Two men in friendship are stronger than walls of stone.
—ancient Mongolian saying
What was I supposed to do? More than 30,000 people, the best and most capable of the country, left the GDR in July. It is quite easy to calculate the moment of breakdown of the East German economy if we had not done something to stop the mass flight. There were only two alternatives: an air transport blockade, or the Wall. The former would have caused trouble with the USA which might have led to war. I could not and did not want to risk this. Therefore, the Wall was the only solution.
—Nikita Khrushchev, 1967
“Wo war die Mauer?” I ask a young policewoman. She stands dumbfounded, an embarrassed smile on her face. We are standing on a historic spot—beneath Berlin’s Bösebrücke, the bridge where, on the night of November 9, 1989, the East German border guards first threw open the barriers that, for a generation, had prevented East and West Germans from mixing. On a small stone near the sidewalk, a bronze plaque, spotted by patina and spraypaint, commemorates the event. Opposite, across a woven field of railroad tracks where local and suburban trains once again run, is the erstwhile West. The Mauer, as the Berlin Wall was known in its native country (though its creators insisted on the “Anti-Facist Protection Barrier”), must have been down here somewhere. But where?
For over twenty-eight years, the walls definitive and incontrovertible presence would have made such a question ridiculous. To be here, so close, would have gotten me arrested—or shot. This is how the German Democratic Republic and their Kremlin masters sought to keep their citizens from enjoying the decadent Western pleasures (and generous salaries) available just a few tantalizing blocks away. Faced with the sum force of such human yearning, they did what states and empires have always done: they built a wall. In its brief life span, the wall claimed some 200 lives and provoked thousands of arrests. It radically altered the physical and psychological conditions of the two halves of an otherwise undifferentiated urban environment, tested the boundaries of human ingenuity and endurance, and became a symbol of the grim oppression and apocalyptic conflict that was the Cold War. Quite a résumé, as walls go.
When glasnost wafted down from Russia, gathering strength as it fanned across Europe, East German chancellor Erich Honecker seemed oblivious to the fact that his political career had been left twisting in the winds of change. He blustered in January 1989 that “the Wall will be standing in fifty and even 100 years.” Less than one year later, the Wall came down—and, with it, the Iron Curtain.
In the heady aftermath, watching Berliners hugging in the streets, it was easy to believe that walls would become another absurd relic of a barbaric past. Beirut’s barriers came down the same year as Berlin’s. Cyprus’s Green Line, Europe’s last barrier, would become more porous. Israel and Palestine seemed at the cusp of a solution. One could even imagine Korea’s DMZ, the last remaining Cold War barrier, crumbling in the aftershocks. Walls seemed headed for museumdom.
Instead, a new generation of border barriers began crisscrossing the planet. Bill Clinton, who came to power promising “a bridge to the twenty-first century,” gave us a wall with Mexico instead. Spain built fences to keep out Moroccans. Morocco, for all its protestations, had already built a 1,700-mile “berm”—a mined and militarized earthen boundary—in occupied Western Sahara. Israel, fed up with Islamic terror and dubious of the fledgling Palestinian Authority’s ability to do anything to curb it, sealed off Gaza in 1994 and the West Bank eight years later. India is busy walling off Kashmir and Bangladesh, and last year, Saudi Arabia announced two epic wall projects—one in the north to keep the Iraq quagmire from spilling into the relatively peaceful kingdom. Even China, after a 450-year break from wall-building, decided to fence off their Communist neighbor North Korea. And not to be outdone by its more populous neighbor, Pakistan announced a wall project of his own. The glitzy rich sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates have decided to throw an immigration barrier up on its border with dirt-poor Oman. Russia is considering walling off Chechnya.
Can we all just get along? Apparently not. Walls are back.
And when the name-calling begins—as it always does—it is Berlin that is invoked. So this is where I’ve come. But today, neither this policewoman nor I can figure out where that notorious wall was.
* * * *
Ever since there have been invasions, there have been walls. Walls were built at strategic locations or to protect population centers, and usually made from locally available materials—earth, timber, or, of course, stone. Unless you could hope to starve your enemy out, or bribe someone to open the gate at night, early siegecraft was a punishing business. Catapults had limited effect, and every other tool for breaching—battering rams, ladders, even siege towers—required getting up close to the wall from which protected defenders could rain down flaming arrows, boiling oil, or any other manner of deadly unpleasantness they had handy.
The equation shifted in the mid-fifteenth century thanks to the introduction of gunpowder—discovered centuries earlier by the same culture that built more miles of wall than any other, the Chinese. If they failed to fully exploit the military value of a volatile mixture of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur, the technologically surging Europeans did not. They created the first crude cannons in the early 1300s, and within a hundred years invented the cannonball to go with it. Besides exponentially increasing the amount of brute force that could be hurled against a target, cannons (as opposed to catapults) could fire projectiles along a flat trajectory. This allowed a siege force to methodically undermine the walls at foundation level, at which point a wall’s height suddenly became a disadvantage: more weight was suddenly without support and, thus, more easily came crashing down. By 1450, the French were pulverizing English castles in Normandy and Aquitaine, while the Turks blew down the mighty Walls of Theodosius, which had formed an impregnable ring around Constantinople for 1,000 years.
The intervening centuries afforded some successful countermeasures in wall construction—sandwiching hard packed dirt between multiple layers of brick, or redesigning the shape of the structure so that artillery was no longer offered a perpendicular plane to fire upon—but this was all rearguard activity. All the while, artillery was becoming more mobile and more powerful. By the time aerial bombardment and rocketry came along, the wall had long disappeared from military playbooks and the fortifications of the industrial age turned inward—to trenches and bunkers. A defended area was more likely to be dug in than walled off.
If walls couldn’t stop armies, however, they could still stop people. But, other than clarifying a line where two warring parties ground to a cease-fire, a wall had never been employed to separate a city from itself. And so, a divided Berlin was born.
* * * *
Walls, by definition, partition. And artificial partitions introduced into a previously integrated environment, by definition, create anomalies. The Berlin Wall caused an abundance, and no place was more representative than Bernauer Strasse. Thanks to a perplexity of events—beginning with centuries-old land contracts that led ultimately to the formation of districts, and culminating in the Potsdam Conference of 1945, when the victorious Allies unfurled a map and carved up the city—the houses then lining the south side of Bernauer Strasse wound up in the Soviet sector while the street itself and the sidewalk in front belonged to the French. By this cartographic fiat, some sectors of the population would find themselves economically rejuvenated by the Marshall Plan and reintroduced to bourgeois democratic society, while the rest were stuck with the Soviets. Predictably, tens of thousands fled west.
After the Berlin Airlift, the Soviets gave up on trying to strangle West Berlin out of existence and shifted to plan B. On the night of August 13, 1961, barbed wire was rolled out along the “border.” This scarcely stanched the embarrassing exodus. A famous photo from the time shows an East German border guard at Bernauer Strasse and Wolliner Strasse chucking his rifle and heartily leaping over the barbs and into the arms of cheering West Berliners. Within weeks, East Berlin was sealed off: streets turned into culs-de-sac, canals drained and blocked, bridges dismantled, and access to the Spree River and suburban lakes cut.
But Bernauer Strasse proved a problem. It was hardly enough to wall off intersecting streets; residents could walk out their front doors and into the West. When the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) sealed their doors, people climbed out their windows. When those were bricked off, they jumped from rooftops into the nets of the West Berlin fire department or simply into the outstretched blankets of nearby citizens.
To make matters worse, this part of the city jutted into the enveloping arms of West Berlin, and underneath this bulge lay the so-called ghost stations. The division of Berlin required a bifurcation of the transit system: the mostly aboveground S-Bahn went to the East while the West used the underground U-Bahn. The U-Bahn was permitted to travel under this bulge but was not allowed to stop. While passing Bernauer Strasse, Rosenthaler Platz, and other stations in this area, West Berliners could look out the window and see dimly lit stations with soldiers patrolling the platforms. East Berliners, for their part, still recall sitting in their grim Communist flats, feeling the rumble of free market commuters beneath their feet.
After one too many escapes, the government forcibly relocated the residents of Bernauer Strasse and demolished their houses, to make way for the Todesstreifen—the Death Strip. Like many border and frontier barriers before and since, the Berlin Wall was forced to evolve. In 1967, it became two walls. In between, fleeing East Berliners faced an array of obstacles ranging in width from 30 to 100 meters—including an electrified fence, dogs, floodlights, watchtowers, a ditch, tank traps, a sand strip to register footprints, and a paved patrol road—before they could reach the Wall itself. To build this second wall, the government used prefabricated concrete blocks—eventually retooling factories to produce blocks to exact specifications.
- The former Death Strip along the Bernauer Strasse neighborhood
A stew of artists eyed the wide, inviting surface and created a new enduring aesthetic subgenre: border-wall art. The bleak gray surface exploded into color as wildstyle graffiti and murals covered “the longest canvas in the world.” And, ironically, that defiance became central to West German identity. “Let part of that dreadful thing stand,” then-chancellor Willy Brandt urged a day after the border posts opened. “As a reminder of a historic monstrosity.”
Pieces of its concrete slabs were saved but are scattered all over the city—at Potsdamer Platz, or in rural Griebnitzsee, and most famously at the East Side Gallery, a mile-long stretch fronting the Spree in Friedrichshain which now serves as a mural exhibition. But these, as many Ossis (as former East Germans call themselves) point out, only preserve the West German perspective. Should you want to view the entire setup, the gauntlet an escape-aspiring East Berliner would have to run, you’re out of luck. You can drive out to Marienborn, where a section of the East–West border has been preserved; you can visit one of the historical museums or societies; or you can troll people’s memories—but no physical evidence remains in Berlin. The concentration camps and other salient artifacts of the Nazi era have been assiduously preserved, and the comprehensive details of their war crimes poured into the foundation of the German educational system, but no such Cold War equivalent currently exists.
Today, where the turn-of-the-century apartment buildings that once lined the south side of Bernauer Strasse once stood, there runs a strip of grass and trees with a paved asphalt lane down the median, interrupted occasionally by a few jutting pieces of modern architecture. This ribbon of parkland, now patrolled by Berlin’s armies of bicyclists and dog-walkers and assorted park-bench idlers, divides the über-trendy neighborhood of Mitte, with its art galleries, nightclubs, and chic restaurants, from the more humdrum working-class district of Wedding. And where the art-spattered wall actually stood, there are billboards advertising television programs and mobile phones.
“You have to stop these terrorists,” says Captain Noa Meir, spokeswoman for the Israeli Defense Forces. “The Palestinian Authority wasn’t doing anything to stop them. On the contrary. They were encouraging it. You had to put up some kind of barrier so that these terrorists don’t get into our cities, our restaurants, our clubs, and on our buses. And this was a solution, okay?”
Standing near the Eliyahu Checkpoint, watching traffic stream through what looks like nothing more sinister than a freeway tollbooth, Israel’s separation barrier seems clear, efficient, comprehensible, and justified. It runs along Israel’s Green Line, the former border with Jordan, around the city of Qalqilya, the westernmost Palestinian urban center. One can look across the valley and easily see the suburbs of Tel Aviv, ten miles away. Or walk down into this same valley and set off a bomb.
- The Israeli fence under construction
The Israeli no-nonsense approach to terrorism seems perfectly expressed in their wall. They seem to have rolled out their bulldozers almost from the get-go with a precise idea of what they were going to build. In the informational handout I’ve been given, I read that they even anticipate environmental challenges and enumerate the measures taken to minimize habitat destruction and to replant disturbed flora. They also have provisions for routing the fence if they encounter any significant archeological site—fifteen of which already have been discovered, including an ancient Egyptian city near the Palestinian village of Shuweika, north of Tulkarm. The population is overwhelmingly supportive of it and nobody has the slightest doubt that, despite court challenges, international censure, and whatever else is thrown Israel’s way, the fence will be completed. (“Security barrier” or “Anti-terror fence” are the official terms. Geder, Hebrew for fence, if you must. “But only 4 percent of the whole 760 kilometers is wall,” the IDF’s Meir points out, bristling at any comparisons with Berlin.)
“This is technology at is its best,” Meir says, approaching the fence. “Now what you want to do is stop the terrorists from coming in. You see the barbed wire? That’s the first obstacle. Then there’s the ditch. Because you don’t want them to be able to come with their vehicles. Then you have the fence again. Electronic, not electrified. What that means is that if anybody shakes it, you have women (mostly women) in the control room, each responsible for a different section of the fence. Then they call a patrol. Within five to seven minutes, he’s here and can engage the terrorists.”
There are also surveillance cameras, a patrol road, a dirt strip to track footprints, and more razor wire. On the other side of the checkpoint is the fence—8.5 meters high fitted with cylindrical climate-controlled guard towers spaced at even intervals. The reason it’s here, Meir explains, is that the land overlooks the highway. “If there was a fence there, they could shoot right through. They actually killed a girl there in 2002.” The height of the fence is not arbitrary, she adds, but designed to be “higher than the highest roof in Qalqilya, so they can’t fire onto the road.”
To make way for the fence, a 50-meter-wide swath must be cleared of whatever is in the way—houses, olive groves, businesses—unleashing an avalanche of Palestinian petitions into the Israeli court system. In the cities, therefore, the Israeli government has opted, she says, for a kindler, gentler alternative—a wall. “If you were to put the whole fence there, you’d have to demolish a lot of houses. But you have to put up something there or else all the terrorists would just be able to come through.”
The walls might very well make up just 4 percent of the total length of the fence, but they rise out of the landscape much more obtrusively than the fence. By being built close to freeways and in the major population centers, particularly Jerusalem, the walls have dominated people’s experience of the barrier. Some walls are adorned with government murals proclaiming peace be with you. Elsewhere, there is the anarchic spray-paint splatter of local and international disgust: witness the jewish shame, no to another wailing wall, and, more bluntly, fuck the wall. There are a number of works by the British prankster-artist Banksy, who has stenciled the wall with the silhouette of a girl pulled aloft by the string of balloons she clutches, and a trompe l’oeil breach in the wall with a boy playing on the rubble pile against a blue sky.
- A graffitoed section of the Israeli fence
The 1996 fencing-in of Gaza is considered a success. After its completion, terrorist attacks from the area dropped to almost zero (two, to be exact). But that took place in a relatively topographically simple area, since the Gaza Strip is a nearly rectangular slip of land inserted like a hip joint into the less-coveted real estate in Israel’s southwestern corner.
The greater challenge of walling off the West Bank was initiated in 2002. The peace talks had broken down and Israel was reeling from what became known as the second intifada, a wave of violence, car bombs, and suicide bombings that killed more than a thousand Israelis. Public opinion turned against the Palestinians, and the $2 billion wall was rolled out. Roughly two-thirds of the route is in place, most of that in the north, and even the successful terrorist attacks from the West Bank, Israel claims, now generally emanate from the southern sectors where the wall is still planned or under construction.
But one doesn’t have to travel very far from the Eliyahu Checkpoint before the fence starts to look less sure, and the issues it raises become thornier. Rather than peeling away from Qalqilya and following the Green Line, the barrier wraps around, leaving just a narrow bottleneck into the West Bank proper. And the situation here is hardly unique. As planned, the finished wall will carve an additional 10 percent out of the total area of the West Bank, effectively, its critics claim, annexing it. And the purpose of these deviations is, by and large, to accommodate Jewish settlements.
“You see, here again, the fence goes right up to the Arab village and leaves all this room for the settlements,” explains Haytham Tafkji, a cartographer for the Arab Studies Society in Ar-Ram, which is between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Through satellite imagery, he and his colleagues have created a database of every relevant feature of the West Bank, including of course, the wall. Staring into a computer monitor, I watch as he shades in various overlays of this region. Agricultural areas, population centers, Arab villages, Jewish settlements.
On its own, the West Bank appears as a double-humped parcel of land, pinched two-thirds of the way down by Jerusalem, which effectively separates Judea to the south and Samaria to the north. With each mouse-click, showing more areas of current and proposed fencing, the picture becomes more convoluted, as the entire border area seems to drip with bulbous uvula-shaped incursions and pocked with gaping security zones.
Outside Tafkji’s office are mounds of dirt and heavy machinery; laborers (yes, Palestinians) are busily constructing the wall. Currently there is a gap to let cars through: a concrete barricade funnels them toward a temporary checkpoint around 200 meters to the left, putting the building on the West Bank side. The Israeli government does not allow the Arab Studies Society to operate in Israel proper, and the group already had to move out of their old Jerusalem office. Once the wall is completed, the gap will be closed and the checkpoint removed and the building will be back on the Jerusalem side. “We don’t know what will happen to us then,” Tafkji says. “Maybe they will make us move again.”
Predictably, contiguous communities have been torn in two—children separated from their schools, the elderly from hospitals, farmers from their land. Unluckiest of all were the Palestinians who live in the Seam Zone, the area between the fence and the Green Line. Because Palestinians need special permission to enter the Seam Zone, villagers in places such as Kfar Jubhara and Ras al-Tira were left on political islands—allowed to cross into the West Bank but technically forbidden from reentering the Seam Zone, because they have West Bank ID cards. Those who didn’t obtain special permission became illegal residents in their own homes.
The International Court of Justice in 2004 declared the barrier to be in violation of International Law, but then–finance minister (and former prime minister) Benjamin Netanyahu announced a few days later that “the court’s decision makes a mockery of Israel’s right to defend itself; the government of Israel will ignore it.”
But, while the Israeli Ministry of Defense has been able to clear domestic legal hurdles by invoking “security concerns,” the Seam Zone predicament proved too much. In 2004, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the fence proved disproportionately harmful to the resident Palestinians and that a better route must be found.
In another case, the barrier cut off the east Jerusalem suburb of Ash-Sheikh Sa’d from the neighboring community of Jabal Mukabar. The lone road is blocked by an earthen mound and the checkpoint that allows only pedestrians through and only if they hold special permits. The Supreme Court again ruled against the Israelis, but since the case is now on appeal, the village is sealed temporarily with barbed wire while everyone waits for the court to issue its verdict. The only other way out is down a steep canyon, passable only via four-wheel drive or donkey. Children coming from school clamber up the path laid out between rolls of razor wire. Though a sign in Arabic says don’t litter, there can be no sanitation pickup here, so the hillside is piled with an avalanche of trash. At the top of the hills, a dozen or so permitless Palestinians loiter on the hoods of the many parked and virtually useless cars. They are young, male—and they have nothing to do.
* * * *
The more time I spend on the West Bank, the more it seems that what the Israelis have built is neither a wall or nor a fence, but a labyrinth. Trapped within its serpentine folds, the Palestinians watch their hope for a manageable state crumble into a handful of semi-isolated Bantustans.
As Palestinians and human rights activists tell me, you can’t understand the wall without understanding the checkpoints. So I tag along with human rights monitors Machsom Watch, an organization of mostly retired women, who make the rounds to the West Bank checkpoints, observing soldiers’ behavior, clocking the time it takes Palestinians to get through, and generally raising consciousness about the everyday existence in cordoned-off Israel. Like many Israelis on this side of the political divide, our guide is eager to trumpet the perceived atrocities of their home country. But the facts on the ground speak volumes on their own. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that it is impossible for a Palestinian to go from anywhere to anywhere else without passing a checkpoint. Some checkpoints are large, such as the Eliyahu, while others are a pillbox and a guard tower on the side of the road. Many are not only miles from the Green Line, but far within the interior of the barrier zone.
The Oslo accords divided the West Bank into three zones—A, B, and C, with descending levels of Palestinian autonomy. The major cities—Nablus, Tulkarm, Jenin, Ramallah—are all Zone A. Israel regards many of these as trouble spots and surrounds them with checkpoints. Thus Nablus, though far from the barrier, is nonetheless inaccessible without passing a checkpoint.
- A checkpoint between Israeli and the West Bank
Everywhere the high ground is occupied by settlements. Some are just a few houses but are afforded large surrounding tracts so as to allow for “natural growth.” While the early Zionist pioneers who started the first kibbutzim and moshavim (settlements where land is privately owned but machinery and other assets are purchased collectively) were predominantly agrarian and secular, today’s settler tends to be religious and technocratic. In many cases, however, communities that are nominally in the West Bank function as bedroom communities for the major cities, and residents are only dimly aware that they live in the occupied (or as Israel like to call it, “disputed”) territories. Special settlers’ roads—off-limits to Palestinians except in special circumstances—connect them to Israel proper. Even settlements behind the barrier have their own highways, while berms and concrete blocks prevent Palestinians from accessing them. Checkpoints monitor these roads as well.
One checkpoint isolates the village of Beit Furik from the rest of the West Bank—and indeed from the rest of the world. Residents are allowed to leave but no visitors can come to their village. Taxi drivers mill about waiting for customers. (Few segments of Palestinian society complain as bitterly as taxi drivers, whose roaming areas are hemmed in by these roadblocks.) A middle-aged Palestinian man comes up and asks me where I’m from.
“Los Angeles,” I tell him. “But now I live in Berlin.”
“And in Berlin,” he responds, “you have places you can go swimming?”
“Yes,” I say. “That’s one good thing you can say about the Communists. They built a lot of swimming pools.”
“Me,” he says, standing a short drive from the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, the municipal pools of Jerusalem, “I can’t go anywhere to swim.”
At the foot of Otay Mountain, fourteen miles east of the Pacific Ocean, we pass a final rusting green-and-brown corrugated panel, designated 1575, before the US border fence disappears like a desert mirage. “The fence doesn’t end here but there’s a gap,” Agent Michael Bermudez, public information officer for the US Border Patrol, San Diego Sector, explains. “It will start again on the other side of this mountain.” And then it will stop again, and stay stopped for the overwhelming majority of the 1,900 or so miles before the US border sinks into the Gulf of Mexico south of Port Isabel, Texas.
- Patrolling the border near San Diego
Currently, only eighty-five miles of the US southern border has any kind of physical barrier at all. This is mostly in the towns and cities. The material is of varying vintage, quality, and design, as is its state of repair. Everywhere else, interdiction relies on aircraft, various types of high-tech sensors and cameras, and, ultimately, human beings in the form of US Border Patrol officers. So in 2006, with party dominance of both the US House of Representatives and the Senate up for grabs in November’s election (and gay marriage taking a back seat to the season’s new hot-button issue) the two bodies voted to build an additional 700 miles of barrier. This bill was passed as the Secure Fence Act.
Outrage ensued. “Shameful,” decried Mexican president Vicente Fox. The Berlin Wall comparisons were trotted out by no less an expert than Mikhail Gorbachev. Undeterred, in September 2006 President Bush signed the bill into law. And to get an idea of what the new “securely fenced” US border will look like, I’m heading south from San Diego, where, according to the US Border Patrol, I will find the most well developed and well funded border-control system anywhere in the country and the model for what is to come.
The “walling off” of the US–Mexico border began here in 1994 with what was known as Operation Gatekeeper. That year, the collapse of the peso had sent droves of immigrants into the United States seeking work. Nightly news footage would show them swarming through the border crossings, across the freeway or in nightly “banzai runs,” where they would gather on a hilltop just inside the US and, when darkness fell, overwhelm the Border Patrol agents, who were lucky to snag two or three out of a hundred or so. Residents of border neighborhoods complained of break-ins, vandalism, and trash. It was also, coincidentally or not, the year the NAFTA treaty went into effect.
“We had so many illegal aliens coming through, and so much crime, that the quality of life of the citizens along the southern border was very low,” Bermudez tells me. Of the twenty Border Patrol sectors nationwide, San Diego, covering roughly 7,000 square miles, including 66 linear miles of border and 91 coastal miles, is the smallest. But because it must separate two large cities, it was also the busiest. So control along the border here was tightened, more agents were brought on the line, and a fence was built. Fourteen miles of it, anyway.
This first fence, which has come to a temporary halt here in the arid hills east of San Diego, is officially called the “primary fence,” but everyone knows it as the “landing-mat fence,” because the panels spent their former life as Vietnam-era landing pads. Thus, they were designed not as an upright barrier but to be laid on the ground by troops needing to set up a quick aircraft landing strip. When that conflict ended, the military could discern no operational use for this material. Which is to say, it was about as free as government appropriations get. Barely ten feet high, the fence did little more than mark the boundary of the United States. Every morning would bring new evidence of its having been cut, climbed, dug under, or in some other way circumvented—and this continues to this day.
“Why couldn’t they at least have mounted it vertically?” asks one Border Patrol agent whom we meet along the way. Indeed, not only was the height of the barrier sacrificed to cover greater distances with the same material but the corrugations, by being run parallel to the ground, became, in essence, a ladder.
But this is only to stop vehicles, Bermudez insists, as we follow the border westward, watching Tijuana’s thickening slums pressing closer and closer to the fence. The real people-stopping system lies just ahead. After two or three miles, we come to it: Sandia Laboratories’ fence, installed in 1996. Five years earlier, the Federal government asked the Los Alamos–based GOCO (government-owned, contractor-operated) to conduct a study of the southern border and recommend strategies for securing it. In this study, incorporated into the Government Accountability Office report of 1994, Sandia carefully examined the conditions at the border and sensibly recommended a fence of its own design and construction. Looming seventeen feet high with a tight steel mesh, it is set back from the “primary fence,” creating not a death strip but a no-man’s-land, complete with stadium lights, sensors, mounted cameras, and brushed gravel (to track footsteps). A paved patrol road runs between the two fences, strictly for Border Patrol use. This eleven-mile stretch runs above the most densely populated sections of Tijuana, forming a metal lid on its northward expansion, and serves as the model for all future border-fencing plans.
Even along the Sandia stretch, however, everywhere at ground level are welded patches where immigrants have blowtorched their way through. Looking up, I see along the angled fence-top periodic pairs of dimples made by migrants’ ladders, which are welded for the occasion in the warren of industrial shacks just outside the town center. “They fashion them out of rebar material and people will go over, and the guy will take his ladder back to Mexico,” Bermudez tells me.
But just as often, probably because the entire party goes over, the ladder is simply left hanging.
The backyard of the Chula Vista, California, home of Michael Schnorr—artist, activist, and one of the founding members of the Border Art Workshop—is piled high with makeshift ladders. “What would happen is that the Border Patrol would find these ladders hanging from the fence (the ladders seldom reached all the way to the ground) and they would take them down and hand them over the Army Corps of Engineers,” Schnorr explains. “And they would drive heavy machinery over them to try and destroy them and then toss them in the scrap yard. I talked the guy into letting me have them.” Schnorr now mounts the most interestingly mangled pieces of the escape ladders as sculpture—symbols of despair and determination.
- Paintings of immigrants climbing the wall
What concerns Schnorr, and other immigrant rights activists, about the fence is that it doesn’t address this economic desperation. He’s worried not about the Mexicans who go over the fence but about those who go around it and into the desert, where migrant deaths have now run into the thousands.
East of downtown Tijuana, a six-lane road runs alongside the fence and out to the airport. This stretch turned into a showcase for political border art. Lining the way are miles of crosses bearing the names of immigrants who died while attempting to cross. Elsewhere you’ll see multicolored coffins, each bearing a year and the number deaths that occurred. With each new installation, I ask Schnorr who did it. The answer is always the same: Claudia Smith, an attorney and Guatemalan immigrant who heads the human rights group, California Rural Legal Assistance. The most subversive image I encounter portrays a young Mexican climbing the fence—the very fence the image is mounted upon—and sneaking into America. The source of this, I discover, is Spanish newspaper El País. They are launching a Mexican edition, and this is part of their edgy ad campaign.
But while the obligatory political statements and editorials in Mexico excoriate the fence, most of the people don’t seem that worked up. Estella, a 24-year-old waitress who came here two years ago from Veracruz, says the fence doesn’t make any difference to her. “The only way I would go there is if I could work legally,” she says. “I don’t want to go to work and always come home scared. I would rather be in my own home in my own country with my own people.”
Of course, those for whom the fence does matter aren’t about to call any attention to themselves. In fact, many of them, 7 million by INS estimates, are already in the US.
“In the beginning, it was easy,” says one man, who spent a decade working as a coyote, ferrying migrants across the border. In the early 1990s, when he made his first crossing, it took just 15 minutes. In 1994, they installed the landing-mat fence, but that didn’t really bother him. “Then they built this big fence,” he recalls. “That one was really high.” It didn’t take him long to find a hill (called Eagle’s Nest) which stood higher than the fence. Once the Border Patrol started installing cameras, he switched tactics. The narcos, he says, had dug these tunnels. Unlike the furtive tunnels that students dug under the Berlin Wall, these he says were professional jobs, done with mining equipment. The costs, of course, were passed on to the migrants. Crossing fees that started at $300 in 1994 had by the end of the millennium inflated to $1,200. He got out of the game in 2003, he says, because gangs, narcos, and other predators made it too dangerous for him. Plus, there was a new generation of coyotes out there. They would often rob or even rape their customers. And the US had started handing out jail time for aiding illegal immigration. These days, he still crosses back and forth by himself, but he does it 30 miles east, out near the Mexican town of Tecate, where he will find no fencing at all.
* * * *
For the last three miles of the border, the terrain becomes difficult and the barrier reverts to a hodgepodge of different types of fencing (much of it dilapidated) and, in some erosion-prone canyons, no fencing at all. These canyons are filled with heat and motion sensors and watched by Border Patrol agents. Where culverts can’t be graded because of flooding problems, agents must stand guard. At the Pacific Ocean, where a steel I-beam barrier divides Imperial Beach, California, from Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, the last section of barrier lacks a top supporting beam. Some of its stakes have begun to splay and wobble; others have rotted out completely or have been removed. At low tide, you could walk through the gaps without even getting your feet wet. Of course, there are always Border Patrol agents watching from the cliffs above and cruising the beach on ATVs. I see joggers, fisherman, and children crossing back and forth. But with few Americans visiting this isolated beach and a mile’s walk separating the swampy cover of the Tijuana estuary from the people and houses of Imperial Beach, and unless anyone makes a determined break for it, the agents are usually content to sit on the bluff and observe.
- A Mexican fisherman on the US-side of the border wall
Thus, here at the end of the American wall, it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t worked in some respects. Banzai runs are over. A giant outlet mall spreads east of the San Ysidro border crossing, catering to Mexican shoppers who cross legally for the day. Corporations are locating warehouses and plants in the eastern part of the county, and in the town of Imperial Beach, whose oceanfront served as a major thoroughfare for illegal border-crossers, condo prices have increased fourfold since Operation Gatekeeper was started. Even the protests here don’t have the same intensity that they had in the early days. “If Operation Gatekeeper wasn’t a success,” Bermudez asks, “would these homes sell for $700,000? Would they put a school right next to the border or would people shop in a multimillion-dollar mall if it was overrun with illegal immigrants?”
But a balloon squeezed only bulges elsewhere, and the stream of migrants from Mexico’s interior, who once swarmed over the border in San Diego, are now arriving in Arizona. To truly judge the effectiveness of this wall, it would have to stretch another 1,900 miles to the Gulf. And at what cost—to governmental resources, and to our national identity and our ideals?
At the western end of Bernauer Strasse, I finally find remnants of the Berlin Wall: first a long, pristine-looking, graffiti-less section, then an eroded-looking section—its rebar skeleton revealed—seemingly frozen at the point when the wallpeckers were told to put down their pickaxes and leave the Mauer be. Across the street is a simple four-story structure with a modernist, wrench-shaped observation platform, housing the Gedenkstatte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial Center). Inside, there are collections of documents from the GDR period, witness testimony, and video displays on various aspects of life on, around, and behind the Berlin Wall. The center, founded in 2001, is the first such site to be created since the opening of the wall in 1989.
The decor is sober, minimalist, and respectful, as befits an entity created by a Protestant church. In 2006, after many years of negotiation and struggle, the center has finally purchased the last parcel of land on the Death Strip between Brunnenstrasse (the halfway point) and the Nordbahnhof, which once again serves as a local and commuter train station. According to their spokesperson, Christina Lauer, the center is planning to turn the strip into a large exhibition space—even, if the logistics can be worked out, a recreation of the Death Strip itself.
- A piece of the Berlin Wall at Griebnitzsee
“I think it took a few years for enough time to pass for people to start wanting to have some kind of remembrance here,” she tells me. A new generation of Germans is coming to Berlin, untainted by memories of Communism and clamoring for some information about the wall, as do the hordes of tourists who come here, particularly Americans.
China, too, after a long period of neglect, is finally taking steps to preserve and restore its decaying and neglected national symbol. After one scandalous incident where a privatized section of the wall was used as a venue for raves—yielding trash, graffiti, and excrement—the Chinese formed a government group to monitor the wall’s progress. In 2006, they passed a law making it a crime to deface the wall. Just after the law took effect, three Inner Mongolians were detained for using excavators to remove earth from the 2,200-year-old Zheo Wall—proving that historical habits die hard. (Belfast offers a series of “black cab” tours, showing visitors around the peace lines, while an organization called Belfast Political Tours does the city one better—it provides tours through the Catholic neighborhoods which are led by former IRA members until, at the crossing point on the peace lines, the drivers change and the second half is led by a former Protestant Militia.)
Berlin, a cash-strapped city still struggling with the financial costs of reunification, has taken a few steps toward meeting this rise of “wall tourism.” Only in 2001 did the city finally stop pawning off parcels of the Death Strip to developers and marking the route of the barrier merely with a double line of newly laid cobblestones. Thus it has fallen to private parties to fill in the gap.
- The view from what was once Checkpoint Charlie on the Berlin Wall
The most famous of these, the Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, has been bringing tourists in almost since the Wall was first erected. Founded by Rainer Hildebrandt, a political prisoner during the Nazi era, it is the most popular of the Berlin Wall museums, offering a series of kitschy exhibits in the vein of Ripley’s Believe it or Not which unwittingly preserve the shrill anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War. It has been steadily expanding, taking up nearly the entire block at its prime Friedrichstrasse location. Since Hildebrandt’s death, the museum has been run by his widow, Alexandra, a Ukrainian forty-five years his junior whom he met after the wall came down. The museum and Frau Hildebrandt have been making use of the extra space to offer exhibits on the worldwide sins of Communism and the evils of the Russian Federation.
In the summer 2006, the East German perspective finally landed on the tourist map. The DDR Museum—DDR is the German initialism for the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany—allows you to experience life in the Communist period. There are displays dedicated to product design of mundane items such as toothpaste, hairspray, and the now-beloved, though somewhat comical, Trabant automobile. They have recreated a Stasi surveillance setup with the old tube-driven components, which allows you to don the headset and spy on someone’s conversation. Down the hall is a “typical GDR living room” with couch, coffee table, and period decorations. A microphone is hidden behind a painting in that room, and it is the conversation of the people there that you can listen in on.
“We try to balance the need to treat this period with respect with making it something pop, that the whole family could actually enjoy,” says Stefan Wolle, the museum’s historian. Having grown up in East Berlin, forced throughout his school years to mouth inane socialist platitudes, he’s as aware as anyone of the conditions most people found themselves in during the Communist period.
I ask him about his personal emotions when he would see the Berlin Wall.
“Hass,” he says, quietly. Hate.
And what does he think when he picks up the paper and reads of these new walls going up, as on the West Bank, for instance. “That’s a very difficult question for me to answer,” he says after a moment’s reflection. “Because to tell you the truth, I actually understand why the Israelis are doing it.”