Kapka Kassabova

Winner in 2018 for Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe

Kapka Kassabova is the author of the multi-award winning Border (Granta 2017) and To the Lake (Granta 2020) which won France’s Best Foreign Book of the Year. Her next book is Elixir (Cape 2023). She grew up in Sofia and lives in the highlands of Scotland. 

Portrait of Kapka Kassabova
Image credit: Alastair Fyfe

To see both lakes, you must climb the mountain that separates them – but only on the surface. Lakes Ohrid and Prespa are connected by underground rivers in a lacustrine system unique to Eurasia. They are Europe’s oldest lakes.

You scale Mean Valley, passing bear-dung and wild thyme. Across Mean Valley – an abandoned Albanian border station. For fifty years, the Albanian and Yugoslav sides faced off. The people of the lakes could see each other across the water, but the iron curtain kept them in parallel realities. Today, once you pass the sleepy lakeside checkpoint by Saint Naum Monastery, and walk into Albanian territory, all you see from that era are bunkers – monuments to despotic insanity.

It’s the hardest thing, to practise unconditional peace.

At 2,200 metres, the lakes appear as eyes in an ancient face. Ohrid is an oval. Prespa is a tear. Prespa above feeds Ohrid below, and the water is filtered by the limestone mountain. This is why Ohrid, thirty kilometres long and almost three hundred metres deep, was once called Lacus Lihnitis, lake of light.

These lakes are earth’s hermitages. The founder of the eponymous monastery, the monk Naum, was a healer of the insane and the melancholy. For a millennium, pilgrims have been coming to his grave to make wishes. The shores of both lakes are full of cave churches and dwellings, with frescoes so life-like they almost walk and talk. Until the 1940s, monks and nuns lived here and practised unconditional peace.

It’s the hardest thing, to practise unconditional peace.

I looked for a map that showed the entire lake ecosystem, but couldn’t find one in any of the three countries that share the two lakes. I found myopic maps where ‘our’ slice of the lake stops at the border. ‘Our’ side is blue, ‘their’ side is blank. Their side barely has the cartographic right to exist. On the ground, of course, people mingle in marriage, business, suffering and hope – when the border allows it. And for much of the last seventy years, it hasn’t.

Boats are still prohibited from crossing into neighbouring lake territory, and they know exactly where in the water the invisible lines run and when to turn back. In North Macedonia, you hear the Italian pop-music of Albanian restaurants and smell the fish. But to get there, you must use the land checkpoint. It’s the dementia of hard borders. They forget why they were there, but they also forget to leave.

During the First World War, the Macedonian Front passed through here. It was the main Balkan front and the site of tens of thousands of multi-national deaths, including British. A generation after, the Italian front in Albania stretched west of here. When Mussolini withdrew, his soldiers were left to starve or shelter with locals. Mountains unfold to the Aegean and to the Adriatic. From here, you see that to treat an ecosystem like geopolitical pie is insanity. That insanity breeds melancholy for generations. And here I am.

Bridge to Agios Achillios island at Prespa Lakes

Prespa is as vast as Ohrid and even has a companion lakelet, Mikri Prespa – home to Europe’s largest colony of Dalmatian pelicans. But the two Prespas are separated by the post-WWI border, drawn quickly across the map in straight lines. The mother lake is split among North Macedonia, Albania, and Greece. The little one is in Greece but with its tail end in Albania.

On Lake Prespa is a checkpoint that was closed by the Greek military junta in 1967 and not reopened since. People are desperate for contact. Because of the closed checkpoint, their villages are dying. For half a century now, they have been banned from walking down the lakeside road into the first village on the other side. You must spend half a day crossing mountains to an inland checkpoint. After one hundred and seventy kilometres, driving through the ruined highland villages of the Greek Civil War, you return to the same lakeside. At dusk, you walk along the reedbeds of no man’s land, and you see the starting point of your journey. You salute the tatty Greek flag and spot the lonely Macedonian border guard who smokes in a halo of butterflies.

You watch your journey eat its tail. You have tracked the zero-sum achievement of hard borders. Hard borders are the manifestation of war that doesn’t end. Even a short war has a long aftermath. Our whole lives can feel like the aftermath of war, until suddenly there is war again and we’re in the centre of it. I am the fourth generation of lake women to emigrate and leave family behind, because of war and its aftermath: hard borders on the ground, in the family, in the body. I came to my maternal lakes to seek the source of the pain I inherited. After Border, I yearned to experience boundlessness. I came to my grandmother’s lake in search of connection. But I found another triple border. And in that border, I found the source of the pain.

My great-grandfather fought in the First World War. My grandfather fought in the next war. My father spent the first two years of my life on compulsory army service. My cousins in Ohrid have children who may live a life of peace or may not. Our Bulgarian-Macedonian family has been scattered across the world for four generations, because of war. The systemic disease called ‘balkanisation’ doesn’t belong to the Balkans. It moves virulently across the globe, splitting ecosystems, families, nations, and our psyches.

Hard borders are the manifestation of war that doesn’t end.

From here, the lakes and their hinterland are boundless. Families, nations, empires all come to an end. The lakes have survived for a million years in symbiosis. Peace comes off the water like a hum. Your nervous system rests. Your pain subsides. The lakes enter you and you remember that you are ninety per cent water. You are born boundless, and boundlessness is your destination. The Sufi dervishes who lived alongside the nuns and monks knew it. They whirled towards boundlessness. A tiny community of whirling Sufis still lives by the lake.

You walk down Mean Valley and lose Prespa from view. One day, there will be no borders to cross. Two recent peace pacts were signed here: the Ohrid Agreement in 2001 which ended the post-Kosovo conflict in Macedonia, and the Prespa Agreement in 2018 between Greece and North Macedonia which ended nothing, but changed Macedonia’s name.

Peace is a lake, and all roads end at the lakes, like the grand Via Egnatia that carried armies, caravans, messengers and false messiahs from west to east and east to west for centuries, and is now seamlessly reclaimed by the lakes.

Sign up to our email newsletters