In the aftermath of the so-called migration crisis in Europe, as the fiction of intra-European freedom of movement has become more and more contested, the Alps have been transformed into a node of intensified logistical tension. Heightened border surveillance across mountain passes and the various transportation routes that traverse them has forced migrants into ever more dangerous crossing points (Items 1 and 2). At the same time, local administrators from border towns across the entire Alpine arc have passed particularly aggressive local legislation foreclosing access to any form of public assistance for people on the move (Item 3).
A few hundred kilometres to the south-east, the mountainous, cross-border area of the Prespa lakes, shared between Greece, Albania and Northern Macedonia, has recently emerged as a node along the so-called “Balkan Route” travelled by migrants on their way to central Europe. A trilateral nature reserve, largely devoid of people, with few, decaying infrastructures left to demarcate the edges of the three states (Item 4, 5 and 6), the area is today widely referred to as a “green border”. This seemingly naturalized separation line, however, is the result of decades-long violent processes of dispossession and erasure (Item 7 and 8), which have in turn rendered regional ecosystems “wild” frontiers subject to peculiar legal regimes. In the absence of human residents, these layered border histories are narrated by the ecological processes and the more-than-human inhabitants of the region’s lush, and haunted forests (Item 9 and 10).
Research by Stefanos Levidis and Lorenzo Pezzani
This time chart is part of a series titled Tempi Morti, which investigates how bordering practices have affected the very temporality of migrants' existence. The Journey describes migrants’ travels along the Brenner Railway line, which since 2016 has been the object of increased securitisation and policing. Through these practices, the entire railway line has been transformed into a site of control, and the border flipped 90 degrees: no longer a line that bisects the railway line horizontally, but a set of mobile practices that follows certain bodies along a vertical axis of circulation. The two collective biographies represented on this time chart were composed from a series of group interviews and discussions that took place during a 2019 workshop with asylum seekers and activists living in the region.
This leaflet can be found in Oulx, a small mountain town at the border between Italy and France, which together with Bardonecchia has become in recent years a popular migrant crossing point. Since 2011, and especially after 2014, intensified policing along the most easily accessible transportation routes, from Ventimiglia to Como and Brenner, has meant that many migrants have been progressively forced to cross the Alps via rugged mountain passes or hiding on trains and trucks. This is not an entirely new phenomenon, but one that has characterised various phases of tensions between EU member states since the signing of the Schengen agreement that drastically reduced intra- European border checks while reinforcing external ones.
The so-called ‘Circolare Critelli’ is a circular letter by the Bolzano/Bozen Provincial Authority, which excludes certain categories of people, including those classified as ‘ vulnerable’, from accessing public services normally provided to asylum seekers. This measure is paradigmatic of a wider attempt by many local administrators of border and transit towns across and beyond the EU, who have sought to deter the influx of migrants by passing particularly aggressive local legislation that prevents them from accessing any form of public assistance. By making it nearly impossible for certain subjects to live a normal life, these policies have conjured up a diffuse atmosphere of surveillance, a form of racialised violence that has become, in some sense, as pervasive as the weather.
The ridgeline of Mount Varnountas/Pelister overlooking the Prespa basin was first imagined as a border—at the time separating Greece and Serbia—in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars in 1913. In 1930, in an effort to delineate the border, a joint Greco-Serbian committee installed eleven large “pyramids” and several smaller landmarks on the ridge, severing the multi-ethnic communities that inhabited the different slopes. The border continued to be made and remade over the following years. During the 1945-1949 Greek Civil War, the ridge became a stronghold for the communist partisans of the Democratic Army of Greece, and the theatre of major battles that left significant scars on the landscape, still visible today. The violent seasonal changes and glacial processes typical of these altitudes continue to damage and efface the landmarks that were built to demarcate the state. Originally made from boulders collected from the area and cast into a pyramid shape with cement, these symbols of the impermanence of borders—and of the state whose limits they demarcate—have eventually become indiscernible from the mountain, obscuring the border itself.
The Macedonian-speaking village of Besfina, hellenised as Sfika in 1926, was abandoned after the 1945-1949 Greek Civil War. Its approximately 300 residents fled with the partisans who had turned those border areas into their stronghold: first to Eastern Europe, and then to places as far as Toronto, Melbourne, and Tashkent. Far from being an isolated case, the villagers of Besfina/Sfika joined thousands more who were forced into exile by the Greek state in an effort to purge the newly acquired lands along the country’s northern borders of their Slavic character, which was deemed incompatible with the imaginary of Greekness.
Since then, the mud and straw dwellings that made up the village have slowly eroded, becoming indistinguishable from natural topography, with the exception of one stone structure: the church of St. Athanasius. The very presence of the church, which constituted architectural “evidence” of Christianity amongst the inhabitants of Sfika, played a key role in the annexation of the village by the Greek state.
The ruins of the church of St. Athanasius in Besfina/Sfika, now entirely enveloped by a thick forest, are frequented today by animals that thrive on the forest’s edge, feeding on the fruit of abandoned orchards. Captured by motion-triggered “trail” or “trap” cameras–a surveillance and conservation tool repurposed here as a filmic medium—the creatures remain as the last witnesses of the village’s rich history and the border processes that led to the violent expulsion of its inhabitants.
Herbarium Besfinense is a botanical survey of the plants growing inside the ruins of the St. Athanasius church in the abandoned village of Besfina/Sfika on the Greek-Macedonian border. Comprising 33 samples, the Herbarium interrogates the vegetative matter of the young, enclosed forest in order to uncover traces of life in the village prior to its abandonment in the 1940s.
The flora—which includes a diversity of plant taxa, both wild and cultivated—continues to grow inside and around the church ruins as the forest expands across the village, serving as “ruderal evidence” to the recent existence of an extensive human community and the violent processes that led to the village’s collapse. Of particular interest is the sample of Iris germanica, presented here, which has proliferated around the church; known for its use as an ornamental plant, it serves as evidence of a funerary space in the absence of the graves which have by now been mostly covered by soil and vegetation.