Squatters fill odd patches, as anarchistic as weeds

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

June 29, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- Mrs. Mustafa Akyol, a stout Turkish matron from the Black Sea town of Trabzon, waters her flourishing garden on a traffic island that once belonged to Communist East Germany.

A jolly woman in a beaded Muslim head cover and a shapeless dress that reaches to her toes, Mrs. Akyol grins happily as she talks about her crops through impromptu interpreters.

She grows corn, beans, onions, sweet potatoes, sunflowers, tomatoes and herbs on this tiny plot.

Mrs. Akyol's garden is one of the more prosaic enterprises that have sprung up along the strip where the Berlin Wall used to be. Here in Kreuzberg, Berlin's equivalent of New York's lower East Side, some anarchist enclaves have been settled in for years, tucked into oddball patches of East Berlin once left outside the wall.

The wall ran straight through the traffic island where Mrs. Akyol has planted her garden, instead of following the curb that was the border.

A tiny triangle of about 120 square feet of East Germany was left outside the wall. When a Turkish man from Trabzon first planted a garden here five years ago, the wall was still up. He even built a tiny garden house. He's still there, tilling an even more compact plot than Mrs. Akyol.

She homesteaded her land when the wall came down and opened up a bigger chunk of the island. Her husband and four children eat some of her produce. Her neighbors also get some -- her apartment house down the block is full of people from Trabzon.

She sells the rest at the big, outdoor Turkish market on the bank of the Landwehrkanal.

About two long blocks away, near where the wall used to run along the shore of the Spree, a young woman named Susannah -- she doesn't care to offer her last name -- lives the life of a "rollheimer" in a "wagenburg."

A rollheimer is a person who lives in a rolling home. Susannah's is a wooden construction trailer with a round roof. It looks like something left behind by a band of tinkers.

A wagenburg, literally "wagon fort," is a collection of these rolling homes, nowadays often vans, old buses, surplus army trucks and Gypsy caravans like Susannah's.

An updated, counterculture hobo jungle, one might say.

Wagenburgs, often more or less anarchist communes, sprang up in the remnants of East Germany left outside the wall. They were immune from West Berlin police. They were in a foreign country. About a dozen continue to squat on the oddments of land created when the wall fell.

They're mostly tolerated or simply ignored. Occasionally, the city tries to clear them out. According to one famous story from the days of the wall, police tear-gassed a wagenburg for an entire night until the wagenburgers retreated to the 6-foot strip of East Germany left in most places between the wall and the real border.

Then the West Berlin police watched in amazement as the wagenburgers climbed over the wall into East Berlin -- without being shot.

The bantam West German Communist Party had arranged safe passage, no doubt to irk the West Berliners. East German police met the wagenburgers with buses, took them to the Friedrichstrasse subway station and spirited them back into West Berlin.

Susannah, a bright, friendly woman of 25 who wears her hair cropped except for a blond tuft in the front and back, studies politics at the Free University.

"It's like an infection," she says. "If you once live in a wagon, you always want to come back."

"Why?"

"Because it's better. You're living outside. You can organize your life better. You can do what you want to do. You have more control over your own life."

She keeps her wagon pretty tidy. You have to when you live in something like 200 square feet. She has a two-burner stove that runs on bottled gas, a foot pump for her tank of water outside and a dog named Viva Anarchy with eight pups.

She figures her wagenburg will last another year on the Spree. Space is scarce in Berlin, and development projects roll relentlessly over squatter camps and little gardens.

"They don't want us in the center of the capital of Germany," she says.

In an article for an alternative paper, she wrote: "The defenders of the law, morals, tradition and profits want to chase us to the ends of the earth. But the earth is round."

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