November 4, 2009 / 2:12 PM / 9 years ago

WITNESS: The day Checkpoint Charlie came back to haunt me

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.


Would Granny shoot? I imagined the less sympathetic blond-haired youth who never smiled, never showed a glimmer of human warmth whom I had named “Hitler Youth” would draw his sidearm without hesitation, but maybe I misjudged him.

My favorite was the dark-haired young woman with the comely gap between her front teeth and a flirtatious manner that must surely have violated some regulation or another.

“Gap-tooth” and I had a game. Leaving of an evening, I would slap my pass into her outheld hand and we might spend 10 seconds or so discussing where I was going; to the theater, to a bar, to a restaurant in a half of the city she would never in her life see; or so we both believed. I might ask her if she wanted to come along, show her two tickets folded in my pass. She would smile and say she would love to but she had to work through the night. Maybe another time. I wonder what became of her.

What became of others, I found out, to my surprise, a few years later.

I was flying into Berlin from Moscow and arrived at Schoenefeld Airport — once the main airport of Communist East Germany and now an entry point to the newly-united Germany.

The set-up there was much as I remembered it from the ‘Olden Days’. Passengers were channeled toward a narrow, brightly lit passageway where they stood before a cabin with a glass window; behind it a uniformed official. I slipped my passport into the cabin through the gap and waited, looking straight ahead, for the guard to scan my face for a resemblance.

I sensed him look up at me, then back at the passport; then back to me and then to the passport. Why this hesitation? He coughed and leaned toward me.

“Herr Boulton?”

As I looked, he tipped the peak of his cap up to reveal his face. I remember the words exactly.

“Herr Boulton, Ich glaube wir kennen uns schon...” I think we’ve met before.

Dressed now splendidly in the uniform of the new united German Federal Border Guard, sat someone I had last seen in the green uniform and winter shapka fur hat of the East German border guard.

I think my astonished reply must have been something like “what are you doing here?”

He smiled mysteriously and signaled me to pass on into the baggage hall. As I waited for my bags, he emerged with two other familiar faces; both, like him, alumni of Charlie, both wearing the uniform of what had not so long ago been the enemy.

It was a brief encounter and one of the strangest of my life. The circumstances in which we had known each other were so peculiar and those of our reunion so utterly unexpected. We shook hands warmly, laughing at the absurdity of it all. Like old frontline soldiers in a phoney war, we had discovered we were old friends.

Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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