Shedding light on life in the shadow of the world’s security walls

From Mexico to Morocco, barriers separate communities. While some say they offer a sense of security, others claim they create a feeling of imprisonment

Sat, Nov 23, 2013 - Page 9

US-Mexico

By Jo Tuckman

The Guardian, CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico

Maria Guadalupe Guereca, 57, is the mother of Sergio Adrian Hernandez, who was shot dead on the Mexican side of the border under the Puente Negro by a US border patrol agent on June 7, 2010 when he was 14 years old. The agent who fired the bullet was Mexican:

“Sergio Adrian was the youngest of my six children. He was a sensitive boy. He started walking when he was one. I don’t even know what he was doing here down by the bridge with two other kids. They had gone to visit his brother, who works taking luggage out of buses for inspection when they cross.

“They said that my boy was trying to cross when the agent shot him, but it is not true. They said he was throwing rocks but there aren’t any rocks here to throw. My son did not deserve to be killed like that.

“I wanted the agent punished but we lost the case. The lawyer in Houston helping us said there is hope in the appeal, but I don’t have any. I work in the municipal government building just over there and I used to come here to the river quite a lot. I’d stand by the column where he was killed and I’d look at the graffiti for my son on both sides.

“About six months ago some US agents walked over the river to where we were and asked how long we were going to keep causing trouble. They laughed when I said I would never give up. It made me nervous to come back.

“I have lived all my life in Juarez apart from two years in Los Angeles working in a restaurant. I worked as a maid in El Paso too, crossing every Monday and coming back on Saturday. We would pay one dollar to cross the river on a tire. There was water in it then.

“The frontier has treated me very badly and sometimes I want to go far away but what is left of my family is here. Sergio is dead and I have a daughter in the US. She has no papers. Another daughter left Juarez after her boyfriend was killed and she got threats. She left three children behind.”

North Korea-South Korea

By Steven Borowiec

The Guardian, SEOUL

To get to the plot of land where he grows sweet potatoes and soya beans, Lee Jae-geun must pass through a military checkpoint manned by soldiers carrying assault rifles. Lee farms in Tongil village, the only populated area of the demilitarized zone that separates South and North Korea. Despite farming on North Korea’s doorstep, Lee, 63, like most South Koreans, is not much scared by North Korea’s hostile rhetoric.

“There are threats all the time,” he says. “It doesn’t bother us. If all of a sudden there were no threats and everything was totally peaceful, that would be strange.”

While North Korea’s saber-rattling doesn’t scare Lee, the political theater on the peninsula does have effects on life in Tongil. Earlier this year, when inter-Korean tensions spiked and North Korea cut off access to the jointly operated Kaesong industrial complex, Lee was locked out of his land for three days. In 2010, after an artillery exchange on Yeonpyeong island left four South Koreans dead, Lee was denied entrance for 15 days. All his dogs and chickens starved to death in that time.

While there is some apprehension over the possibility of conflict, Tongil also has unique benefits. Unlike almost everywhere else in South Korea, there is no industry here and few cars. Strict rules mean there has been only minimal development; the land is mostly untouched and the air is clean. Villagers drink untreated water, which they draw from aquifers, and gleaming white cranes gather at every body of water.

Lee sometimes wishes he could sell his land and farm somewhere more predictable. With inter-Korean relations remaining poor, however, the possibility of conflict scares away potential buyers and pushes down land values, so he knows he would not get much if he did sell his land.

“It’s my responsibility to maintain this so I don’t have much choice,” he says, crouched down while pulling weeds. “I just hope the politics can stay calm so we can keep up with our work.”

West Bank

By Harriet Sherwood

The Guardian, AL-WALAJA, West Bank

Omar Hajajla, 47, is a construction worker from al-Walaja, a village surrounded by the barrier. Hajajla’s house is on the Israeli side, accessible only through a tunnel under the barrier:

“In 2008, we were surprised to be told by the occupation authorities that this house would be the only one in the village outside the wall. They told us this would create a lot of trouble for us and they offered us money and land to move. My answer was that the only thing I want is my house and my land, nothing more, nothing less.

“Then they threatened me, but I said I am supported by someone even stronger than the state of Israel — God.

“They suspended my permit to work in Jerusalem. They used dynamite close to the house in the hope it would be destroyed. They harassed us every day. But we refused to leave.

“Now the tunnel is the only way to connect the house to the village. My children go to school two minutes away, but now it takes 45 minutes to go round the barrier. The truth is, the psychology of my children has changed. Their friends don’t come to visit them; people are scared because we live in a military zone, they can be stopped and asked for ID. The children feel like they are living in a jail. When the barrier is finished, the whole of al-Walaja will be surrounded, with only one gate. People will be suffocated inside a cocoon. Israel says the wall is for security, but the real reason is to confiscate as much Palestinian land as they can and to isolate us in the hope that we go away.”

India-Bangladesh

By Delwar Hussein

The Guardian, BOROPANI, India

Lamin is from the Indian side of the village of Boropani, which has been divided by India’s formidable attempt to build a 3,380-km) border fence between it and Bangladesh. He works as a coal miner. Lamin, 30, is part of the minority Garo community, who are indigenous to this part of the borderlands. Like many Garos, Lamin has family on both sides and often crosses back and forth:

“There are some border guards that are reasonable and they will let you cross if you give them money, especially during Christmas or one of the other religious festivals,” he said.

However, his usual experience is anything but convivial. “If the BSF [border security force] catch you crossing, they will first stamp on you with their boots, then beat you up and only then ask which country you are from.

“They get drunk and attack anyone. It doesn’t matter to them whether you may be Bengali or an Indian. The BSF don’t see anyone who lives in the border area as human. I do not have a problem with the Bengalis coming here to work and us going there to visit family or to shop in the bazaar. We are known to each other and have always done so. It is the border guards who create the problems, not the people.”

Greece-Turkey

By Helena Smith

The Guardian, NEA VYSSA, Greece

Apostolos Handirides, 60, lives in the village of Nea Vyssa, a 20-minute drive under police and military escort to the barbed wire barrier, and sees himself as a “frontier guard.”

As with almost everyone in the area, Handirides’s family moved to Greece from Turkey in the great population exchange in 1922 that followed the war between the two countries.

At least twice a month, he makes the 10-minute trip to the town he still calls Adrianoupolis (renamed Edirne by the Turks), where his grandmother grew up:

“The barrier brought us great peace of mind. You’d wake up and see these poor, wretched beings walking by, and sometimes they would cause trouble. Now we don’t have to look over our shoulders at all. For the first time, there’s a real sense of security.

“My grandmother, Anna, came in 1923 and I remember her regaling us with stories about all the good and bad things of life over there.

“The fence, of course, hasn’t stopped us crossing the border. I don’t speak Turkish but they speak very good Greek over there. Often I’ll drive over [via the nearby frontier crossing] to have a meal or coffee with friends.”

Spain-Morocco

By Paul Hamilos

The Guardian, MELILLA, Spain

Moroccan Abdel Ghani, 38, first got to Spain in 2000 and lived there for almost a decade before being expelled back to Morocco. “I still don’t know exactly why,” he says.

“In Morocco I tried to find work, but there is nothing for me there; they pay six euros [US$8] a day for working in fields, and construction work isn’t much better, but the cost of meat is more expensive than in Spain.

“I got back over the border into Melilla three weeks ago and have been sleeping in the streets since then. I will go back to mainland Spain however I can, even though now I don’t have the paperwork. I don’t know how long I will be here or how long it will take, but I will do it.

“Even though there are fewer jobs in Spain now, it is still better than nothing. I think I will probably go in a boat, but I will have to return to Spain. There is nothing left for me here.”

Morocco-Western Sahara

By Marcello Di Cintio Tindouf

The Guardian, Algeria

Ama is in her early 20s and is a lifelong refugee in an Algerian camp. She has never seen her homeland, on the other side of the berm, one of the world’s longest — and oldest — separation barriers.

It runs through disputed desert land in northwest Africa between Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania, a result of Morocco’s 40-year territorial thrust southwards.

“It is very lovely,” Ama says, of the land she has never seen. “There are real streets and buildings. Lots of cars. “The ocean is nearby and it is a huge distance filled with water. You can swim in it and there are fish. And it can rain there for days.”

In the imagination of a refugee, any place on the other side of the wall, wherever it is, must be beautiful.

Syria

By Mona Mahmood

The Guardian, HOMS, Syria

Since the Syrian civil war broke out in earnest, Homs has become a city crisscrossed by walls, separating different neighborhoods according to their ethnic minorities and loyalty or hostility toward the regime.

Hay Bab Amru, known for long resistance to the army, is enclaved by a wall that separates it from Hay al-Insha’at, which is inhabited by a mixture of Sunnis and Christians. The only way to get inside Bab Amru is to go through checkpoints guarded by the army and there is only a single passage for cars. The three-meter-high wall, which was built a year ago, is filled with snipers. Al-Zahra district, meanwhile, is loyal to the regime. Rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire never stop, so the regime built a six-meter high wall around it.

Abu Ahmed, Farouq brigade commander in Homs, said: “The regime used concrete walls to separate Alawite districts from those inhibited by Sunnis. At the beginning the regime was looking for a buffer zone between loyal and disloyal districts to provide security by which Alawite people can get in our districts but we can’t.

“By the end of 2012, some fighters infiltrated Bab Amru and tough battles broke out. The regime was afraid to lose Bab Amru again, especially as it is adjacent to three Alawite districts.

“In old Homs, a huge concrete wall was built. If you go where the political security branch is in Homs, you will see something like a prison. The road is divided into two parts and there is a 1km-long wall.

“The regime now is more concerned about Alawite families than the army. The regime is trying to provide as much security as it can to the Alawite to make them feel their districts are safe.”