‘When you think about “No Man’s Lands” – the term – it’s become intimately associated with the First World War. Most people actually don’t really think about No Man’s Lands anywhere else, other than that ruined stretch of earth down the French-Belgian-Swiss border area.’
Alasdair Pinkerton is aiming to change this inaccurate perception of territorial blind spots, and the subject forms the focus of a new project entitled Into No Man’s Land, with an expedition taking him and a team across Europe and into North Africa, visiting numerous sites of No Man’s Lands in the UK, France, the Balkans, and Cyprus, before finishing at the border between Egypt and Sudan.
Pinkerton, a senior Lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway University of London, is keen to highlight that not only are No Man’s Lands not a quirky concept to be forever associated only with the First World War, but that in recent months we have seen a classic example of how they can spring out of nowhere to become dominant features of the geopolitical landscape.
‘When we were planning this [expedition], we couldn’t have anticipated how contemporary it was going to be,’ he tells Geographical, ‘because with the refugee crisis, you’ve now got new No Man’s Lands opening up in the heart of Europe, at the internal edges of the European project. I don’t think anyone could realistically have anticipated that a railway platform in Hungary could have emerged as a No Man’s Land this summer, but that’s exactly what’s happened.’
The purpose of the overall project is to investigate instances of No Man’s Lands across Europe, incorporating multi-sensory data collection such as taking photographs and video panoramas, conducting interviews, and recording soundscapes of the selected sites along the way, to try and better understand the concept. Going right the way back to the beginning, this starts with understanding how the term first came into existence.
‘The phrase “No Man’s Land” has its origins nearly a thousand years ago, in medieval England, to describe little bits of land that fell outside of either church or state administration,’ Pinkerton explains. ‘These were places that nobody could quite agree on who should administer at a local level. So you’ve got quite a lot of different places in England called Nomansland even to this day.’
Therefore, first on the agenda after departing today from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in London, the team travelled to one of these historically-named places – Nomansland Common in Hertfordshire. ‘It was the subject of a big debate in the church about which cathedral should administer this area – would it be Westminster cathedral, or would it be the cathedral in St Albans?’ says Pinkerton. ‘Neither were willing to take ownership. You had this incredible incident in the 17th century, where somebody died on Nomansland Common, and nobody was willing to take the body, or to organise its burial. Then, both churches saw an opportunity to extend their diocese, and started competing over the body and literally pinching this body back and forth in order that they could assert their control. There’s a wonderful thousand year old story to be told about some of these places.’
After leaving the UK and arriving in continental Europe, the team will next travel through the iconic landscape along the French–Belgian border which has become synonymous with the First World War, where they will be working with communities from nine villages who were displaced by the violence which took place a century ago. ‘This is the extraordinary lasting legacy of the Great War,’ continues Pinkerton. ‘Even after more than a hundred years, there are still destroyed villages inside areas of forest – called the ‘Zone Rouge’ – where the land was determined by the French government to be so poisoned with chlorine, arsenic, lead, and other chemicals, that they were permanently unfit for human habitation.’
Over the course of the next month, the expedition will take them through Europe, at a time when the refugee crisis means that the free movement of people across the continent is being challenged now as much as anytime in recent decades. ‘We are going to be crossing a lot of these borders, and undoubtedly encountering these migratory populations,’ he predicts.
“If you look for them, you can detect No Man’s Lands in lots of places”
From Southern Europe, the team will eventually arrive in Cyprus, where the future of the divided island is being debated in ongoing talks by representatives of the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities on the two halves of the island, while the UN keep watch over the 180km buffer zone which splits the island in half. They will work with 40 schoolchildren, drawn from both sides of the divide, and encourage them to ‘creatively re-imagine’ the future of the buffer zone, in a scenario where the two sides have been able to come to an official agreement.
‘If there was ever a resolution in Cyprus, what should the buffer zone become?’ Pinkerton muses. ‘Should it become an incredible green belt? Should it become a site for inter-communal co-operation? Or should it returned to the old land ownership patterns from before 1964 and 1974 [when the island was divided in two]? How do you turn this remnant from the past into something hopeful for the future?’
Finally, the journey will conclude at the unique site of Bir Tawil, a 2,000 square kilometre piece of land in either south Egypt or north Sudan, depending on which historical map you choose to recognise. ‘The British created this problem because of the different maps that we produced in 1898 and 1901 that selectively gave or didn’t give this bit of land to Egypt and Sudan,’ explains Pinkerton. ‘Both countries choose to enforce the outline of the country that was given to them in either 1898 or 1901 that includes an area called the Hala’ib Triangle, which could be a very economically productive bit of land on the Red Sea coast. But in order to claim that, they both disclaim Bir Tawil.’
Becase of how the two maps were drawn up, if either side were to accept ownership of Bir Tawil, it would require acknowledgement of a map which undermines their claims to the Hala’ib Triangle. Therefore, as Pinkerton points out, ‘It’s not just unclaimed; it’s a disclaimed bit of land. Neither country wants it. Other than Antarctica, which is locked down because of the Antarctic Treaty, this is the last unclaimed bit of land left on Earth.’
Bir Tawil also highlights how complicated these kinds of spaces can be; that while they are often presented as a result of two opposing forces, there are in many cases many more actors involved than just two, including, as with many other hotspots to be visited along this expedition, the people living or operating within the ‘No Man’s Land’ itself.
‘The reason that the British gave this bit of land to Egypt is because of the Ababda tribe, who uses Bir Tawil as a historic grazing space,’ continues Pinkerton. ‘It seasonally migrates from Aswan, in Egypt, down to this border area. Just because the Egyptian state doesn’t choose to acknowledge ownership, that doesn’t mean that the Ababda tribe, for whom Bir Tawil was created, disclaims its historic rights to this area.’
‘If you look for them, you can detect No Man’s Lands in lots of places,’ enthuses Pinkerton. ‘There are abandoned places and abandoned people within cities, between countries, between different districts of countries, along disputed borders all over the world. No Man’s Lands are historic. They’re also contemporary, and they take a whole host of different forms depending on the legislation or the boundary making processes that are underway. That’s the kind of thing that we really want to try and unpick with this expedition.’