From Berlin to Bogotá

"These last days have reminded me of my childhood in Germany, when the Nazis took power. It's hard to explain, but I feel a kind of despair."

The first time Sigrid Bachmann and I meet, it's late March and she has just returned from Colombia, where she traveled with the grassroots nonprofit group Witness for Peace. The ten-day tour came just a month after the Colombian government severed peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), further escalating a deadly 40-year civil war.

As the 76-year-old Bachmann and 20 fellow peace activists traveled from village to bombed-out village, they became more and more convinced that the $1 billion in U.S. aid President Clinton sent to Colombia to help fight the so-called War on Drugs has only served to exacerbate the problem--in large part because most of the money went directly to the Colombian military, infamous for its atrocious human-rights record, or was funneled to murderous, marauding paramilitary forces.

Now President Bush is asking Congress to remove restrictions that bar Colombia from using U.S. helicopters and other drug-fighting apparatus. And just last week he promised Colombian Pres. Andres Pastrana that he would continue to push for an additional $600 million in military aid. Legislators on both sides of the aisle have expressed reservations about Bush's request, which is as much about oil interest in the region as coca plants. But they will have their hands full when the fight gets to Capitol Hill. Pastrana has likened Colombia's struggle to America's fight against Al Qaeda, and Bush has seized on the comparison: "My biggest job now is to defend our security and to help our friends defend their security against terror," he said last week.

The war on terror: Since 9/11 these are the only words the Bush administration has had to utter to justify a wide range of knee-jerk initiatives, at home and abroad. And not many citizens or politicians have been encouraged, or have had the courage, to stand up and challenge the rhetoric. Bachmann believes she has to. She promised.


The second time Sigrid Bachmann and I meet, we put aside the Colombian maps and rewind to 1935. Bachmann was ten years old, and like "all the other kids" in Berlin, she'd joined the Hitler Youth. They had group meetings and held dances. They carried little flags and sang songs. They attended military parades, raising their right arms when Hitler passed. "Initially, I liked the idea: that we were the luckiest people in the world, part of its greatest country," Bachmann remembers. "It was very patriotic, very nationalistic--everything that's bothering me about what's going on in this country today."

On November 9, 1938, Bachmann watched as the infamous Kristallnacht unfolded. Mobs of Germans went on a 24-hour rampage against Jews, killing 100 and sending another 30,000 to concentration camps. "That was the first time I remember sensing that something was wrong," she says. "But we were told that they were sent to concentration camps so they would not get in the way of the war effort. It sounds so crazy, I know, but there was no free press, and we didn't find out about what really happened at those camps until after the war."

When she recalls those days, she can taste the smoke that engulfed her family's bombed-out home. She can smell the munitions factory where she worked alongside Italian prisoners of war. She can feel the weight of a grenade in her hand. She can see the man hanging from a noose, a "traitor" sign around his neck. "It was utter chaos. There's no way to put war into words or pictures."

And when it was all over, when she learned about the millions murdered, Bachmann made a vow. "I decided I would never again allow myself to be ill-informed. I decided to always try and find out what the government is really up to. I decided to never again be silenced."

Bachmann came to Minnesota from Germany for a year in 1959. Two years later she came back to stay. From 1967 until last year, she worked as a pediatrician in St. Paul. She adopted and raised two biracial children and joined Minnesota's first chapter of Amnesty International. In 1985, after becoming concerned about the Reagan administration's involvement in Central America, she discovered Witness for Peace. Since retiring, she committed herself even further to the cause of political prisoners and embattled refugees. She kept the dream of peace alive. Then the towers fell.

"For weeks afterward I couldn't see an airplane and not think of it as a bullet. Despite the horror of it, though, I thought it might be a chance for this country to turn around. I thought it was a chance to look at how we've treated other countries--countries like Colombia--and how it has come back to haunt us.

"But our leaders have created this culture of fear so people will follow their leaders. The war tribunals, the thousands of people locked up without a trace, the Patriot Act--it all reminds me of what happened in Germany. We are lumping together groups of people and labeling them 'the other.' We are making them inhuman. It is what the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany."

When our conversation is over, Bachmann smiles warmly and tells me not to give up hope. Then she taps my notebook and reminds me not to forget about Colombia.


All the Rage appears every other week. E-mail the author at [email protected].

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