As she gazed out across the parched desert in the early morning dawn Katrina smiled knowingly. She knew that she had been one of the most fortunate people in the world, despite all of the hardship and sadness that she had endured during her tumultuous life. She brought the chipped rim of her old tin mug towards her parched lips and smiled inwardly once more, before sipping the hot sweet tea and thinking joyfully, “Here I am truly at home.”
Katrina was born in Cottbus in East Germany in 1957. As a child she spent most of her time playing with small animals and dreaming of the great outdoors and a life of travelling adventures. She occasionally even spent winter evenings sleeping on the small balcony of her parent’s apartment or enduring thirty-six hours without drink in order to test her ability for survival in arctic or desert conditions. Idle games with friends were a waste of time. She was, either deeply engrossed in a book, or nursing some sick animal. These had been the only things of importance to Katrina for as long as she could remember.
After high school a degree in Biology set her well on course for the life that she had imagined. She had wanted to follow up with a research project in the Galapagos or western Australia, however always knew that this was out of the question for a student from the GDR. So after applying for projects in Siberia and Kazakhstan but being rejected without interview or reason, she realised that this large, regulated open prison of East Germany would never allow her to live out her dreams.
One evening after a few glasses of vodka she felt as though her heart would break. Her boyfriend, Uwe, could not console her. She cried until the early hours.
Uwe was a swimmer. He had swum in the GDR finals that year and almost made it to the Moscow Olympics. He lay awake that night, tossing and turning, determined to help Katrina in some way. They had discussed many times about their future life and how they would build a family together, but he knew that her desire for nature and the adventure associated with travelling to other lands would have to be satisfied before she could settle down with him. During that long night he made a plan.
The next morning he could hardly wait for Katrina to wake. Over a cup of tea they sat on their bed and Uwe explained his idea.
“You’re crazy Uwe, I can barely swim,” said Katrina after listening carefully while Uwe eagerly spat out his plot.
“I can teach you. I have all the training techniques necessary and we can practice in the lake Trappe. I can have you fit within a year, I am sure of it,” pleaded Uwe.
Katrina sighed reluctantly, but also with a tinge of excitement, she eventually nodded to the plan. They would begin the following weekend.
As the weeks went by, just as Uwe had predicted, Katrina became stronger and fitter. Her confidence grew. She became more content: She had a purpose, a target. Within three months she could manage five lengths of the kilometre long lake, but this was still nothing compared with the distance from Dierhagen, across the Baltic Sea, to the Danish coast. Her determination flourished; Katrina became almost obsessed with their escape to the point where on two occasions she had to interrupt her training due to overtaxing the muscles in her shoulders. She was averse to going to a doctor because she was sure that this would cause suspicion and lead to a visit from the Stasi. She became as resilient as Uwe to the point that they were quite equally matched in their technique and stamina.
Finally the night for escape arrived. They had planned in minute detail and were to go just after midnight. A rubber dinghy would be tied to Uwe’s ankle. This would be inflated when they were a few kilometres from the beach, out of range of the searchlights. They crept down the shingle ensuring that they adhered to the shadows as much as possible. In black neoprene wetsuits they reached the water’s edge, adrenalin pumping through their veins, intoxicated by the excitement.
Suddenly they saw the lights from a patrol boat. They watched quietly for more than half an hour, as the patrol boat went backwards and forwards covering about five kilometres of the coastline, exactly where they had planned to swim from. They looked at each other. How could they be so unlucky? Uwe had watched this coastline every night for the last couple of weeks to ensure a relatively unguarded stretch of water for them. Never had he seen a patrol boat.
“Shit Katrina,” he said, “I am sorry. We have to call it off. They would spot the dinghy for sure.”
Katrina weighed up the situation for a few seconds before she looked at Uwe with a narrowed glare and the beginnings of tears building in the corners of her eyes. “Then we go without the boat,” she countered. “If we time it right we can slip through between the passes. If we wait until they have gone by I reckon we have about twelve minutes to slip through before they come within range again.”
“You’re crazy! We could never make the distance across to Denmark without the dinghy. It is nearly seventy kilometres for goodness sake. Neither of us would stand a chance.”
Katrina looked at him. With a combination of the adrenalin and a poignant feeling of desperation flowing through her body, she just replied, “I am not going back. You must do as you feel.” She was so focussed that Uwe could see nothing more could be said to change her.
They waited until the patrol boat had passed by, hiding behind an old wooden wreck until the time came. With one last lingering glance at each other and a nervous smile, they bravely entered the water, gently gliding through as they had trained a thousand times.
It was much easier than imagined. Within thirty minutes they were safe from observation and heading out into the dark sea. They both knew that forty kilometres would be their absolute limit and were, in effect, swimming out to their death. So much was their desperation that even that outcome was more palatable than remaining penned in East Germany under such a restrictive regime.
The night was long. They swam with the efficient constant rhythm they had practiced, conserving as much energy as possible. They were lucky because as daylight came there remained a low mist over the sea. They were almost invisible and laughed excitedly as they gently glided through the calm rippling water. The conditions were almost perfect. They swam as though it was a fun day out, forgetting temporarily the huge expanse of water that lay before them.
By midday Katrina began to tire. Her strokes were becoming less effective, her mood deteriorated rapidly. Uwe could hear her muttering “must keep going, must keep going,” under her breath. He still felt strong enough but carried the concern that he had overestimated this small, vulnerable but very strong-minded woman.
They continued on towards Denmark, the compass attached to Uwe’s arm showing that they were still going in the right direction. Katrina became more and more fatigued, her disappointment slowly giving way to a sombre knowledge that her time was nearly over. Uwe tried everything he could think of. He cajoled, threatened, cried and screamed: Anything that might get a reaction from Katrina and push her to a few more strokes.
As the sun went down they had been in the water nineteen hours. Both knew that it was almost over. They had no food and their energy was almost exhausted. Katrina sobbed “I am so sorry. It is my fault. I forced you to come.”
Through all of the heartache and tiredness Uwe managed a grin. “Huh! I am going to Denmark,” he said. “Aren’t you coming with me? There are nice girls in Denmark, I hear.”
Katrina looked at him, her energy temporarily renewed, but only for a few metres. Uwe watched as her head bobbed below the surface and she took a lung-full of water. He quickly grabbed her in the rescue position as she coughed and spluttered. “It’s no use. Leave me and save yourself, she cried.”
He ignored her pleading and struggled along for some more minutes. It was almost completely dark when he spotted something shadowy above the surface of the water. He slowly moved towards it, praying that it would be a boat or something where they could rest and recover. As they came closer he could see the distinct yellow of a buoy. Why a buoy was here, so far out to sea, he had no idea.
They managed to cling on. There was a rope around the perimeter of the buoy which they could link their arms through to provide some support while they dozed and recovered. They hung on for the whole night, but instead of recovering they became weaker and weaker. They talked about what life would have been like outside of the GDR. How they would have travelled and seen the world and had two, three or even four children who would be free to live their lives as they wished. The world they painted with these words looked like a faraway dream now.
As daybreak came Katrina was barely conscious. Uwe could do nothing but watch her slowly die. He considered holding her under water to halt her suffering, but dismissed the thought as quickly as he had it. He knew instantly that he was not strong enough to go through with such a deed.
Katrina was hanging from her tethered arm, dropping in and out of consciousness, in the last hours of her life. Uwe just sobbed with frustration until his eyes caught the sails of a yacht coming towards them. He reacted quickly and yelling and waving, “Over here. Over here. Hey, help, help!” Katrina heard nothing, she was now too far gone.
The yacht veered towards them. It had surely spotted the two inert bodies hitched to the buoy, and came on with urgent speed. Uwe could not believe their luck. They would survive after all. He began to laugh insanely. “Katrina. Look! Look!” But she just buffeted against the buoy in time with the ripples on the surface. She was no longer there.
The yacht was within a hundred metres when suddenly it swerved again, sailing by without slowing. The crew was looking and waving at them, laughing loudly. They just sailed by, the cacophony of the laughs and jibes dwindling with their increased distance.
Uwe’s mood became dark. His heart filled with hate as he realised that all was now lost. The reason why the yacht had sailed by was lost to him. What kind of bastard would do such a thing? Within minutes it became clear, when a GDR patrol boat came surging along in their direction. “Of course,” thought Uwe. “Who else would have permission to sail their yachts in these waters, but the ‘Ostzone Schwein’ from the regime?”
On shore they were immediately separated and moved to different prison camps. Katrina was put into the hospital wing of a women’s prison. Uwe was gone from her life. Katrina was given no information and assumed that he was either locked away in prison or, even worse, tortured for information. One day, after pressing the prison warden hard on this she was told that Uwe had not regained consciousness from his ordeal and had died shortly after.
As she recovered she could only think of Uwe and her failed escape. Why had she insisted? Uwe would still be alive if only she had not been so stubborn. The weeks rolled into months, but the time did not heal the deep throbbing wounds in her breast. She became depressed to the point where she decided that to live was worse than death and began a hunger strike during the second year of her imprisonment, determined to end it all as soon as possible. The two main loves of her life were gone, her man and her vocation.
During the third week of her hunger strike she was roused early one morning and taken to see the prison warden. “Katrina Lenk, I am to tell you that you are to be released. The West German government has paid for your release.” There was a moment of emotion showing on her face before she quickly corrected it and continued, “You have been through much child. I hope that you can find peace where you are going. You will be transported to Dusseldorf in two days’ time. There you will be given West German identity papers and become a citizen of the West. I suggest that you spend those two days wisely trying to build up your strength for the journey.”
Katrina was very lucky indeed. That year the West German government paid for the release of eighteen of the most difficult prisoners. All were women.
Within a year Katrina had her dream. She was awarded a full year research project in the Galapagos as part of her PhD studies from the University of Munich. There she lived completely alone, with a small tent and only her animal friends for company. She had never been happier. After such a manic couple of years the peace and tranquillity of the Galapagos was a medicine sorely needed. Apart from the moments of despair, when she thought of her Uwe, she learned to become at peace with the world.
After completing her thesis Katrina decided to follow her lifelong dream and planned a two-year expedition to Mongolia. Before she could set off there was a year of preparation for her to fulfil. Her financing came easy: On presenting her case to the faculty a research grant was awarded which would support her for the time. She knew that in order to understand the people and travel alone through Mongolia she would have to learn the language, at least to a basic level. This was the hardest task. She set about it with unrelenting gusto.
A couple of months before she was set to leave for Mongolia she found herself enjoying the warm spring sunshine outside one of the many cafes in the centre of Munich.
As she glanced out across the tables her eyes only glimpsed his profile. She was stupefied and her breathing stopped momentarily. She instantly knew that it could be no one else but him. There was no doubt: They had lied. He turned his head slowly, until their eyes met.
Uwe had been kept in prison until the reunification in 1990, after which he moved immediately out to the West and was working towards a degree in Journalism from the University of Darmstadt. He would be finished within a month.
They spent the two years in Mongolia together, followed by many more expeditions throughout the world. Uwe is a good cameraman and supports Katrina in her undying search for new lands and experiences, as well as using his journalistic talents to help her write the books of their adventures together. But mainly he is happy each day to simply see Katrina living her life. There will be no children. He knows that now.
As he looks out of the tent, watching Katrina with the early morning desert sun on her face, he thinks to himself, “It is truly remarkable how just a bit of luck, one way or the other, can change lives.”