Fortuitous Lines

Borders create paradoxes: when you cross them, everything changes but much stays the same. In Borderlands, Dutch journalist Milo van Bokkum describes this paradox and the way locals deal with the complexities caused by these often arbitrarily drawn lines.

The Cooch Behar region on the border between India and Pakistan consists of hundreds of exclaves, contra-exclaves and the world's only contra-contra exclave: an Indian field in Bangladesh, in India, in Bangladesh. The pink territories are Indian exclaves in Bangladesh, the green ones are Bangladeshi exclaves in India.

Image from the book

Some weeks ago, a group of exiled Chagos Islanders set foot on a ship heading towards their homeland. Their 1,130 miles voyage marked the first time they were able to travel to the remote archipelago in the Indian Ocean without British escort. ‘I will be free’, one of the Chagossians was quoted in the Guardian. The British newspaper sent two reporters to accompany the group on this extraordinary trip. ‘On the top deck, the Chagossians danced and sang in gentle, warm rain’, the journalists wrote, ‘raising glasses of champagne beside two open-air hot tubs.’ Two days later, the red, blue, yellow and green flag of Mauritius was planted on the atoll of Peros Banhos.

Why is this trip so historic? In the late sixties, the United Kingdom decided to rent the archipelago out to the United States, to build a military base in the Indian Ocean. The inhabitants were expelled, most of them to Mauritius. And even though the United Nations adopted a resolution in 2019 stating that the archipelago forms an integral part of Mauritius, the sovereignty of this area is still disputed by the Maldives and the UK. In the meantime, Chagossians were unable to return home.

Diego Garcia is an atoll in the Indian Ocean: a ring shaped island, not more than thirty square kilometres of land. It is part of the Chagos Archipelago, a territory disputed between Mauritius, the Maldives and the United Kingdom.

Image from the book

This geopolitical dispute and the impact on the lives of the original inhabitants is just one of the compelling cases that are described in the magnificent book Borderlands (2021), by the Dutch journalist Milo van Bokkum. Most of these cases find themselves trapped in the shadow of contemporary history, locked in a political limbo – until the conflict flares up, as happened last week with the Chagos Islands.

Interested in geographical borders and the complexities that often result from them, Van Bokkum set out to analyse the most curious cases on our planet. The book is an absolute must for our readership – at least for our Dutch audience, as unfortunately it has only been published in Dutch (Grensstreken: Waarom grenzen liggen waar ze liggen).

Van Bokkum’s quest started when he wondered who decided these borders in the first place, and why they are where they are, and not somewhere else. In many instances, the answer is rather sobering: borders were drawn by bureaucrats – often Western diplomats – who were often ignorant about the actual situation on the ground. However, their lines have had a huge impact on the lives of countless people, even to this day.

A telling example is the Caprivi strip in Southwest Africa: a panhandle of over four hundred kilometres belonging to Namibia, surrounded by Botswana to the South and Angola and Zambia to the North. This represents, writes Van Bokkum, one of the biggest geopolitical blunders of the nineteenth century. The German diplomat Leo von Caprivi intended to provide what was then the German Southwest Africa with access to the Zambezi River and consequently to German East Africa. However, he did not realize that about 65 kilometres east of the Caprivi Strip are the Victoria Falls – and thus the route was not navigable. Now, the miraculous Caprivi strip is one of the strangest features on the map of Africa.

The author zooms in on different kinds of border anomalies: enclaves and exclaves, micronations, isolated territories and land claimed by more than one state. The combination of historical research with humoristic anecdotes makes his work a pleasure to read. His border addiction becomes more and more contagious when Van Bokkum shares his remarkable amount of knowledge and enthusiasm about this topic.

Simultaneously, the author touches upon several cases that underline that borders can also create tragic situations, for example in Korea, where families are still divided between the North and the South. Obviously, the local population is the biggest victim of the geopolitical conflict that resulted in a straight line across the 38th parallel.

Detail of the map of Tirol. The mountains that form the border between Austria and Germany are depicted in great detail.

Image from the book

If borders bring about so many complexities and conflicts, why are we still so attached to them, wonders Van Bokkum in his book. His answer: borders have become our obsession. We as humans feel the urge to define Us against the Other, to delineate our territories. We do not accept hybridity.

Still, hybridity could help us to settle our battles about land, he argues. Why do we not try condominia more often: sharing territory and exercising rights jointly, instead of multiple powers claiming it. It has worked (to some extent) in Moresnet and Vanuatu and could be a solution to other border disputes as well. Van Bokkum theorizes about shared sovereignty in the city of Jerusalem and explains why it is not as impossible as one might think at first glance. De facto, sovereignty is already shared on many levels. Still, the author acknowledges that the political reality is more obstinate.

The real geo-nerds among our audience might find the book somewhat unsatisfactory at some points. The examples are telling, but sometimes they merely scratch the surface and cry out for more elaboration. But we cannot blame the author, as his work seems to be intended foremost as a glimpse into the crazy world of borders more than as an in-depth analysis of specific cases. And, rest assured, even the biggest geo-nerds will find cases in this book that they had not heard about before.

Milo van Bokkum, Grensstreken: Waarom grenzen liggen waar ze liggen. Uitgeverij Van Oorschot, 2021.