at this photo and tell me, do you recognize the little girl? See the color
of my hair? Yellow like courgette flowers! Yes, I know, it's brown now
with wisps of grey. And my skin isn't smooth and velvety like tulip petals
and baby cheeks, but marked by years of laughter and tears and wind and
sun. But inside I'm still that little girl, growing up in Belgium, listening
to war stories. Funny, isn't it, how the story I remember most is the
one about a boy climbing a wall after the fighting was over. I read about
him in Le Soir, the very day of this photo.
So many stories.
So many wars. Yet no matter the war, they were always stories of bravery
and cleverness. Oh, and there's Mia, our Flemish maid, standing beside
me. She used to tell us children about hardship at such times. "You
should be thankful for what you have on your plates!" she said, "During
World War II our family often went without food unless my brother managed
to sneak some across the border, from France. Once, when he put butter
under his hat, he prayed it didn't drip down his face while the officials
checked his identity! If they caught you," she said, "they shot
Mia's boyfriend, Isvan. I liked him. He was a butcher with a funny accent.
He told us he escaped the Hungarian revolution when he was 16. "Forced
to leave everything I knew and loved, or be killed," he said. "Sliced
myself climbing barbwire fences and traveled hundreds of kilometers without
food or water. Avoided capture, looking for freedom in a new country."
mother, who was 14 in World War ll., had plenty of war tales too. "You
should be proud," she said, "your six oncles fought with the
Resistance, a group of secret soldiers." She told us the German troops,
enemies of France, occupied her house. "Zey showed mama where they
would machine-gun us before moving out," she said, "over by
the well, so they could dump our bodies into it." But my grandmother
was a devout Catholic, and when the day came to die she asked for permission
to go to church for one last prayer. "By the time we got back, the
Germans had left."
Lots of war
stories. I can't even count them. Yet somehow, the words Berlin Wall still
send shivers down my spine. I can still see the boy. He was 18, like my
stories that made me despise the enemy and pity the victim, but I was
always eager for more. Stories that blinded me to the horror, as if I
was a caterpillar only vaguely aware of motion outside my cocoon. I have
often asked myself why this is so. Is it because the tellers were silent,
telling of glory but hiding the gory, so as to forget? Is it because the
dead can't talk? Or is it because I was a lucky girl, privileged never
to see war at my doorstep?
said World War ll. was the war to end all wars. I was glad to know everyone
preferred peace. Then, when I believed the world had come to its senses,
up came that wall, the Berlin Wall.
the day clearly. I was sitting at the kitchen table, looking out towards
the Bois de la Cambre, eating 'goûter' -thick slices of crusty bread
with chocolate spread- thinking about my homework. Madame Grenier had
asked us to write a composition on any subject and to illustrate it with
newspaper clippings. Long before I could read, I used to look through
the papers and ask my father to explain pictures that caught my eye, like
the one showing a Russian dog in a spaceship. But now that I was ten and
could read, I'd seen the headlines: they were all about this Berlin Wall.
And I knew what I must write.
Le Soir called
it the beginning of the Cold War. So war wasn't over after all? Why did
grownups lie but teach us not to? I peered at the black and white photos,
which showed hundreds of people jumping, climbing, crying, and pleading
with armed guards. And there was the wall. And there was the boy.
Wall was built one Saturday night, in August, while East Germans lay sound
asleep. Its purpose was to imprison inhabitants who hadn't done anything
wrong, but who often left the east to go West because life was easier
and more fun there. That night, troops put up barricades, tore up streets
(not even sparing cemeteries) and completely sealed off the border, instantly
separating children from parents, husbands from wives, sisters from brothers,
and lovers from their sweethearts. When the East Germans awoke Sunday
morning, they discovered they could no longer cross over to the West.
In desperation they tried all sorts of tricks: Two families sewed scraps
of cloth together and drifted over the wall in a balloon; others jumped
from upper floors of nearby buildings; others dug tunnels. Some escaped,
but many died in the process or were caught and punished.
At first the
Berlin Wall was little more than barbwire fencing with guard posts, but
each phase of the building meant more and more reinforcement. By the final
stage, when I'd turned 23, the wall was mostly concrete, stood about 12
feet high, and was nearly 100 miles long. It was protected by booby traps,
floodlights, barbwire, and armed guards who didn't hesitate shooting those
that dared escape.
name was Peter, I remember. He was just one of many victims shot while
seeking freedom. Le Soir said the soldiers left him to bleed to death,
right there where he fell by the foot of the Berlin Wall. When the Cold
War ended, and the wall finally came down after 28 years of pain and suffering,
I longed for a chunk of it. But I was too far away, somewhere up a river
in Africa, facing yet another war.