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Stasi prison terror still haunts victims

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Europe Correspondent   |   Nov. 6, 2009 at 2:49 PM   |   Comments

BERLIN, Nov. 6 (UPI) -- When the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, Mario Roellig sat in his West Berlin apartment and was sobbing in despair.

More than a year earlier the West German government bought Roellig out of an East German prison where he had been detained for trying to flee the communist state. The former political prisoner was since living a relatively happy live in the West.

Roellig felt that the wall protected him from the Stasi, East Germany's secret police, who had abused him before and during his three-month stay in prison. But now the border was open and "the Stasi officers who terrorized me were free to come into my ideal world of West Berlin," Roellig remembered earlier this week in a meeting with the foreign press. "It was a shock."

A handsome man in his late 30s, Roellig is one of more than 200,000 East Germans who were detained for political reasons by the Stasi. His plight is featured in "Face the Wall," a new documentary written, directed and produced by Stefan Weinert.

In a series of interviews, the film tells the story of five former political prisoners who, shortly before Germany on Monday celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, remain haunted by what they experienced at the hands of the Stasi.

Founded in 1950, the Stasi's main job for four decades was to cover the country and its people with a paralyzing layer of fear, intimidation and violence. By the time East Germany collapsed in 1989, the Stasi employed 91,000 people and had built up a network of more than 150,000 civilian informants who spied on anyone they were told to -- even their spouses.

Roellig's trouble with the Stasi started when he refused to divulge information about his lover, a politician from West Berlin who regularly visited him in the East. Roellig lost his job and was followed by Stasi agents day and night. After a few months, he decided to escape to be with the man he loved.

But his getaway into Western Europe via Yugoslavia failed when Hungarian border guards snatched him. From there, the Stasi took over, locking Roellig up for three months in the infamous Hohenschoenhausen prison in East Berlin.

"Face the Wall" uncovers the horror prisoners had to live through in Hohenschoenhausen.

Teacher Anne K., who was 38 when she spent 18 months in prison for trying to flee the country with her husband, remembered the first day there: She had to strip naked and do knee-bends, and then stand in the corner of a cell for hours, her exposed legs spread, watched closely by Stasi officers.

"The shame, the fear -- what was done to you there is a form of torture," she said into the camera, her eyes tearing up.

Andreas B., who was 34 when he was detained, said the Stasi officers made it clear that no one knew where he was. "They could do whatever they wanted with you. You were powerless against those people."

Like the other prisoners, Roellig, 19 at the time, had to sit through strenuous interviews, often eight, nine, 10 hours a day.

"After three days, I didn't know what to say anymore. But they kept asking for three months."

And it wasn't just asking.

Stasi guards used sleep deprivation and isolation tactics to weaken prisoners. No one at Hohenschoenhausen ever saw another inmate. After a few days without human contact, prisoners were begging to be interrogated. Some of them committed suicide because of the conditions there.

Many of the inmates were sold to West Germany after they had nothing more to say; the remainder was released soul-broken. After Germany's reunification in 1990, the victims of the Stasi tried to start new lives.

But so did their wrongdoers.

Germany prosecuted only a handful of the Stasi officers. The younger ones, an estimated 30,000, started new careers in the West -- as security guards, car dealers, insurance agents, journalists, lawyers, doctors and even politicians.

Several senior members of the far-left Left Party have admitted to spying for the Stasi. Despite that, the party, relatively popular in the eastern states, won 11.9 percent of the vote in September's federal election.

"They are still around us, some of them more successful than their victims," Roellig said.

In the late 1990s he met his former interrogation officer when the elderly man tried to buy expensive cigars at the department store where Roellig was working. Roellig was ready to forgive and asked for an apology from the old man. But the former Stasi officer just balked at him, telling Roellig that he had been in prison because he was a criminal, and that "remorse is for little children."

Jochen Staadt, an East Germany expert at Berlin's Free University, said this is not an exception.

"Of the elderly former Stasi officers that talk about their past, virtually all trivialize or justify their acts. The younger ones rarely talk about it," Staadt told UPI in a telephone interview Friday.

The elderly Stasi officers have even organized themselves, for example into the Society for Legal and Humanitarian Support (GRH), a group with 1,500 members that helps former East German state employees. They are not showing remorse; instead, they say the unification has done them injustice, calling their former prisoners distorters of history.

This is traumatic for many victims, who still fight to come to terms with their past. After the meeting with the Stasi officer, Roellig suffered a nervous breakdown.

He is doing well today and is active in the Hohenschoenhausen memorial site that educates the German population about the Stasi crimes. He says it helps him that he is talking about his past, but that doesn't mean the victims can forget it. Many still have trouble speaking about their plight, also because two decades on, former Stasi officers show no signs of regret. Andreas B., for example, can't work because of his trauma.

Anne K.'s husband died in 2007, likely from the long-term effects of his Stasi detention. She said the fear is still rooted within her, haunting her in her dreams.

"It's like a stone that weighs on my soul and never goes away."

© 2009 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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