, some thirty centimeters away from his lower leg, ensuring that it didn't touch any grass. He took out a small paper bag filled with salt and poured some of it into the funnel. This would allow him to spot the holes easily in case he returned soon enough. Even if the wind spread the salt around, it would still be better than if somebody would recognize it as a marker. It was visible only to somebody who held his head close the ground.

Before he crawled farther, he threw another glance at his slip of paper, where, in addition to their exact positions, he had noted the types of anti-personnel mines he would encounter. Most of them were the regular flat ones, but in three spots along the way there were some that resembled a damaged oil dispenser: cylinders that stood upright in the soil. On the top was mounted an antenna that triggered an explosion when touched. This type was called "Bouncing Betty" because it first leaped almost one meter into the air when activated, ensuring that its metal splinters would rupture a person's abdomen. These mines offered one small advantage and two huge disadvantages to the smuggler. He could locate them according to his site plan when he was in close proximity, without first digging them up. However, they were heavier than the other anti-personnel mines and, because of the antenna, the utmost care was required to remove them and place them on the ground.

He dug up two more discoid mines before he reached the first Bouncing Betty. Now he slowed down his movements so rigorously that the blink of an eye was enough to startle him. He squinted at the sky to regain focus. The afternoon had come, and a slight breeze swept over the meadow. For a moment, the smuggler saw himself kneeling in this wasteland as if he were someone else. Although he was able to observe the countryside in every direction, including the jagged rock faces and even the faint peaks of the highlands in the distance, he had no feel for the landscape's vastness. He felt the waft of a breeze. The few noises he noticed sounded muffled, as if they were coming from inside a room.

Once more he lowered his head to the ground. The movement of the blades of grass confused him. He noticed a few ants, a white pebble and then, momentarily glistening like a spider's thread, the antenna ready to receive its command. The smuggler drew nearer and pushed the grass aside. He took a shovel and began to grub around the hidden cylinder. He didn't need to be too careful, so long as he kept an eye on the antenna.

After he was done, he straightened himself for a moment and breathed deeply. He traced the path he would take with the mine in his hands and pinpointed the spot where he would put it down. This place had to be somewhat sheltered, within a furrow yet easy for him to relocate on his way back. He lowered his fingers into the hole around the uncovered object, wrapped his fingers around it and picked it up. The antenna must not touch anything on its way up. The smuggler moved his hands exactly the way he had planned to. He put the cylinder down in its designated place and slightly pressed it into the soil until it had been stabilized. He exhaled and quickly removed both of his hands from the object.

Since the mine was quite big, three quarters of it had to be buried in the ground, lest a competent observer of the area spot it, with the help of field glasses for instance. Therefore he dug a hole, positioned himself crosswise on the trail and lowered the mine into it. Much of the cylinder disappeared into the ground and would only be identifiable at a short distance. Again, he marked the other hole and crawled farther.

It took him till evening to cross the minefield. He had noticed every stage of the course of the sun as he had looked up at it before and after digging up each mine. The last one, located thirty centimeters off the rocky soil where the grass abruptly ended, gave him the satisfaction of having done his job. He crawled toward firm ground, which provided him with an immediate sense of security, and looked searchingly back at his trail. The dug-up and relocated mines were invisible, including the last one, which he had lowered into the ground.

The smuggler got up and cleaned off his coat and pants. He always performed this part of the procedure with particular care. Negotiating the border protection system was the last portion of his route.

Now he had to face the border guards. They expected him, although they never knew exactly when he would come. Whoever was on duty demanded he pay an "entrance fee." The small town he wanted to visit was at a mountain pass three kilometers away. Looked at it from the border station, the area gave the impression of being completely abandoned with a road meandering through the valley. But in reality, the region was quite densely populated on the other side of the border. Near the place where he always went first were some tiny villages in close proximity to each other. Whenever he had enough time, he visited at least one of these villages, where the liquor was cheaper than anywhere else. This time, however, he only wanted to go to the small town.

He intended to return as soon as possible. Normally he would stay through the night after next to spend another morning and afternoon in the foreign country. It didn't bother him to cross the minefield in late afternoon, since burying the mines took a lot less time than digging them up and he didn't like to spend the night outdoors before returning to his city. This time something pulled him back to his town.

On his way to the pass he thought about the patrols, but they would have to pay very close attention to notice a path through the minefield. Whatever else unsettled him--he didn't want to think of it.

He walked toward the border and tried to concentrate on what would happen next. He went over his orders once more and anticipated the weight of his backpack.

In the early evening he reached the border station, a container-turned-barrack amid gray scree. The road stood out like a bright channel through the grayish brown of the stony wasteland. The barrack was located at right angles to his path. The smuggler saw no one as he drew closer. There were no barriers and, aside from the barracks, nothing that marked the border. The door on the narrow side of the container opened, but no one stepped out onto the short staircase in front of it. Someone waited for him inside.

The smuggler approached deliberately and shouted a greeting before reaching the steps. He had got into the habit of appearing to be easygoing, even cheerful, in front of the border guards, giving their informal arrangement a playful touch. After all, it was possible, although not likely, that someone new and uninitiated, perhaps even a superior, would be there.

He stepped into the barracks and caught the glances of four border guards. They sat around a shabby wooden table, eating. Guns leaned against the wall. The smuggler immediately remembered his painful visits to the Red House. In the next moment, however, he approached them nonchalantly. One offered him a chair. The smuggler joined them and passed around cigarettes, which he carried with him for occasions such as this. All four interrupted their meal and smoked pleasurably, as if they themselves did not have cigarettes in their pockets.

The smuggler now was obliged to chat with them. His role was that of an unexpected guest who eased their tedium. Language was a problem. Thus far, with all the border guards the situation had developed in the same way: they uttered a few intelligible sentences, while he gathered all the snatches he knew of their language and supplemented them with gestures. The border guards often came from remote regions of the country and had always been more difficult to communicate with than the locals, who, because they had been here since before the war, spoke both languages. Because of these circumstances, they appeared as if they were members of the occupying forces in their own country. Over time, the smuggler had memorized enough words to keep a simple conversation going. For, from the very beginning, he had noticed that his ability to talk to these men had a direct influence on the amount of money he had to pay. With strangers the border guards attended to their duties rigidly and, most likely, without consciously escalating the price. It was simply based on instinct.

One of them, as always, did most of the talking, and he was the most important of the group. He sat opposite the smuggler, smoked with his upper body reclined and groomed his mustache with the tip of his thumb after each puff. He asked about news from the other side.

The smuggler thought briefly and then landed a hit with his story of the government declaring that the temperature was now to be 40 degrees Celsius. The men were amused, though it was less a joke than a familiar story. They nodded and commented more than they laughed about it.

The ice had been broken, the barracks had become a place where the usual rules did not apply. One of the men got up, adjusted hissuspenders, and brought a tin plate for the smuggler. The conversation was no longer overly important; he was now considered a guest, and would remain so until they had finished their tea.