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IT WAS a 4am ring on his doorbell, followed by a series of loud knocks, that made Hans-Peter Spitzner realise he had to flee East Germany.

Naked and half-asleep, he flipped open the latch to the two-roomed flat in Karl-Marx Stadt he shared with his wife, Ingrid, and their seven-year-old daughter, Peggy. The door was shoved open by four men in civilian clothes; one mumbled the words " house search". The visitors were members of the Stasi secret police.

Spitzner stood shaking in his bedroom as the officers ransacked his apartment. He was told to dress, bundled into the back of a Lada outside, and taken to Stasi HQ. "I was paralysed with fear and shock," Spitzner, now 60, recalls. "I had no idea what was going on or what I was supposed to have done."

He was ordered to put a piece of cloth into his pocket - he later learnt it was to enable sniffer dogs to recognise his smell. A piercingly bright lamp was pushed into his face. "After a minute or so, there was only the glare," he says. He was in the room for three hours. Strip-searched, photographed and finger-printed, he was told that from then on he was under surveillance. His crime? A teacher, Spitzner had crossed off all the names on his trade-union election ballot paper as they were all Communist party nominees.

Peter and his wife Ingrid began seriously thinking about escape in July 1989. Then Ingrid was suddenly given permission to travel to Austria for her aunt's 65th birthday. The East German politburo was flexible about married people with children travelling alone because it could make hostages of their families. Spitzner resolved to escape with his daughter, then meet Ingrid in the West. He told neither of his plan.

On 16 August 1989, Spitzner and Peggy drove 120 miles to East Berlin. They spent the next two days hanging around the main Allied bus stop, begging the drivers to take them across to the West in the luggage compartment of their buses.


"They all said it was too dangerous. By the end of the second day, I was just about to start for home when I spotted a black Toyota Camry with American licence plates in my wing mirror. A US soldier in uniform was in the driving seat."

The young serviceman, Eric Yaw, took seconds to consider the proposal, before saying: "OK, I'll do it." Peggy climbed into the boot with two holdalls and her father.

Just 20 minutes later they were free and that night met up with Ingrid.