Sunday 24 March 2013
Today, the Berlin Wall is bringing together protesters to fight for its defence. To imagine that somebody can defend it! Before that wall was hacked down in November 1989, the powerful of the world were almost jumping at each other’s throats over it. The spill-over of their fight would have spelt the end for the world. We were saved the apocalypse by the pleading voice of an unlikely party: Ronald Reagan.
Of course, it must not be forgotten that many machinations and events worked in concert to fulfil the wish in Reagan’s voice. But that’s for the history books; ours is to engage in light stories that come to our memory.
Late Reagan was the hard-nut president of USA between January 1981 and January 1989, nine months to the realization of his wish. He was an unlikely party because he was not one to plead with anybody, being president of the world’s most powerful country.
But that’s not to say that Mikhael Gorbachev was just anybody. As president of the second world super power (even if later it sank to the bottom!), USSR (Russia and 14 socialist republics), he was no mere push-over, either. Which may explain why Reagan adopted a conciliatory voice when, in June 1987, he said: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
The wall was a symbol of the Armageddon that awaited the world. It symbolised the iron curtain, a divide between an austere, socialist East and a happy-go-lucky capitalist West, two worlds between which there was a cold war that threatened to burst into earth-shattering fires any time. The third world that was neither east nor west, preferring to call itself non-aligned, was powerless to intervene and at the mercy of this likely outfall.
Quietly, however, many in the third world sought favours from the west, or engaged in playing one against the other. As citizens of the east sought to run for the trees, at their own peril. Many citizens died attempting to break away from the life of drudgery in the east but there is a very limited number of triumphant stories.
All the same, for being a symbol of death, the Berlin Wall is an unlikely candidate for any form of sympathy. This is illustrated by the lengths to which people went to evade border guards. What did breaking away involve?
Take the story of two East German men who took the risk to bolt out with their families, eight individuals in all. Between them and freedom was the most guarded border in the world. So, they opted to fly, well knowing they ran the risk of being bombed to smithereens. But even before that bombing, how could they fly? They didn’t have anything to fly in. They’d have fabricated some form of helicopter but that needed an engine that was powerful enough to carry them all.
However, desperate situations call for desperate measures and they settled for a hot air balloon, though they had no ballooning experience. First they looked around for books to find out what they could about ballooning. Then they did the maths, bought hardware and cloth.
You’ve seen a foot-peddle sewing machine. Well, they picked such a machine to put together the cloth, built a firing system out of a bike engine and picked a stove pipe that spat out fire to heat the air and blow out the balloon for lift-off and sail.
After 16 months of preparation, however, one family, the Wetzels, grew cold feet and shied away from the venture. Undaunted, the other, the Strelzyks, went ahead. The family lifted off and sailed through the air and when they got within sight of the border…..they crashed. They had to walk back but left the balloon behind, which implicating the two families.
It was now a matter of months before police pounced on the two families. The hunt was on and the two went to work feverishly, sewing together raincoat cloth, bed sheets and anything usable. The sewing machine was running 24 hours and the result was the biggest hot air balloon to ever fly in Europe!
Once airborne, they were gliding smoothly when, unfortunately, the gas bottles ran out and they began to sink. However, the balloon was so big that it acted as a parachute and the crash-landing wasn’t so bone-jarring. When the men went out scouting to identify their location, they ran into West German police and knew they’d made it!
Many, many other families and individuals were not so lucky. They perished as they searched for that precious freedom.
Isn’t it a wonder, then, that today protestors can keep vigil at the wall to defend that part of what represented a barrier to human freedom?
But that’s not a paradox when you think of the situation in Rwanda. That exact said apocalypse happened here in 1994. Many were the sites where children, women and men groaned to their dreadful death during an agonising three months, at the hands of their crazed compatriots. Yet those sites of horrific death are there for all to see and remember. For, a forgotten mistake runs the risk of being repeated.
Make way for apartments and a footbridge? No, the developers of Berlin should not “tear down that wall!”