By Margarette Driscoll who was a reporter for the Sunday Times for over 25 years. Here she recounts the mass break-out from the Communist bloc in August 1989 that resulted in her finding a life-long friend.
One summer’s day in 1989 I was invited to a very unusual picnic. My fellow guests were mainly East German refugees and we gathered in a field dotted with wild flowers, near Hungary’s border with Austria. Three months later the Berlin Wall would fall – our TV screens and newspapers will be full of 30th anniversary reports come November – but back then we had no idea the final days of the Iron Curtain were quite so near.
There were rumblings of discontent in the Eastern bloc: the picnic for refugees had been organised by a Hungarian political group lobbying for change. It turned into one of the most extraordinary events of the Cold War – one in which I was to make a lifelong friend.
I was a reporter for The Sunday Times, covering the slow disintegration of Soviet power. Andrea Mieth and her adorable, blond-haired son, Hannes, 6, were just two of the East German hopefuls who had arrived in the nearby town of Sopron, looking for a chance to escape.
Andrea, 24, was a newly-qualified engineer who had been working in a factory turning out the Eastern bloc’s notoriously unreliable Trabant cars. She made me laugh with her stories about life on the production line and how she was forever trying to slip past the janitor in her drab block of flats who was believed to be an informer. Though she had nothing more than a bag with a few belongings she was happy. She loved being able to say whatever she wanted, without looking over her shoulder.
She and I reminisced about those days in Hungary a few weeks ago, glass of wine in hand, as we watched the sun go down over the verdant hills of Tuscany. Andrea has been living in Italy for the past three years, in a converted chapel.
“It hasn’t been easy but I got what I was dreaming of – freedom,” she said. “I wanted my son to learn English at school, not Russian. I wanted a future for him. I hated feeling that we were trapped.”
It was immensely brave of her to have made it as far as Sopron, but the chances of getting any further that day 30 years ago looked bleak. Those trying to escape were routinely shot.
The picnic had been organised around the annual meeting at the border of two horse-drawn carts, one from Hungary, one from Austria, as a sign of friendship. The refugees and their supporters on the other side were supposed to watch, then return home.
Instead, on impulse, some 600 refugees made a rush for the border gate. We were suddenly on the Austrian side, with people all around hugging and crying, barely able to believe what had happened. It was the greatest mass break-out of the Cold War. Whether the border guards relented, or were ordered not to shoot, we never knew.
Andrea was put on a train to West Germany, and cried for the first and last time over her decision to leave: “I was exhausted,” she says. “It was a release.”
A month later I went to visit her as she settled into her new life. She was still bubbling over with excitement, but coming from a country where food and even basic clothing was in short supply the choice in the shops was a shock. “Sometimes when I went out shopping I’d get overwhelmed and come home with nothing,” she said. Her life in freedom could feel very lonely.
A few months later she came to stay with me in London. Hannes took a small boy’s delight in the bloodthirsty exhibits at the Tower of London.
I remember explaining what an avocado was when we were in the supermarket: Andrea had never seen one.
Now, of course, she’s as sophisticated as anyone who grew up in the West. More than most, actually: she speaks English, Italian, German and Russian (thanks to her school days). Her qualifications were not recognised in West Germany so life as a single mother was a struggle. She worked as a shop assistant, a driver and a sales rep – anything to get by – until she was able to turn her natural gifts as a sportswoman to use and started coaching triathletes. Six years ago she sold all her furniture, gave up her flat and cycled 2,000 miles along the coast of Australia, then worked on a farm in New Zealand before celebrating her 50th birthday with a triathlon.
The restless energy that drove her to seek a better life is still there. She is thinking of leaving Italy: time for another adventure.