WITNESS: The day Checkpoint Charlie came back to haunt me

Wed Nov 4, 2009 4:33pm EST
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Ralph Boulton was a Reuters correspondent based in Berlin from 1984 to 1987, and reinforced the bureau during the turmoil leading up to and after November 9. He is now a senior editor on the London World Desk.

By Ralph Boulton

LONDON (Reuters) - Few will have shared my sentiment, but when the Berlin Wall fell and Checkpoint Charlie was swept away with it, I felt almost as if I was losing an old friend.

As a young Reuters correspondent based in East Berlin in the 1980s, I passed almost daily through that Cold War crossing. Those green-uniformed guards of the Communist world unnerved Western tourists with their stony mien and intrusive searches. Over 3 years, though, I got to know them with the superficial familiarity that develops almost inevitably between people whose lives brush so routinely against each other, however lightly. I gave them secret names; those I liked and those I didn't.

I remember the middle-aged, rather matronly woman I dubbed "Oma" (Granny), who would inquire with a friendly, indulgent smile after my girlfriend in West Berlin. And how was my mother's visit? Did she enjoy the trip to the Baltic?

Reading my Stasi file a few years later, I saw our chats coolly committed to official paper. I don't hold it against her. I even discovered they had a codename for me, "Lupus." My mysterious 72-year-old mother was "Bluete" (Blossom)

Rituals forge bonds. Driving through the concrete barriers, surrendering my border pass, waiting to get it back, we would chat about some football match, the weather, the loud screeching noise emanating from my car. The guards would raise the barrier, salute crisply and I would be swallowed up into the other world.

Were these the same men and women who shot dead over a hundred people as they tried to escape across that wall? It was a question I asked myself more than once and which I could never really answer. Nor, I suppose, did I want to.

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