November 4, 2009 / 2:12 PM / 10 years ago

WITNESS: Back in Berlin to remember the Wall

Martin Nesirky was a Reuters correspondent in East Germany and West Berlin from 1987 to 1991. He is now spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, based in Vienna.

By Martin Nesirky

VIENNA (Reuters) - Back in Berlin this October for the first time in a decade for a reunion with correspondents and diplomats, I joined the inevitable tourist hunt for the Wall, scraps of which remain against a backdrop of glitzy new buildings.

East Germany’s asbestos-clogged Palace of the Republic parliament, known to caustic East Berliners as the Ballast of the Republic, has long since gone.

There’s also not much left of the press center where I worked and where East German media chief Guenter Schabowski seemed to surprise himself with the cryptic announcement that blasted the Wall wide open.

Yet what I think I came in search of was still there — echoes of conversations and observations, 20 years removed but vivid nonetheless.

At Checkpoint Charlie I stood in the rain facing what used to be the crossing and recalled watching the first East German walking into West Berlin, his arms stretched in the air and his eyes fixed in disbelief.

I had edged across the checkpoint from East to West some time before the guards started to allow East Germans through. It was a crossing I had made dozens if not hundreds of times — twice with an undiscovered cat in the boot and the radio up loud. Needless to say, the crossing on November 9 was even more nerve tingling.

Much of the rest of that night passed in a frantic, exhilarating blur of conversations and scribbled notes, the search for phones in that pre-mobile era and the realization that the city of my forefathers was being reborn.

In the Prenzlauer Berg district where I lived and the Mitte district where I often met dissidents and tried to dodge the Stasi security police, the echoes were just as strong, even though the building facades are now flashy and the cafes chic.

In one cobbled street, I looked around, this time in autumnal sunshine, remembering the October 1989 night-time scene of uniformed police and plainclothes Stasi rounding up demonstrators who wanted Gorbachev-style reform.

Back then, under the dim streetlights, it seemed more 1939 than 1989. I managed to escape by ducking into a courtyard before returning home to report.

It was clear something would have to give, but I could not have guessed how.

One friend in particular came to mind, although I was unable to find him this October. Early in my assignment, he had been the source of an exclusive on slightly eased East German travel restrictions; it seems faintly ridiculous now but was a major development then. I even filed the story from Bonn under the chief correspondent’s name to cover my tracks and my source.

The first time I saw that friend after November 9, he presented me with a border warning sign he had removed, for me, the very night the Wall fell.

Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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