Atmosphere


The atmosphere on the minibus is tense. Quiet and unsmiling the guard slowly moves from person to person, scrutinising with unflinching eye each and every document, peering from passport to face to passport again. First the babushka with her husband, floral shawl wrapped tight around head; now the young mother, hushing the little bundle cradled in her arms.

It’s stuffy – someone behind me tries to stifle a cough - but we all await our turn patiently. A pungent mixture of stale sweat and alcohol hangs heavy in the air whilst condensation drips down the windows , the heated proximity of so many human bodies crushed together in stark contrast to the frost that covers the ground outside.. A tense silence reigns supreme, for we all know that this is the guard’s game and we must play by his rules.

Soon the uniform, green and immaculate, looms large next to me. I manage a weak smile as I compliantly hand over my passport and migration card but the glare I receive in return ends my insincerity. An unkind eye scrutinises the documents, searching for any infringement. An eternity passes, another cough; then a decision is made. “Off”, he growls in deep Russian, signalling towards the door. There is no room for debate, no opportunity for dissent.

I’m frogmarched in a poky little office a short distance away. There’s paperwork strewn everywhere; a couple of retro computers flicker brightly. In broken English the guard points to my migration card, and it’s now I realise my big mistake. I should have left the country by 11 in the morning; the grubby clock on the wall says 1. My welcome in Transnistria officially expired two hours ago.

The guard sits himself down in front of one of the monitors and begins to stab at the keyboard with podgy fingers. He then turns it to me, grim faced. The numbers read 318. “You pay. Euro.” €318. Just to leave.

I try not to panic. I plead. I pat down my pockets. I look helpless. But he just sits there, a hint of a smile playing on his lips. This is his court, his kingdom.

I dig deep, my fingers touching a small wad and I place it in front of him, like an offering to some ancient god. He picks it up and examines it closely between finger and thumb. A small shake of the head. Niet. Not good enough. I find some more money, this time Moldovan Lei. Again he picks it up, this time smiling broadly. Yes, yes, this will do.

The melodrama suddenly comes to an abrupt end. He springs up, hands me back a 50 Lei note, shakes my hand, and motions me out of the door. I quickly leave before he changes his mind and rush back to the waiting mini bus, relieved that the cost of freedom couldn’t have been more than £10. It is, after all, just another day at the Transnistrian border.

K Ruffles

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