Recently, I haven’t been able to get heroin off my mind. I’m not an addict, you understand, but it has been occupying my thoughts. A few weeks back I went to see the Schaubühne’s stage production of Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo. It’s an unusual production, not least because it turns the famous movie into a musical and has an astronaut in it. That aside, it tells the story we’re all surely familiar with: the self-destruction of a drug addict on Berlin’s streets.
Christiane F was the film that first introduced me to Berlin. It was pre-wallfall heroin chic with Bowie thrown in – which naturally won it a fashionable following in the UK. Before I moved here, I recalled the movie and thought about heroin and the city. The two things seemed to me to be co-dependents. Rock star users such as Nick Cave made their way here and even President Obama drew attention to the drug on the streets of Berlin when he came to Tiergarten to recast himself as a 21st-century JFK in 2008.
But the thing that really put heroin on my radar wasn’t Zoo station, but the U8’s Weinmeister Strasse stop. I get off there pretty much every morning when I take my daughter to kindergarten. At 9.30am, I’m usually pretty fixated on getting my own drug of choice (caffeine) and perhaps a croissant. But walking up the steps to Gipstrasse hand-in-hand with my two year old, others are often in the subway cooking up a very different kind of breakfast. At first it startled me that it was so open. I’ve never seen such public drug abuse in London - except for binge drinking, of course. I was amazed at how unthreatening the situation here was, and how tidy the users left their little corner after they had done their business.
I had noticed that down the road from my regular cafe was another one for addicts run by Caritas. One morning while I was pondering the question as to why Weinmeister Strasse seemed to be the most tolerant drug zone outside of Amsterdam, I decided to go in and talk to the experts: the people who run it.
It had a homely, welcoming atmosphere. The five or so tables were crammed with people you usually see holding a begging cup up to you. They were being served biscuits and coffee by two very warm, friendly people in charge. One of them, Reno, divides his time between offering a refuge and support for the homeless addicts and going out on the streets to see if they are ok. The 47-year-old former art teacher grew up in the GDR and has been working here for 11 years. It’s not all about heroin, he tells me. The addicts he deals with are mostly alcoholics, or use a number of drugs depending on how much money they have. Some are addicted gamblers. And then he blew apart any misconeptions that Berlin is some kind of heroin capital. One of the users who he helped, he said, came from Madrid to escape that city’s much worse heroin scene. “His view was that Berlin had little drugs.”
But what about Weinmeister Strasse, I ask. Why is it so open? And why there? The U8, I quickly learned, is the main vein of Berlin’s drug traffic. It connects Kreuzberg with Wedding – areas with lots of disadvantaged people or with immigration backgrounds who are vulnerable to the drugs trade – and the dealers can move quickly on the trains to evade the police. The opennes, he said, was a result of the strategic aim of the police not to rigorously move them on, but to contain and manage the problem.
I asked Reno if I could go with him on his street work rounds. He agreed. The first stop was Weinmeisterstrasse. And there they were again, the familiar faces of the morning now in the afternoon going through the same ritual. We sat down next to them to talk.
Sarah (name changed) is 20. She’s been on heroin since she was 15. She often takes it at Weinmeister station. “They don’t give us any stress here,” she says preparing the drug that she is about to take. “We clean up and we don’t make a mess and then we go!” I ask her how she became addicted and then realise that she wants to focus on why she is there. She gives me her mobile phone number and tells me to call her. We can meet up and talk, she says, when she can concentrate better. Evenings are good, at the end of the day when she’s not asking for money to buy drugs.
So we arrange an evening at a cafe on Alexanderplatz. But she’s not relaxed. She is with her friend and together they haven’t been able to raise enough money today to buy enough heroin. It’s €10 for a “kugel” and she needs four a day which, she says, is “enough to make me feel normal”. So she can’t be normal now, I think, and as we talk she becomes more and more agitated. She tells me how she first tried heroin, how she left home, how she has a phobia about hospitals which makes it hard for her to get off the drug, how she sometimes phones her mum to say she’s ok.
“I want to stop these fucking shit drugs,” she says. And she’s trying, but admits it’s very hard. She has hopes and dreams: to live in London, to be with her boyfriend, to have a child and would just like to have a normal place to go to. Normally she says, a cafe like this one would kick her out “like an insect” but because she is with me she is ok and she laughs at the irony of the waitress bringing us over some free cakes that won’t be fresh enough to sell the next day.
She tells me how the dealers call her and pester her and that when she does make the deals she is sometimes alongside smartly dressed businessmen doing the same, often on the U8. She remembers too how once she met Christiane F when they were both buying heroin. “She was strange in the head,” she says. “She kept on saying ‘don’t be stressed’ and was constantly putting on her make-up.”
And then she remembers how it was Christiane F’s book that got her here in the first place. “It said in that book,” she says, “that heroin gives you this feeling. Something special, not like anything else. And I wanted to have this feeling one time in my life...” Then she was hooked.
She’s never been a prostitute she says. But as she becomes more and more agitated I worry if that may be the next step for her. As if reading my mind she then confesses she doesn’t know what she is going to do after our chat, because she really needs some money. Should I give some cash, I asked myself. Would you?
What is it that makes someone like Sarah fall into this trap? And how could they escape it? Reno didn’t have an answer, but he explained why he was still trying to help after 11 years of doing his work: “If I can manage to give people an aim, any aim, then they have less reason to say goodbye to the world with the help of drugs. That’s important to me.”
I said goodbye to Sarah and watched her and her friend walk across the square. They are approached by a group of boys. They see them off, but they chase after them again, and the two young women decide to join their group.
Christiane F is still on at the Schaubühne, if you’re interested, and it has the added piquancy of being on a stage just a stone’s throw from where it all happened. But in reality, the story is taking place all around us, and for those caught up in the drama it’s anything but a play.
You can email Mark at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @deutschmarkuk.