A Flood of Refugees
Christian Bürger’s Diary, 4th Entry
28 August 1989
“Three days ago Herr Huber and his wife left on holiday. The ambassador would hardly have done that if he had been able to envisage what has happened since his departure. I’ve been an “embassy refugee” for almost a month now. That, at any rate, is what they call us in the Western press, which reports regularly on us. There are a couple of radios here, brought in by the one or other refugee. In the early phase, each day 3-5 new fugitives arrived. When the numbers had swollen to 300 refugees at some point, Hans Joachim Weber suggested we adopt an organised structure and regulate everything centrally. We sat down together and founded our “camp management”, consisting of ten people. And I myself, since I very quickly became acknowledged as one of the “long-standing” refugees, am now one of the managers, which means that I move around the embassy with a notepad and write down what people’s requirements are. The slips of paper then land on Herr Weber’s desk and he sees to satisfying as many of the wishes as possible, such as new clothes, blankets or medicine. It’s a great task and liberates me from the torment of spending days staring at a wall. And until only a few days ago it was a simple duty to discharge as I simply did the rounds of the rooms each day, chatted with the people, and made my lists. Now and again I resolved an argument, all of it completely harmless.
“The number of reporters here is forever growing. Each day there are at least two cameras set up behind the fencing and the journalists ask us about our daily life in the embassy.”
But more people arrived by the day. And with them more tasks. Over the last five days I’ve been working 18 hours a day. And with each new day I had put back writing this entry. But now I’m forcing myself to ignore the exhaustion and jot things down. Today, for the first time I took part registering new arrivals. Using a crane, an office container has been swung over into the Orangerie. There I sit and fill in forms, ask refugees about their past and their personal stories.
There are now over 400 people in the embassy. The Bavarian Red Cross has supplied six group tents which we are using to accommodate people as there’s no space left in Lobkowitz Palace. The rules are clear: Women and children are housed in the palace while the men lodge in the tents.”
Video Diary Episode 4
A FLOOD OF REFUGEES
12 September 1989
“The number of reporters here is forever growing. Each day there are at least two cameras set up behind the fencing and the journalists ask us about our daily life in the embassy. They’re friendly and the coverage is friendly, too. Or so the embassy staff say – they see us day in day out on the prime time and late evening news programmes, and tell us that West TV makes us out to be heroes. Which is great, even if none of us really feel like a hero. But we certainly don’t believe we are blackmailers, which is what they’ve called us on East German TV. There’s certainly no more obvious way of showing us where we now belong. By evening I am simply completely exhausted from the work I do. But full of euphoria when I get up in the morning. I find everything that happens here so exciting, for us, for the people on the other side of the fence. Most certainly since in early September we passed through the magic mark of 1,000 refugees. Recently an entire restaurant arrived from Berlin. All of it! From the dishwashers to the waiters and cooks to the restaurant manager. They all arrived here one night and announced: “We are the Richtenberger Hof!”
Although every square metre of space here is taken we try as far as possible to maintain a normal daily routine. Yesterday we set up a “kid’s tent”. A stopgap solution as for every two adults there’s one child. We’ve opened a kindergarten and a school in the tent. Classes run from 9 a.m. to noon, after which it’s play time. Mrs. Huber went round Prague specially buying up just about everything one toy department had to offer. I’ve never heard as many kids yelling with joy the moment the truck delivered all the toys. Amazing. So all the trials and tribulations here haven’t dispelled joy completely. We’re all doing our best to make sure that life in this campsite is pleasant. The advantage of the huge numbers is of course that we cover just about all the professions, ranging from kindergarten staff through to senior physicians. And we make certain everyone has something to do.”
CONTEMPORARY WITNESSES – AND WHAT BECAME OF THEM
Stephan Radke, cameraman
He is one of only two cameramen who succeeded in filming Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s historic speech on 30 September 1989. It was purely by gut feeling that he decided to position himself behind the embassy building on that day. The very moment he got there Genscher stepped out onto the balcony. Today Stephan Radke is Director of Photography at the ZDF broadcasting company’s London studio.
Our task was to shed light on the surroundings of the embassy, in other words basically to show what was happening there, and as a rule we simply went by foot. You couldn’t get there by vehicle, you couldn’t drive up to the embassy, and there was clearly something in the air. The number of people gathering there was constantly growing. There was an increasing number of cars with East German number plates, some of them simply abandoned in side-streets, and people walking in the direction of the embassy, ostensibly with a picnic basket in hand. We filmed that. We interviewed the people. Needless to say, they didn’t tell us what they intended to do, simply purported to be tourists, and we moved quite normally as a camera team, meaning a journalist, the cameraman and the camera assistant, by foot through the alleyways round the embassy, capturing the situation and mood, talking to people, of course. Our task as journalists was to be objective, or to try to be. Well, at some point I failed on that count. We witnessed the awful conditions under which the thousands of people were having to camp in the alleyways round the embassy in the old town, there were infants who were not getting enough food, there was nothing to eat, nothing to drink, sanitation was terrible, but they were all being helped by the locals, who brought tea, hot drinks, even beer, provided sandwiches and helped them all. Actually, on balance I must say that with all the injustice I saw there, the way the state apparatus treated people, I lost my sense of objectivity. Meaning I took sides, although as a journalist I’m not really allowed to do that and so it was that I started trying to help people. We showed them the right way to go. We said, well, the best time is dusk, if you… late night is lousy, you need to go down such-and-such an alley, that’s the fastest route, it takes you to the place where it’s easiest to climb the fence. We knew that and we accompanied the people. Well, I can say it now since it’s history, but we helped people escape. We agreed to meet up with other journalists, with photographers and also with other camera teams, agreed to meet some of the refugees at a particular time, and then switched on our battery-pack lights and headed for the embassy with them. And the effect was that as soon as a crowd of Western press folk moved towards the embassy along with refugees, the state apparatus, meaning the thugs, the state security officers and even the militia, well they withdrew as they evidently wanted to avoid any images going out of the state security forces or the militia harassing or beating up refugees, something that did after all happen.
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