How to Become an International Communist Terrorist!

Posted by

In 1977, I performed anthropological field research among the Yebámasa Indians, who live along the Piraparaná River in the Comisaría del Vaupés of Colombia, South America. I had two co-researchers, one German, one Colombian. My German co-researcher’s name was Karl, but in Colombia, everybody called him Carlos and I ended up calling him Carlos, as well.

We were planning on arranging an ethnographic exhibition after our return to Germany at the Rauthenstrauch-Joest Museum, Cologne’s main ethnological museum. So, we were always collecting artifacts. The utensils and tools the Indians use in their daily life, their weapons, their canoes, their adornments, their musical instruments. After a while of living with the Indians, we managed to put together a representative collection, which was to show German Museum visitors how the Yebámasa Indians live.

After completing our field research, we spent some time in Bogotá with a packaging and forwarding company to box and ship all the exhibits. Everything that was long was packed into a small tree canoe we had schlepped from the Piraparaná to Bogotá. The forwarder made a huge wooden box for the canoe and the smaller items were packed into individual smaller boxes.

When we arrived in Germany in early 1978, the small boxes had all arrived, but there was no sign of the big box with the canoe and all the blowguns etc. in it. Before long, we came to realize that the entire big box and its contents had been stolen. That left us high and dry with our exhibition plans. The only way to fix this situation was to borrow the items we lost or similar items from other museums. Our best bet was the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin. We called in advance in order to make sure they had what we were looking for.

They did. And so, in mid-December of 1978, “Carlos” and I drove in my trusty Peugeot station wagon on the Autobahn A2 from Cologne, via Dortmund, Hannover and Braunschweig to Berlin. As we were driving north on the Autobahn, we listened to the radio news. The newscaster reported that the entire German police was on high alert, because they had learned that some members of the old Baader-Meinhof gang were trying to meet in Berlin to conduct undefined acts of terror there. “Hey, Florian”, Carlos said jokingly, “Seems we are not the only ones who need to get to Berlin in a hurry.”

We had just passed the junction of A2 with A30 near Hannover, when the exhaust fell of the car. The noise level the car started producing instantly made it clear to us that we needed to find a place immediately where we could fix the car. Carlos checked the Owner’s Manual for Peugeot service stations and dealers. Luckily, he found a dealer in the small town of Hameln (the “Hamelin” of the pied rat piper!) only about 40 miles from the next Autobahn exit.

When we arrived at the dealership, the owner was just about to wrap it up for the day and lock the door to his office. It was a cold Wednesday and he was ready to go home and enjoy the pre-Christmas time with his family.

I explained our situation to him. Carlos and I absolutely had to be in Berlin tonight. If we did not get to the Museum on Friday morning, we would have to stay through the weekend, which would really screw up our plans. I explained to the man that we were anthropologists and that we had spent almost a year with research among the Yebámasa Indians in Colombia and that we wanted to organize an exhibition in Cologne etc. etc. etc.

The Peugeot man listened attentively. He said that he understood our predicament and would make his best effort to help. However, he did not have the type of exhaust I needed for my car in stock and needed to get it from a central warehouse. The warehouse manager was a friend and he would probably be able to get him to pull the part even after hours. He also said he did not have a mechanic. They had all left for the day, and he would have to try to recall at least one of them, since he would not be able to do the work alone.

He suggested that, instead of sitting idle in his office for hours, we should walk into downtown Hameln, visit the local Christmas market, eat a hot dog there, look around, and then walk back. “By the time you make it back here, I should have your exhaust repaired,” he promised with a smile.

We walked off to the Christmas market. It was indeed a very nice event. Christmas music, lights, good food, hot spicy tea, nice and friendly people. It took us about two hours to walk from the garage to the Christmas market and back to the garage. The street to the garage was long and straight. We could see the entrance door to the office from half a mile away.

The office was elevated with approximately six stair steps leading up to it. The top of the stair served as a small deck in front of the door. I saw a young man standing on the deck looking in our direction. “Ahu”, I said to Carlos, “That must be the mechanic. Seems they are done and already waiting for us.” We began to walk faster.

As we got closer to the entrance, the man disappeared inside. We climbed up the stairs, opened the door, and walked into the office. To our surprise, there were four sturdy well-shaved young men sitting on the office counter, a fifth one was standing to my left by the hinged side of the door, and a sixth one stood together with the owner on my right-hand side with his back to the double door that opened into the repair area, where I could see my car standing.

“Man,” I said jokingly to the owner turning my head to the right, “you called in the whole soccer team. Is the car ready?” – “It’s ready.” He replied.

At this moment, I felt something hard and cold pressing against the left rear side of my head. I instinctively knew that it was a gun. “Don’t move. Stick’em up.” I heard the young man behind me say, while I watched the other young men pulling out pistols, as well, and pointing them at Carlos and me. Slowly, I stuck my hands up in the air and so did Carlos.

One of the men in front of me quickly grabbed my pocketknife, which I was wearing in a leather pouch that was sticking out from under my sweater. Visibly disappointed he said: “Oh shit. It’s not a gun.”

Suddenly, I understood. These were not mechanics of course. They were police officers of an anti-terrorist unit. And they had (mis)taken us for terrorists. I remembered the radio news. Baader-Meinhof gang members trying to meet in Berlin. Nationwide police alert.

I could not help but to start laughing. As the grotesque nature of the entire situation became clear to me, I laughed harder and harder. “Carlos”, I giggled, “They are an anti-terror squad and they think we are terrorists.”

Meanwhile, the leader of the commando had also grasped the comical aspect of the situation and he, too, started to laugh. He made a gesture to his team members and they all stashed their guns away.

“Well,” the commander said, “OK, we already checked your background and searched your car and we concluded that you are probably not terrorists. But then one can never be cautious enough these days.” he said sheepishly.

“Indeed.” I said somewhat miffed.

I then turned to the garage owner. “Obviously, you called the police on us. Why did you do that?”

The man turned his eyes to heaven. “Oh, well, uh, ho hum – I heard on the news earlier today about the police trying to prevent some Baader-Meinhof gang members from getting to Berlin, where they were apparently planning to wreak havoc of some sort. Then you show up here and tell me that you needed to reach Berlin come hell or high water. You address your comrade as “Carlos” and you tell me you came from Columbia. And then, I saw the sheath of your pocketknife protruding from under your sweater and it looked like it might be the lower end of a holster for a small pistol.

So I associated: Terrorists trying to meet in Berlin, Colombia, Carlos being a known Colombian terrorist, y’all needed to go to Berlin urgently, and the thing you were wearing on your belt that looked like a pistol – I thought the combination of all these features was rather suspicious and decided that it was my civic duty to call in the police.”

“Did you really have to get the exhaust from that warehouse?”

“No”, he admitted, “I lied. I had a spare exhaust for your Peugeot right here in my own inventory. I was playing for time.”

“What about the mechanic?”

“I lied. I did not need a mechanic. I did the job myself. I just wanted to be sure that you would not become startled by the sudden appearance of a police officer. After all, you being terrorists …”

“We are not terrorists and Carlos is not my comrade.” I interrupted him.

“Ehem, well, I meant to say – in the event that you really were terrorists …”

“By the way”, I said pointing at the officer behind me “One should never hold a pistol to a suspect’s head as you did. The person might not be as familiar with guns as I am. He might have panicked or reached in a pocket for an ID and you might have shot him in the head. And, from a tactical point of view, holding a gun directly against a suspect’s body is the least safe way for a police officer to hold somebody at gunpoint. You guys should know better.”

The commander was visibly embarrassed and apologized profusely. “Try to look at bright side.” He suggested, “You have only been a terrorist for about 30 seconds. And even that only hypothetically. I understand your anger and aggravation. How about having the taxpayer pay for your car repair? Would that be an acceptable compensation for the scare?”

I accepted the deal. The commander paid my repair bill out of his pocket. He must have had a slush fund for “mistaken identity” cases. The new exhaust worked perfectly. We made it to Berlin that same evening and got all that we needed the next day from the Museum of Ethnology. The exhibition took place in the spring of 1979 and was well received by the public.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.