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The Brandenburg Gate had become the symbol of Berlin's division. Personal archive of Raul Alegria

From 1961 to 1989, Berlin, the German capital is fragmented. An imposing wall rises in the middle of the city. In the East, the Russians occupy the area. The West is divided between the Americans, the French and the English. At the time soldier of the French army, Raul Alegria agreed to tell RFI that particular day.

RFI: What was the reason for your presence in Berlin in 1989?

Raul Alegria: At the time, I was a French soldier of the 46th Infantry Regiment. I was posted to West Berlin from October 1989 to September 1990. On November 9, the day of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was a huge surprise for us. There is no word to describe the emotion and shock that this has been. Nobody expected. Nobody spoke about it, there were no rumors, nothing that foreshadows such a craze. I was on duty that night with a patrol. In the street, people ran past us. My German was never very good but I understood that they were going to break the Wall.

Raul Alegria, a French soldier, was part of the 1989/90 contingent. Personal archive of Raul Alegria

How did you feel during the Fall of the Wall?

There were two distinct moments for the soldiers. We were nervous and stressed that people were attacking the symbol of the Wall. No one could imagine the reaction of the Soviet soldiers, we could not foresee anything, it was scary. They could have pulled or brutally stopped the East Germans from accessing the Wall. It was very tense for us as soldiers. The orders were slow to arrive, our superiors asked us to wait. Everyone gauged the situation. After an hour, we were told not to intervene. Then other orders arrived, asking us to distribute food rations to the East Germans. The English had preceded us, they had established a food distribution stand near Charlie checkpoint. At that moment, we were reassured. The crowd did not share our anguish, the Germans were delighted to break the wall. The young people ran past us, laughing. Everything happened naturally.

How did the population react?

In the West, the population was ecstatic, people were joking with us, it was very relaxed. Those coming out of East Berlin were full of apprehensions. Some did not even know that there were French and English soldiers in the West. We explained to them the reason for our presence. There was a lot of noise, everyone wanted to break the wall, no matter the way. Hammers and picks passed from hand to hand. The crowd used everything they found. A man had a crowbar in his hand. Our presence was not noticed by the West Germans, they were used to the presence of foreign soldiers in their city.

Once the Wall fell, what was the reaction of the Soviet soldiers ?

Soviet soldiers wanted mostly to trade. That night, there was a lot of bartering. They needed cigarettes, trinkets, gifts ... They went to the West, out of curiosity I guess. They must have been ordered to let go on their side as well.

Raul Alegria (dressed in civilian clothes, center) alongside Soviet soldiers. Personal archive of Raul Alegria

What do you remember from the first hours of reunified Germany ?

The East Germans were fearful for the first few minutes. Then the exchanges relaxed, in the manner of a family that is found. Because of their language, their common cultures, it was simple for people to communicate. The Wall was a painful time for everyone. This reunification was a relief. As for the East Germans, they had suffered from the Soviet occupation. They had nothing. In the aftermath of the fall of the Wall on 10 November 1989, the German authorities gave 100 marks to every East Berliner. After that, all the stores were empty. There was a frenzy of buying after long periods of restraint and lack. There was a clear distinction between the Germans who lived in the East and those who lived in the West.

On the night of the fall of the Wall, did you realize the importance of what had just happened ?

It was only a few days after that I realized that I had just attended a historic moment. Something that would be in the history books. It was unreal, like in a movie. We stayed until 3 am with my colleagues and then went back to the barracks, which we called the Quartier Napoléon. It was close to Tegel airport. The next day we went back there. The inhabitants were picking up the wall, they wanted to keep a souvenir at home.

Have you had the opportunity to visit East Berlin?

We stayed in East Berlin for a while, with four colleges. We had to pass the checkpoint stage. It was pretty impressive, each of our trips was monitored by the Stasi and framed by Soviet soldiers. We did not have the opportunity to move freely and had to ask permission for everything. The lack of food hit me when we went to the cafe. I asked for a coke, but there were none in East Berlin. Instead, I drank a strange mixture of coffee and sparkling water. I think it's the worst coca ever! In the East, our presence was noticed by the inhabitants. We were dressed in civilian clothes with branded jackets. The crowd stared at us, this type of clothing did not exist on their side.

What did the city look like on the Soviet side ?

There were sanitary problems, especially in construction. Old dilapidated buildings were left in ruins since the end of the Second World War. Money was lacking to rebuild. We could still see the fragments of mortar, the bullet holes, the place was marked by its past. It was like a trip back in time, it had not changed too much. Soviet architecture and its buildings that look like wedding-cake did not help. It looked like gray and cold public housing. The city was empty.