|My 1982 visa for Czechoslovakia on the left|
In March 1982 I traveled by train from Vienna to Berlin, passing through Czechoslovakia.
At Tabor, about 90 kilometers south of Prague, five armed soldiers took me off the train. One of them had found what they considered suspicious material in my luggage and called the others for help. There were some newspaper clippings of mostly anti-Soviet commentaries and the latest annual report from the US Secretary of Defense to the Congress, as well as a lot of literature on current military affairs, etc.
I hadn't thought they would search my luggage thoroughly as I was only in transit, especially since a few years earlier when I spent nine days crossing the Soviet Union by train I underwent only what I felt was a rather superficial inspection by KGB border guards.
These people were serious. They kept me for an hour or so in the waiting room of Tabor train station, with two soldiers armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles beside me. They came to stand guard behind me when I went to the toilet. There were other train passengers in the station but hardly anyone dared look in our direction.
Later I was taken to a big office upstairs and ordered to strip down naked while they checked to make sure I didn't carry anything unusual attached to my body or in my clothes. They went through all my luggage and separated all the material they deemed suspicious, then put the rest back.
Later in the evening two men in plainclothes came from Prague and took me and my luggage by car to Ceske Budejovice, about 60 kilometers away. We entered a large building marked with a red star and walked up one or two flights of stairs, then they took me to an office in a long corridor. There was at least one armed soldier who stood guard outside. In the office one of the men started interrogating me while the other took notes on a manual typewriter. I spoke to them only in German.
They asked me many questions about my background, my work as a journalist and about the stuff I was carrying. I felt I should cooperate as much as possible so they wouldn't get the impression that I was hiding something. They had found out I was a member of the Unification Church of the Korean Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and this seemed of special interest to them because they wanted to find out if I knew anything about secret activities of this movement behind the Iron Curtain. Luckily I didn't know anything about that – I say luckily because had I known something they might have noticed that I was hiding it from them, and the interrogation would surely have turned much more unfriendly.
Unlike the soldiers at Tabor the two men from Prague were not especially intrigued by the literature I was carrying from the US Defense Department and even the CIA. Perhaps they knew the Pentagon provided this material to journalists for free. I had collected a lot of stuff from the Pentagon that they sent me without charge during my years working for The News World daily in New York. I also used to get literature from the late former Navy Captain Herbert Hetu, who opened the CIA's first Public Affairs office in 1977 –- nothing secret, of course. The US government was much more generous giving out information in those days than it is now – I think mainly as a result of embarrassing congressional investigations during the mid-1970s.
Late at night the soldier standing guard outside and one other man took me to the end of the corridor, where they opened a thick door that looked like it was made of steel. Behind the door was a prison. I was taken downstairs to a basement and given prison clothing, a towel and a spoon, knife and fork with very short handles and made of some very light, soft metal. After that they led me back up to cell number 26. Much of what happened is a little fuzzy in my memory now but I did memorize that number.
If I remember correctly the cell contained a toilet, a sink and four bunk beds. The ceiling was very high, and there was a small window at least two meters above the floor. There was also a simple light fixture high above and the light was always on.
I spent the first night alone in the cell. In the morning some food and water was pushed through a small hatch in the door. I don't remember any details about the food except that it seemed a bit strange to me but basically edible. I remember hearing voices coming from outside the window at one point. It sounded like prisoners were outside in a courtyard, but the window was too high for me to be able to see what was below.
Later I was taken back to the office to continue the interrogation with the two men from Prague. Everything I said was directly translated into Czech and typed up with three carbon copies. Once they filled a page they read it back to me in German and asked me to confirm if it was correct. Then I had to sign the original and every one of the carbon copies. In this way, during the course of the second day they filled nine pages with my statements. A couple of times I asked them to correct something they read back to me, and they did, but of course I did not know Czech and could not check what they typed up.
I was taken back to the cell for lunch and later returned to the office for another round of interrogation. I asked how long they were going to keep me there and I wanted to contact the embassy or consulate of my country. I don't remember what the men said but it was non-committal.
After returning to my cell I found two other men there. I tried to talk to them to find out why they were in prison but they spoke only Czech and didn't seem to understand my rather lame attempt to communicate with sign language. They were not unfriendly, though, and the next night passed without incident.
On the third day I was taken to the office again but this time there was another man there who seemed to be a figure of authority. He barely glanced at me but spoke to the other two men in Czech and at one point made what seemed like a dismissive hand gesture. One of the two men then told me I was free to leave and asked whether I wanted to continue my journey to Berlin. I asked if the East German border guards would go through my luggage again, and he said they would be much more thorough than he and his colleagues had been. Then I asked to go back to Gmünd on the border in Austria.
That morning I was taken to Ceske Velenice on the Austrian border with my luggage – from which to my surprise only relatively few items were missing. Two soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs were waiting for us at the station there, and I was told to get onboard a train on which I seemed to be the only passenger.
As the train headed into the forest towards the Austrian border I saw the two soldiers standing on the platform, watching intently. Perhaps they wanted to make sure I didn't jump off before crossing the border.
The train stopped at Gmünd for me to get off, and if I remember correctly it headed back to the border afterwards. At Gmünd I went to see the station master and showed him my ticket to Berlin. I told him I had been stopped in Czechoslovakia and was not allowed to continue my journey. He put a stamp in my ticket indicating I had not completed the trip – and later after I returned to Bonn in Germany where my journey had begun I was able to get a refund for the unused portion....