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The day I outflanked the Stasi

On 9 October 1989, the BBC's Diplomatic Editor Brian Hanrahan defied East Germany's attempts to halt reporting of one of the first big demonstrations against the communist system, in the city of Leipzig. Here, he recalls how he got the news out that night.

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Thousands protest in Leipzig

Getting to the demonstration was always going to be the hardest part. Which is why, on that Monday morning, I ended up travelling from Berlin to Leipzig in a crowded railway carriage and taking an excessive interest in peering through the smudged windows as I tried to pass for an East German.

That meant striking the right attitude to my fellow passengers, which would neither annoy nor engage them. And practising a kind of disinterested shrug for the ticket collector. I couldn't afford for them to discover that I didn't speak a word of German. I was convinced that the Stasi, East Germany's all too efficient secret police, would be watching for foreign journalists.

At Leipzig station, the Stasi were out in force - a ring of hard-faced men scrutinising all the passengers and occasionally swooping on anyone who looked too well-dressed.

I was getting the hang of this secret agent lark, but my heart palpitations were telling me it was not a career choice I'd want to make

I had chosen my wardrobe with special care for this appearance - a shirt with frayed cuffs and collar, a crumpled raincoat with a chipped button, shoes that were scuffed and badly polished.

"Show time," I thought, walking forward with the other passengers - the gait of a man anxious to get home but not too pushy or assertive.

The bag with the small camera with which we intended to film the demonstration practically seemed to scream "Open me". How could they not notice it?

This must be what it's like to be a spy, I thought - always acting, always worried about doing the wrong thing, always fearing that somebody would see right through your pretence.

Even the relief at getting through the cordon of watchers unchecked couldn't be allowed to show. I had to walk on confidently into a city I'd never seen and hadn't the faintest idea where to go.

Fortunately, down the first side road I turned into outside the station, there was a cafe. It was busy enough for the waitresses not to take much notice of me, but not so busy that I couldn't dawdle over a coffee to get my bearings.

I was getting the hang of this secret agent lark, but my heart palpitations were telling me it was not a career choice I'd want to make.

Protests in Leipzig on 09/10/89
The Leipzig protests sparked a tidal wave of demonstrations across the country

A couple of minutes later I was followed in by the producer, who fortunately could speak German, and cameraman.

We had decided to leave the station separately to increase the chances of one of us getting through.

So the first hurdle was over. We were in the right city. Now all we had to do was find the demonstration without drawing too much attention to ourselves.

Sense of menace

The deception job had started a week earlier when word circulated that a Monday church service in Leipzig kept turning into a political demonstration.

I was determined to get there the following week - but equally determined not to tell anyone what I was doing.

In a scene that was sheer James Bond, we escaped out the other side while the Stasi were jostled and tripped by the crowd

So, when the news editor rang from London to ask what I thought about Leipzig, I was dismissive. "Not very important, impossible to get there, not worth trying," I said. I already had evidence that the Stasi were listening in to our telephone calls and I didn't want them to suspect what we had in mind.

Throughout the week I kept telling London I didn't want to go, even hinting that I was intimidated by the thought of a big riot. My boss was surprisingly indulgent; maybe he guessed what I was up to. And if the Stasi listeners thought they had frightened me off, so much the better. They could all be surprised when I turned up.

Around the city on that Monday night there was a palpable sense of menace. Riot police with shields were blocking the main roads; armed troops and militia were backed up in the side streets; hospitals were on standby for casualties; and inside the Stasi headquarters, I later learnt, they had pistols and rifles loaded with live ammunition pointing at the demonstrators as they passed by.

A massacre on the scale of Tiananmen Square was on the cards and only averted when the local communist leadership backed down. They ignored their orders from East Berlin to stop the march by any means necessary, and struck a deal with the protesters that they could go ahead provided the demonstration stayed peaceful. But it was all very last minute.

Out on the streets we had no idea how close it had all come to disaster. But if the Stasi had laid off the demonstrators, they were now playing hunt the media.

At one point, as we were trying to get pictures from a footbridge, I saw a group of men running up the steps towards us.

We fled down the other side and ran into the demonstration for protection telling everyone who would listen that the Stasi were following. In a scene that was sheer James Bond, we escaped out the other side while the Stasi were jostled and tripped by the crowd.

Later, we got more evidence of how much effort the Stasi were putting in to preventing news of the demonstration getting out.

Earlier in the day, I had checked into a room in Leipzig's best hotel. I knew it would draw attention to us but there was a prize. East Germany controlled international telephone calls by forcing you to use an operator. This hotel was one of the few places in the country from which you could direct dial London.

As the demonstration wound down, I went back to the hotel and called the BBC.

At the other end, I knew, we had a very efficient and discreet unit that could record a radio dispatch instantly, and would play along if I wanted to make it sound like a phone call to my aunt rather than the news desk. I got through, recorded a 60 second dispatch, instantly put the phone down and headed for the door.

By the time I got there I could see through the spyhole that someone was coming down the corridor to check the room. He hovered outside for a minute or two listening, and then went back up the corridor, presumably to ask if he should arrest me.

I didn't wait to find out. As soon as he disappeared from view I ran down the hotel fire escape and joined the rest of the team waiting in the hotel's Japanese restaurant.

We had to while away a few hours until the midnight train back to Berlin, and thought this was the last place the Stasi would look.

The meal was very good and very expensive. But I thought my boss would be in a forgiving mood after the evening's success in outflanking the Stasi. And anyway aren't secret agents expected to eat at exotic restaurants?



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