The other day I was thinking about Poland. Especially a little city in eastern Poland called Wlodawa. Running along the east side of this delightful little city is a river that serves as the border between Poland and Belarus. Nothing terribly exciting happened to me along the banks of this river, but for some reason an experience I had there has always really stood out to me.
My friends and I had been wandering the streets of Wlodawa looking for an adventure when one of my friends recognized where we were and wanted to show us a place she had gone the day before. She led us down a road to the edge of the city and along a path through a meadow. Behind us stood the city, with two of its most recognizable buildings–the Russian Orthodox church to the left and the St. Ludwik Catholic church to the right–peeping out from the trees.
Once we reached the banks of the river, she pointed to the opposite bank and told us we were looking at Belarus. She then told us when she’d come to this place earlier, the guide had told them that should they attempt to cross the river into Belarus, they would be immediately shot down. A member of the group commented that he saw no watch towers. The guide retorted, “Yes, but you would hear the shots.”
Upon hearing this I gazed across the narrow river to Belarus. Surely enough, I didn’t see watch towers either. It appeared to be a quiet, unthreatening countryside. The only thing that looked out of place was a red post. Perhaps it was a camera keeping watch over the lazy river, or perhaps it was simply used to mark the border.
By all accounts everything appeared safe across the river in the Belarus farmlands. However, we did no more than dip our toes into the water from our Polish shore before making our way back through the meadow to town.
I’ve reflected back on that experience often. I’ve wondered if maybe the guide just didn’t want to deal with a bunch of wet Americans galavanting through Belarus, so he exaggerated the consequences a bit. I’ve found the exact spot we stood with the satellite setting of Google Maps and explored (with my cursor) the parts of Belarus I saw but never touched. I saw nothing but uninhabited, beautiful land for a few miles.
And despite my doubts that a country would actually shoot at people crossing such a discreet border, if I were to go back I still would not have waded across. For although I did not see the watch towers, I certainly wouldn’t want to hear the sound of guns being fired at me.
After all, there are other ways to get to Belarus. A thirty minute drive northward along the border gets you to the nearest Poland/Belarus customs. And here’s a fun fact: The Poland/Ukraine border is just south of Wlodawa, and a fifty minute drive southward from Wlodawa takes you to the Poland/Ukraine customs.
When I think about standing on the banks of the river with Belarus almost within reach, I also consider less tangible borders. There are legal borders in the form of laws and spiritual borders in the form of commandments. Sometimes with these borders, it looks completely innocent to metaphorically wade across the border. There are no watch towers in sight and it’s only this one time. But if you know it’s wrong to cross the border, why does it matter if there are watch towers? Wrong is always wrong–it doesn’t matter if someone is watching.