There is no doubt why the fence is there. East Germany claims the fortified frontier is purely defensive, but many watchtowers do not even afford a view of West Germany. All, however, offer a clear field of fire back to the east. Fortifications are being refined and modernized continually. According to Western estimates, the East Germans have invested well over $7 billion in building and maintaining the barrier. "They now have third-generation equipment in place," says Major Karl Ball, deputy commander of the Bundesgrenzschutz, West Germany's border police, in the central sector. "It has always been difficult for people to escape. Now it is nearly impossible."
The fence was first fortified in 1961, after East Germany erected the infamous Berlin Wall, to stanch an outward flood of East Germans to the West that was running at the rate of over 200,000 a year. In 1962, the first full year in which a primitive fortified fence was in place, there were 5,761 escapes across it. So far this year there have been only 147. "Today it is far safer to try and get out through a neighboring East bloc country," Ball says. "Only the truly desperate risk the so-called Death Strip."
Some escapes have been ingenious. Last year two families fashioned a homemade hot air balloon out of bedsheets and curtain strips and sailed silently over the fence to freedom by night in the southern border sector. But most who manage to get across today are either disaffected members of the 42,000-strong East German border guard force or people living near the border who are told by sympathetic guards about spots along the fence where mines have been temporarily removed for maintenance. In May a young couple scrambled over the fence at an unmined spot in the central sector; two border guards in a nearby watchtower studiously looked the other way.
Others are not so lucky. Last month there was an outbreak of automatic weapons fire one night in the central sector. No death has been reported, but a farmer on the western side says:
"They brought out a truck at dawn and threw something into it. I understand they are claiming it was a cow. But it was light enough so I could see that whatever it was had only two legs." All told, 106 people have been officially listed as killed while trying to escape across the fence since it was armed 19 years ago.
"It's heartbreaking," concedes Colonel John Sherman Crow, 43, commander of the U.S. llth Armored (Black Horse) Cavalry Regiment, which is charged with border surveillance in the central sector at Fulda. "But we are forbidden to interfere until someone actually gets across the line. And we must make sure that we don't violate that line on patrol, not with a single footprint, tire track or rotor blade." Crow assigns daily helicopter patrols to fly "the trace," as the border is known, always with specially trained pilots. Ground patrols operate within a few feet of the frontier, occasionally augmented by new M-60A3 tanks, says Crow, "to remind the other side that we have a wartime capability here as well."
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