WITNESS: The day that changed my life

Wed Nov 4, 2009 9:09am EST

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Fabrizio Bensch, a German citizen, has worked for Reuters for 17 years as a photojournalist. In the following story, he describes how he chose his career the night the Berlin Wall opened.

By Fabrizio Bensch

BERLIN (Reuters) - When it was announced on the evening news that Communist East Germany was opening the Berlin Wall, I had a feeling that it was not just the world that was changing -- so was my life.

Taking pictures of the Wall had always fascinated me. Earlier in my 20th year I even rode my bike all along the west side of the 160-km (100-mile) barrier. I've still got the pictures I took with my trusty Altix camera.

So there I was on November 9 at the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing, waiting with hundreds of Westerners on the west side of the Cold War barrier that had split my hometown for 28 years.

At first there was nothing, but you could feel the tension rise as the crowd on the East side grew. Finally at about 9 p.m. one man came running through the crossing holding up his blue East German passport.

He dashed over to the first Westerners he saw, total strangers, embraced them and just started crying. It was an incredible sight. After that thousands came pouring through.

At 11 p.m. I heard that some people had climbed up on top of the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate, which was about two km away, and I ran over.

The 3.6-meter high Wall, which was built on East German territory, was always a no-go zone for us in the west and especially those over in the east.

But tonight everything was different.

Someone on top reached out a hand to help pull me up. It was unreal. I grew up with the Wall but never dreamed I'd be able to walk on it. Something that had always been way out of bounds was suddenly reality.

As I climbed down on the east side and walked through the Brandenburg Gate, another verboten zone, I felt like I was in a trance. This was the death strip just a few hours earlier and here I was strolling through it with hundreds of others.

I spent the night wandering through East Berlin, savoring the moment and taking hundreds of pictures. And I knew from that moment what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

I worked my way through college in Berlin selling pictures to newspapers and joined Reuters in 1992.

Looking back, the quality of most of the pictures I took that night wasn't all that great even if the memories are.

But I've got one shot that sums it all up for me: two women, one from the East and one from the West, are embracing at a border crossing while an East German border guard looks on -- you can tell by the look on his face that he knows the jig is up.

(Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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