The Man Without Borders

Text: Maria Axenti

Photos: Diana Erhan

For 24 years Already, Uncle Sasha has been working on the boat carrying people over Dniester. Neither the river, nor the cross border points are barriers for him at all.

Some passengers in Uncle’s Sasha boat
Some passengers in Uncle’s Sasha boat

I’m standing near the border checking point at Dniester. I can’t cross it over in this place, I’m not even allowed just to go down to the river, I can only look at the Ukrainian bank and enjoy the landscape. According to an intergovernmental agreement, this border crossing point is open only for the residents of Soroca district of Moldova and Yampol district of Ukraine. All the others must cross the border in another place using the central ferry which is located 1 km away on the quay in the direction of the fortress. There you have a stamp in your passport, Duty Free and five lei to cross the river with the ferry.

I’m watching from the quay the boat floating. It pushes off invisibly from the Ukrainian bank and approaches the Moldovan one. Back then I didn’t realise how easily you can end up in another country in a few minutes. This easiness lived there, it nourished this place and people got used to it. Three men maybe Ukrainians, maybe Moldovans got out of the boat. They climbed the stairs to the checking point and waited for a border guard. He had a look at their ID cards, nodded, and they disappeared absorbed by their own affairs.

It’s raining in Soroca. It’s lunch time and it seems Uncle Sasha has plans. He quickly tied up the boat and here I was with my bunch of questions.

“My profession? Which profession? Just carrying back and forth. Back and forth. I started to work when borders were not yet here, in ’91, before the collapse. The boat simply worked for people. It was open at any hour without any control. We lived together and all we had was common.”

The boatman I had been waiting for in awe kept talking to me while heading to the city and I started to worry that our conversation would end soon. The rain was getting stronger but we continued to talk. I felt relieved.

Uncle Sasha has been working as boatman for 24 years.
Uncle Sasha has been working as boatman for 24 years.

Uncle Sasha is wearing warm clothes. He has a cap protecting him from rain or from the sun, and a shoulder bag. He gesticulates a lot, he has kind eyes and I have the impression he will tell anything whatever I ask. He was born in Tsekinivka, the village across Soroca and calls himself “khokhol” – an ethnonym the Ukrainians dislike, while his wife is Moldovan. They have a house there and an apartment here. The concepts of “here” and “there” change easily depending on the direction of Dniester stream. Uncle Sasha passionately tells me about the boat, how it works, how one could get from one bank to another without expenses just by using the power of the river stream. He is proud this is environmentally friendly and he is even more proud to have kept and improved this knowledge from the ancestors. Uncle Sasha speaks a lot about the boat, however he prefers to talk about people.

“Of course the relations between neighbours persisted. You know, it’s just a pity, your sister comes to you, everyone has a family. So, you live in Tsekinivka of Yampol district but your sister lives in Tamashpol and she needs a passport to come to Soroca and then she must cross the border only on ferry and that’s it! She lives in a village and now she should do this passport but she doesn’t need it. This is problematic only because people created these problems.

For example, you live in Tsekinivka or in Soroca. You could go to your friends any time. “Sasha, let’s go and celebrate. It’s birthday and you have a party. Fun, rest, drinks. At one or two o’clock at night you take the boat and go home. Now this is impossible! Now you come to me: “Come on, friend, let’s seat and celebrate” You stay, drink 20 grams and then: “Oh! The boat closes at six, I need to run!” The party is on, your friends stay but you must run home because that’s all there, the border closes.

Borders are for somebody, I don’t have any borders, do you understand? I walk and I meet you and from now on I will know you. So you’ll come and say: “Uncle Sasha, hello!” and I will say: “Hello” and it doesn’t matter for me who you are – Moldovan, Gagauzian or whoever, you are a human being.”

Since that moment I felt I had the moral right to call this boatman I hadn’t known before – Uncle Sasha. And I was convinced that the locals from both banks definitely had the same affection to him. Looking at this simple man with deep wrinkles around his eyes, I thought he was not aware of his honour or fate. He knows where and at what time the locals go to work, he knows the price of electricity in Tsekinivka and peaches in Soroca. Tomorrow there will be a queue here in Soroca as they have market days in Tsekinivka on Tuesdays, Saturdays and the day after tomorrow the queue will be on the other side since Wednesdays, and Sundays are Soroca’s market days. People from both banks seat in the boat and go shopping where the offers are better. We discuss the conflict in Transnistria, the war in Donbass, his villagers that have some injuries, uncle Sasha was lucky – due to his age military service was not mandatory for him. We talk about the latest political events in both Ukraine and Moldova and we are coming back again to the idea that it’s better without borders and we must be humane.

River Dniester separates Moldova and Ukraine. There is no bridge and a ferry and a boat make the connection between localities.
River Dniester separates Moldova and Ukraine. There is no bridge and a ferry and a boat make the connection between localities.

“I enter a shop in Soroca and say: “Glory to Ukraine” and people know I’m joking and everybody understands that’s a joke and there a young man approaches and grabs me: “Are you a nationalist?” We are going out and I tell him: “Did these words really hurt you? Do you want me to say: “Jos Alianța” (Out the Alliance, in Moldovan). Would that be OK? Would that convince you? I can say „Bună ziua” (Hello, in Moldovan). I like here one customs officer, he is super, he is a great guy. When I’m arriving on the boat he cries to us: “Dobrogo ranku, Ukraina! Bună dimineața, Moldova ” (Good morning, Ukraine in Ukrainian and Good morning, Moldova in Moldovan). A pure heart. For both Ukrainians and Moldovans.

I know the political views of everyone. There is a man, he sympathises with the communists. During the boat ride I start the topic: “Communists are assholes” and that’s enough. For him that’s like a red rag. Another man seats in front of him and he’s against communists. That was a joke but they start arguing and are ready to drown each other. I may say “I’m for Yulia Timoshenko” in the presence of those who are against. I just love to have more fun in the boat. I’m doing all these to cheer people up.

Or, I come to a shop in Trikotazhka (a district in Soroca), I enter it saying: “Glory to Ukraine”. The sales girls respond to me: “Glory to the heroes” and I look at the shopping list I got from my wife: sausage, this and that and I take out hryvnas. Five women stay in line behind me and I’m joking: “Since I’m a khokhol I don’t have local money, I have only Ukrainian money. I don’t have other one.” The girls know I’m joking: “Uncle Sasha, please don’t make fun of us. Fiscal service will come and it wouldn’t be funny at all”. And here I say: “I forgot! I have Moldovan lei as well!” By the way, do you know how to check money? If banknotes are forged or not? 

Uncle Sasha deeply sighs being upset because I don’t know how to check money. From his leather shoulder bag he takes out a pile of money tied with a rubber band. Serious and concentrated, he takes a Moldovan banknote, shakes it out several times, and says if the crown doesn’t fall, it means the banknote is not counterfeit. The laugh is all around. Even Uncle Sasha started to laugh. I’m sure something interesting is to come. In order to check Ukrainian money it’s necessary to swipe a piece of lard across the banknote and if the eyes are following the lard, it means money is real, if not, then it’s counterfeit.

Uncle Sasha is happy he made me laughing and he smiles warmly as well. He tells me some more jokes and we are moving away from this place where the passport and residency is more important than the human being. I’m looking at Uncle Sasha and I’m trying to understand – is that his job that made him so open and sensible or he was just like that and perfectly suitable for this job? He is not just connecting two banks physically while taking people across Dniester or across the border, how some would call it, he unifies this microcosm with his human attitude, nice joke or just a kind look.

Story first published in “NOUA” Magazine 2015 (www.nouamagazine.com)

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