Returning from No Man’s Land

IMG_2246Yesterday, I was very pleased to give a PDS Research Seminar in the Department of Geography reflecting my the recent “Into No-Man’s Land expedition” with Noam Leshem (Durham University).

I had some great questions from the audience, and I thought Geopolitics & Security blog readers might like to read a recent interview I gave to Klaus Dodds about the expedition and the concept of No-Man’s Land.

This interview was originally published on the Royal Holloway website, but this version includes some additional photography and video content!



It has been a busy start to the new teaching year but I was pleased to catch up with my colleague Al Pinkerton and the jointly organised No Man’s Land expedition.


The Into-NML team setting off from the Royal Geographical Society

Working with our former colleague, Noam Leshem (now Durham University) and Media Producer, Elliot Graves, and supported by the RGS-IBG, Land Rover, and Royal Holloway and Durham universities, the expedition left London in September and travelled through the heart of Europe ending up in Cyprus and ultimately in the southern quarter of Egypt, close to the Sudanese border.


Our route – from Nomansland to No-Man’s Land

Over 6,000 miles and multiple countries and regions, the expedition encountered a range of No Man’s Lands (NMLs) from the parishes of southern England to the UN-monitored buffer zone of Cyprus (‘the green line’). In some cases the NMLs were no more than a few fields; in other cases they were heavily policed and securitised zones. Some were devoid of people and some were not. Some were accessible and some proved inaccessible. All of them, regardless of size and scope, had more complex ecologies then might be first assumed whether it be via geopolitical, social, cultural and environmental registers.

As Al and Noam suggest in their recently published article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, no man’s lands are complex spaces and ones deserving of greater attention from political geographers and social scientists more generally. While their characteristics are not uniform, they remind us that the apparently fixed order of states, territory and sovereignty is far from assured, both past and present.

Working with this ambiguity, I wanted to find out more from Al about the expedition and his plans for the future. And he generously agreed to answer a few questions about it.

Welcome back! Can you remind us what the purpose of the NML expedition was?

This was an expedition that was born out of a question that intrigued me and my co-researcher Dr Noam Leshem: What is ‘no man’s land’? This is a term and a concept that gets used every day by people to describe everything from urban no-go zones and offshore tax havens to the spaces between signposted borders, and to specific sites such as Antarctica, the contaminated site around Chernobyl, the DMZ between North and South Korea, and the UN Buffer Zone in Cyprus. But what links these places? Do they share common qualities and characteristics? By visiting sites and spaces that have been designated as ‘no mans’ lands’ in the UK, Europe and the Middle East during our six week expedition, we wanted to understand what these places are, how they function, the lives and livelihoods that they support, and to uncover their social, political and cultural life. In other words, we wanted to overturn the myth that no man’s lands are somehow ‘dead zones’ and instead acknowledge that they are often vibrant living spaces.

Over the course of six weeks we travelled from a place called Nomansland in the UK, engaged with artists who work in the former no man’s land of the Great War, we travelled along the line of the exclusion zone that marked the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, we worked inside the UN Buffer Zone in Cyprus, and, ultimately, travelled through Egypt to visit the unclaimed trapezoid-shaped territory of Bir Tawil between the Egypt and Sudan borders – and, along with parts of Antarctica, is arguably the last unclaimed place on Earth.

What was the highlight for you in terms of the expedition?

It is difficult to pick out one highlight. We had so many incredible and fortuitous experiences over the 6,300 miles. Trying to get to Bir Tawil, the unclaimed territory between the Egypt and Sudan borders, was fascinating and frustrating and even though we didn’t make it, we were able to understand more about Bir Tawil by talking to members of the Bedouin and Ababda tribal communities who live in the northern Sahara.

Meeting refugees and migrants who had been trapped on Europe’s internal borders, such as between Slovenia and Croatia, was a powerful reminder that ‘no man’s lands’ are often subjective, selective and highly mobile. As EU passport holders travelling southwards we had relatively unfettered freedom of movement. Without the correct paperwork, though, people could find themselves trapped within what many journalists were calling “Europe’s new no man’s lands”.

For me, though, I have two real highlights. The first was the five days we spent in Cyprus, working with young people in order to reimagine the future of the UN Buffer Zone. Working with Architecture PhD students, the young Cypriots – who came from all communities on the island – devised schemes to take back and repurpose the Buffer Zone, which has lain more-or-less empty for nearly 40 years.

The second highlight was being given a bottle of wine by the Oscar-winning film director Danis Tanovic in Sarajevo. The wine, like his Oscar-winning film, was called “No Man’s Land”, and we were challenged to find its source. We’ve made a great video that tells the story!

What was the greatest challenge you faced while undertaking the expedition?

Undertaking an expedition is really hard work. The preparations took a long time. Seeking permissions, negotiating access, gathering letters of support from senior politicians, diplomats and institutions all took time and effort – and even these can’t provide guarantee that you’ll get to where you want to go. So, one of the greatest challenges was that logistical labour that we had to undertake before setting foot in our Land Rover.


But that’s not to say that the expedition itself wasn’t without challenges. We set ourselves a grueling schedule, often driving six-seven hours a day and then sitting down in the evening to write blog posts, edits photographs or videos to put on our website. This expedition was always about communicating our work to as wide an audience as possible, and we really tried to produce new and original content every day – even if that was just a few tweets. Video editing in the back of a car, even one as comfortable as a Land Rover and even for someone as capable as Elliot Graves (our logistics and media guru), is certainly a challenge, but the results were great.

Why do you think we need to better understand these unusual spaces?

No man’s lands seems to be proliferating – certainly the term is being applied to an ever greater numbers of places and spaces, and I think it’s important that we get to grips with what we mean by the term. After all, this is a term that existed in the English language for a thousand years, but which seems to have lost something of its critical meaning since the end of the Great War. This project – of which the expedition was only a part – is an opportunity both to re-examine what we mean and understand by no-man’s land as a concept, and to think about the social, cultural and geo-political implications of no man’s lands as a lived reality in the 21st century.

What is next for you and the team now that you are back at Royal Holloway and busy teaching on our MSc Geopolitics and Security and political geographers at undergraduate level?

In many ways, the completion of the expedition is just the beginning of our investigation into no man’s lands. We have plans for publications (our first article was just published online in Transactions), we have been asked to give policy briefings to government agencies, we are making progress with a major grant application, plus we will continue to talk about the expedition in schools and universities into the future. We are also developing educational resources in conjunction with the Royal Geographical Society, and plan to bring together an exhibition about our journey. We also have new content being uploaded onto our website all the time that will continue to tell the story of our expedition for some time to come.

Thanks Al and good to have you back with us!

Interview by Professor Klaus Dodds.

For more information about the Into No-Man’s Land expedition, you can look at the website and social media channels…


Twitter: @IntoNML

YouTube: /IntoNoMansLand

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