‘Taken over by the enemy’

Al Jazeera meets the Communist migrant workers who lost out when the Berlin Wall fell.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was a time of celebration, but also one of fear and uncertainty in the old East Germany.


A country, and an ideology, collapsed. Factories closed, jobs disappeared and old values were turned upside down. 


All of East German society felt the impact of those dramatic events, but perhaps none were as vulnerable as the country’s foreign contract workers, or Vertragsarbeiter.  


Over the years, tens of thousands of people had travelled to East Germany from fellow Socialist countries in the developing world; places like Angola, Cuba, Mozambique and Vietnam. 


They learnt technical skills and worked in factories.

To some extent, the scheme was driven by a sense of solidarity between friendly, ideologically-linked states. 


But East Germany also used the migrant workers to overcome chronic labour shortages, and by sometimes keeping a portion of their wages, to pay-off debts owed to it by countries like Mozambique.



In theory, migrant workers enjoyed the same rights and responsibilities as other workers in East Germany. In practice they were socially isolated, living in special barracks, and personal contacts with German co-workers were firmly discouraged.


When the wall fell in 1989, there were still some 90,000 Vetragsarbeiter in East Germany. Suddenly, the country and the ideology that had brought them to Europe had collapsed, and the majority were sent home.


This was often a traumatic experience. Returnees to Mozambique, for example, struggled to adapt to their war-ravaged homeland.


Today, many years later, they are still in an angry dispute with the Mozambican government about money owed from their time in East Germany.


But a minority – perhaps as many as 20,000 Vetragsarbeiter – managed to stay in the new, unified Germany, and I wanted to find out how they have fared.



I met Joao Fortuna in the small town of Coswig, near Dresden. Joao arrived in East Germany back in 1980, one of the very first groups of Mozambicans to be sent.

“We were selected because of how well we’d done at school,” he recalls. 


Joao Fortuna says he has encountered more racism in post-reunification Germany

He showed me around the ruins of the old barracks on the edge of Coswick where he had once lived with 60 other young Mozambicans. Today, he is the only one left in the town.


He was allowed to stay after reunification because he was engaged to a German girl, something that would have been forbidden before the fall of the wall. 


The company where he worked closed down in the early 1990’s, but with the right qualifications, Joao was able to get another job in a machine factory. 


He is proud of what he has achieved; he has a comfortable apartment and can send money back to his relatives in Mozambique.


But it is also clear that his life has not always been easy. He says in some ways, things were better under Communism. 


“It was safer before,” he explained. “In the old days we’d go out, play football with the locals; we didn’t feel racism like we do now. Now there’s fear, and at night you have to be careful.”


He blames economic changes for this; the insecurity and unemployment that have come with Capitalism.


Joao is now estranged from his German wife and is adamant that he is “100 per cent Mozambican”.

He says he will go back home Mozambique to retire, “to sit on the beach, and feel the warm sun”.


Unhappy story


Almuth Berger was a peace activist and pastor in East Germany. After the wall fell, she was appointed by the government to look at ways of helping the contract workers.


Nguyen Loan says her mind is Vietnamese but her heart is increasingly German

“Some individuals and countries benefited from this scheme at a certain time, but overall, this is not a happy story,” she says.

“Especially for the Mozambicans, I would say they were the clear losers when the wall came down.”


But the largest community of all the contract workers were from Communist Vietnam. 


Nguyen Loan came to work in Karl-Marx Stadt (which has now reverted to its historical name of Chemnitz) in 1982.


She worked in a factory that made metal screws, and she says life was tough. She and her friends were not prepared for the cold winters and when the 1989 revolution happened, the Vietnamese contract workers were “in shock”.


“We’d been taught to be Socialists, but now it looked like we were being taken over by the enemy,” she remembers.


Most of Loan’s friends returned to Vietnam soon afterwards. She stayed and does not regret it. After Communism, there were new opportunities.


Now, she laughs when I ask if she feels more Vietnamese or German.

“Fifty-fifty,” she says, “I think like a Vietnamese person but my heart is more and more German.”

Source : Al Jazeera

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