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The Azer abduction story: a journalist's dilemma

By Claude Adams

Surrey, B.C.Is Saren Azer a criminal? Or a protective father with a just cause? Or is he an aggregate of both, a kind of benign kidnapper?

And until a judge or jury decide, should we even be telling his story?

In nearly five decades of working as a journalist, this is the most difficult story I’ve ever covered. I can’t answer the first three, and question four takes us to the dilemma at the heart of the news profession: Most of the time, on most stories, we are working in a grey zone, where the truth is as elusive as lightning.

Still, I believe it’s a story worth trying to tell.

Saren Azer, a Kurdish Canadian citizen, is an international fugitive. He’s wanted by the RCMP and Interpol for abducting his four children a year ago, and spiriting them to Iran where they now live. His ex-wife Alison Azer, distraught and angry, has criticized Prime Minister Trudeau for not doing enough to get the children back to Canada.

Saren Azer says he took the children away because they were being subjected to the “nightmare” of a rancorous three-year custody fight that was damaging them physically and psychologically.

A year has gone by, and he wants all the attention around the case to stop. In a telephone interview last week from Iran, Azer told me: “I heard from the RCMP that they have 40 more cases of quote unquote kidnapping. How many of those were made a day to day story in the media? How many have made it to Interpol? I am not missing, my children are not missing.”

He said the charges against him are “racially and ethnically motivated."

“I think if I was a white North American and I was to take my children to another country, Interpol would not bother to come after me. But being Muslim, Middle Eastern, yes I think that's the way.”

But there are other reasons why the Azer child abduction has become such a headline-grabbing story. First, it touches on Canada’s relations (or non-relations) with Iran. Simply put, Ottawa has no leverage with Tehran since the Harper government broke off diplomatic relations in 2012. Second, a new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was drawn into a highly emotional social media campaign by Alison, who demanded that he “pick up the phone” and talk to Iranian president Rouhani. Trudeau never made the call.

And there’s the larger-than-life personalities of the two parents at the centre in this domestic drama: Alison, a media-savvy Courtenay, BC, woman who’s raised $140,000 and a whirlwind of media support in her campaign to bring the children back; and Saren, a prize-winning medical researcher and humanitarian doctor praised by people like Stephen Harper for his work with refugees in northern Iraq.

Finally, there’s the unanswered question of what accommodations Azer has made with the Iranian authorities in his new home—given that this is the country he had to flee more than two decades ago because of his pro-Kurdish activities. As David Pugliese of the Ottawa Citizen reported, Azer told Canadian authorities in 1994 that he faced execution in Iran, and that was the basis for his refugee application at the time.

According to Pugliese, “Azer told journalists he had a 10-centimetre scar on his stomach from the iron bar beatings he received in prison. He also claimed the Iranians tortured him with electric shocks and high-pressure water because he advocated Kurdish writings and poetry. . . . The next year, he was granted refugee status, based on his torture claims.”

And who has not read about the recent executions of Kurdish activists by the Iranian regime? Or the imprisonment of Homa Hoodfar, the 65-year-old Canadian-Iranian scholar accused of propaganda and undermining national security?  Is this really a desirable environment for raising children after they've experienced life in a liberal democracy?
Today, Azer won’t talk about what he calls “politics”. He insists that he and the children are perfectly safe in Iran. We’ve heard nothing from the four children, aged 4 to 12, but we’ve seen videos and photos of them playing happily, and celebrating birthdays in their school in northern Iran. Azer says they are assimilating well, learning to speak Kurdish and Farsi and making new friends. He says they are healthy, don’t miss their mother, and that they are happy to be away from the turmoil of the custody fight. (I’ve not been able to independently confirm any of these things.)


I became a small part of the story last year, just a few weeks after Azer abducted the children during a court-sanctioned holiday in Europe. I requested an interview with Alison, who was getting all the media attention, and she declined. So I contacted a Calgary woman who was close to Azer and the children—she’d been their unofficial “nanny”-- and I found Azer’s brother Kamal, also in Calgary.

When we met, their version of events leading up to Azer’s abduction of the children was radically different from the story that Alison was telling. They portrayed Saren and the children as victims in the narrative, and they gave me copies of selected legal, police and medical documents which they feel support their case.

They also gave me Azer’s cell phone number in Iran, and after looking into my professional background, told me I was the only reporter he would agree to talk to. 

For a reporter, this kind of exclusive access is a mixed blessing. You have an immediate advantage over other reporters working the story. But you also risk being seen as a gatekeeper, or even an apologist. How can you be sure you’re not being exploited? How can you fairly tell both sides of the story?

I soon discovered how this could become an issue. When I learned about Azer’s precise whereabouts in the Middle East, I again reached out to Alison’s media handler to share this fresh information, and to put some questions to her. In response, she contacted my employer at the time, and criticized my ethics as a journalist. She felt, wrongly, that I was using this information as leverage to secure an interview she didn’t want to do. In her eyes, I was clearly in the enemy camp because I was in communication with the Azers

And later, she tried to prevent me from using photos and videos of the children that I received from Azer--images that appeared in a Global National story I produced.

This was not enough to put me off the story. However,  I had to be careful. Normally, the identities of children in a domestic dispute are protected, but photos of the Azer children were all over Facebook and Twitter in the social media blitz organized by Alison. It was a narrative of four kids ruthlessly torn from their mother, and taken to a Middle East war zone by an impetuous and reckless father. Alison spoke darkly about her fears that the kids would be brought back in body bags, or recruited as suicide bombers.

Nonsense, said Azer. He told me the children were never in any danger during their exodus, and that the real “war zone” in their lives was Canada, where they’d been subjected to endless RCMP interviews, and examinations by psychologists and the ministry of family services. In Iran, he said, they were allowed to be children again. “Their world is the world of a child,” is how he puts it.

How true is this? Azer and the children did spend some time in the Qandil Mountains of Northern Iraq, a stronghold of the Kurdish PKK group whose villages were being targeted by Turkish bombers. So they were, in fact, in a real war zone.

And when I said I’d like to talk to the eldest child, 12-year-old Sharvahn, and ask how she felt about being separated from her mother and her life in Canada, Azer refused. He didn’t want her to be drawn into the social media frenzy at the time, he said. Instead, he invited me to come and visit him and the kids in Iran, to see for myself how they were adapting (an invitation, incidently, that he also extended to Alison.)

I can understand the instinct of a protective father. But once again, I was unable to satisfy myself on a key question:  Can a young child or adolescent really “switch off” on a mother that abruptly? Furthermore, who was I to ask a 12-year-old this loaded question, and evaluate her answer?

Lastly, there’s the matter of those documents I spoke about earlier, the police memos, and the medical findings and family ministry reports—incomplete scraps of confidential material about a broken relationship between a man and a woman, and the health issues of their children. How much of this can ethically be made public? Is this news, or an invasion of privacy?

With their actions and statements, Alison and Saren Azer  propelled this story into the news cycle.  For better or worse, they made a deeply private crisis a matter for public consumption. And journalists like me are asked, in a sense, to adjudicate—to tell a credible story that respects the limited facts we are given, and that is fair to both sides.

Both parents have their version of the truth, and I, the reporter, have an approximation. But it’s the children, silent now, who alone can tell us the truest story, and what it can teach us. And it will be years before we hear their story.

Kidnapping or Rescue? The story behind the Azer abduction

It's been a year since Saren Azer, a Kurdish-Canadian doctor, secretly put his four children on a plane to Northern Iraq, and became a fugitive in a case that electrified social media. He is being sought by the RCMP and Interpol on abduction charges. This is a backgrounder on a dosmetic relationship that went terribly wrong, and an update.

By Claude Adams

In Alison Azer's words, the romance began as a “mutual fascination with ‘the other’.” He, the ambitious and brilliant Kurdish-Canadian refugee with dreams of changing the world; she, the attractive Prairie writer with a troubled past, now “thirsty for a vision of the world to replace the consumerist metaphors of my youth.”

They met in 1996 in Edmonton, where Saren Azer was working on a PhD in medicine. Two years earlier, he had fled Iran where he’d been persecuted for his activism. Alison was with the Alberta Lung Association, and she organized a ceremony at which Saren was being awarded a prize for his pulmonary research. She was dazzled by his intensity of feeling.

“It sounds silly now, but I was swept off my feet,” she says. “He was charismatic. He had a presence.” She was drawn to his “swarthy good looks.”

"I felt that 'pow'--a big immediate attraction. . . I learned from him about how little I know about the world."

It was the perfect fit. “He sought political refuge and found it in Canada,” she wrote later, “I sought personal refuge and found it with him.” Alison fell in love. Saren Azer, she believed, would give meaning to her life. And she would be at his side as he worked toward his medical degree, and his later humanitarian work in the refugee camps of Iraqi Kurdistan.

According to Azer family members, Alison secretly converted to Islam, gave up alcohol, began wearing more modest clothing and they were married in the year 2000.

Together they formed an organization called the International Society for Peace and Human Rights. She supported Saren while he studied and over the years, they had four children, all with Kurdish names: Sharvahn, Rojevahn, Dersim, Meitan. (They are now aged 4 to 12.)

As a humanitarian, she told friends, he worked in the spirit of Norman Bethune and Albert Schweitzer.

But over time the relationship soured. Saren’s zeal for humanitarian work began to overshadow the marriage. He was on the road a lot, obsessed by the need to help his Kurdish compatriots overseas. Also, Alison says he would "go ballistic" when she came into contact with other men.

When he was home, he was strict with the children. Saren and Alison argued, for example, about the propriety of the bathing suits Sharvahn liked to wear. He didn’t want the two girls swimming with boys. She says he was developing a dual personality: one moment the Kurdish traditionalist male, the next, the "free-thinking, Western-thinking man."

Alison’s initial attraction to “the other” in Saren began to wane. In December, 2012, after a bitter argument, she left the family home in Comox, on Vancouver Island, and took the kids to a women’s shelter in Victoria. She told police that Saren had threatened to kill her, and the kids were no longer safe at home.

No criminal charges were ever laid, but the breakup led to a legal separation, a divorce and a bitter two-year custody battle involving the courts, family therapists, and the RCMP. Saren calls it a “campaign of terror and hatred” that was damaging the children. Both parties accused the other of physically abusing them: medical documents show that the children suffered from eating disorders, sleeplessness, bed-wetting and developmental issues. One of the girls was found to have “expressed some suicidal ideation.”
Saren won the legal right to spend time with the children, but Alison was deeply distrustful and suspicious of his intentions. He says she even had GPS tracking devices hidden in their suitcases when they went to visit their father.
“We were surrounded, we were encircled, we were brutalized,” Saren told me in a Skype interview on May 13. “For others it might have seemed like just another case in family court (but) what I saw my children go through was nothing less than a terror.”
“Over the past three years . . . all the struggles with the ministry (of child and family development), all the struggles with the RCMP, all the struggles that were happening in our lives, it shattered their mental, emotional, psychological and physical health . . . They were so young and so impacted by that process to the point that I didn’t recognize them anymore.”

Saren began making plans. He was a highly-regarded physician on Vancouver Island—with a six-figure income; his research into pulmonary disease was winning prizes; and his international humanitarian work had even drawn the attention of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But, in his heart, Saren believed life in Canada was becoming untenable for him and the kids. He complained that the Canadian justice system was blind to their plight.

In August 2015, he made his move. During a holiday in Germany with the kids, Saren bought five one-way airline tickets to Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. He promised the children a brand-new life, away from the trauma of the custody fight with their mother. The flight took the runaways into the war-torn Qandil Mountains, where Kurdish nationalists were being bombed by Turkish warplanes. It was a territory controlled by the nationalist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), effectively at war with Turkey.

A desperate mother went in pursuit. On the basis of information from police and sources in northern Iraq, and travelling with an Iraqi journalist, Alison tracked Saren and the kids down to a village in Iraqi Kurdistan. There, after negotiating her way through countless checkpoints, she received a frosty welcome from leaders of the PKK, a group considered by Canadian officials to be terrorists.

But the PKK elders denied that they were giving refuge to Azer and the children. They said there was nothing they could, or would do to help her in her quest. As they were leaving , Alison’s Iraqi guide was given a dark warning: Do not bring her back into PKK territory, if you know what’s good for you. He took it as a clear death threat.

Meanwhile, Saren Azer had contacted family members across the border in his native Iran, and someone from his family arrived by car to collect him and the four children. They were driven to the Iranian city of Mahabad, nestled in the mountains--the home of Saren’s mother, and other family members.

I was told they crossed the border openly, they were welcomed by Iranian authorities, and all five were eventually given documents affirming them as Iranian citizens. It seems that the issues which had prompted Saren’s flight from Iran more than 20 years earlier—his full-throated Kurdish nationalism—were forgiven. Within months, he found a teaching job in a university hospital.
Iranian civil law is highly patriarchal when it comes to child custody in divorce cases. In effect, the authorities believe he has broken no laws in seizing his children, as long as the mother is allowed to see them. Accordingly, Saren has invited Alison to visit the children whenever she likes. Meanwhile, the children have found what Saren calls their safe haven.

“Our daily life is filled with joy,” Saren told me in our Skype interview. “My children now are children. They sing, they dance, they laugh, they play. This is how a true childhood should look like, not in the waiting rooms of psychologists and counsellors. Not in the interview rooms of the RCMP.”

At school, they were learning the Kurdish language, along with Farsi and Arabic. There were also classes in English. There are videos of them at play, and taking part in traditional dances.

But to Alison, the picture Saren painted was all a sham. “What he’s doing,” she told an interviewer, “is the desperate attempts of a man who’s been on the run for nine months. He’s a wanted fugitive. He continues to cross borders illegally. And his actions speak to his desperation that he must be feeling knowing that authorities are circling in on him.”
She organized a social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter that vilified Saren and other family members, and she raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in a Canada-wide campaign to help her recover the children. In a 20-minute sit-down with Justin Trudeau, she demanded that the government put pressure on Iranian authorities to have Azer extradited, and the children returned. All it would take, she told Trudeau, was a forceful phone call to the Iranian president.

When nothing came of her efforts on Parliament Hill, she became the angry, desperate, hectoring mother, critical of the government’s inaction—its refusal to take matters to a higher diplomatic level. She also had strong words for the RCMP, who she believed weren’t doing enough to pursue their warrant for her husband’s arrest.

“I have had the unpleasant experience, the horrifying experience, of seeing this government from the inside,” Azer told The National Post. “I am furious.” She said officials were "asleep at the switch."

But most wounding of all was a claim by Saren that the children were content in their new life, that they had Iranian citizenship, and that they had no wish to communicate with Alison. Could they truly have become so alienated from their mother in a few short months?

“They’re children in captivity,” she says, somewhat defensively. “They need to be rescued, and they can’t rescue themselves. Canada needs to rescue the Azer children, my children.”

Saren sees it differently. “We are an ordinary family,” he told me. “Our important issues now are finding a car, looking after our cats, making our meals, cleaning our house. These are our issues, going to the parks, going to picnics, we couldn’t care less about that madness that goes on in Canada.”


Alison has told reporters that on June 12, Saren Azer was "arrested" in the province of West
Azerbaijan, but that charges of abduction against him were dropped because no one from
the Canadian government contacted Iranian officials.

That's not quite what happened, say sources close to Azer's family. In fact, two Iranian
officers in plain clothes arrived in a taxi at the university in the city of Urmia where Saren
was teaching.

They identified themselves as Interpol liaison officers, and asked Saren if he would appear
in court the next day. He was not arrested.

The next day, Azer appeared in court as instructed, and the appearance was very brief. In
response to a question from the judge, Azer said that his two boys were over the age of
three, and his two girls over the age of seven. With that, the judge said the children were
legally in the custody of their father, no crime under Iranian law had been committed, and
the case was dismissed. (The children were given Iranian birth certificates.)

Azer was told he was free to go.

A Death in Solitary

By Claude Adams

(Published in The Tyee on Aug. 1, 2016)

Burnaby, BC—Christopher Roy hanged himself with a strip of bedsheet in a room measuring seven feet by 10 feet in a prison in Abbotsford, B.C.

He’d just spent 60 days alone, in what we in Canada call “administrative segregation” because we live in a liberal society and we don’t like the word “solitary.” Chris’s father has another term for it. Slow death. Other people call it torture.

We kill people like Chris Roy slowly. And call it suicide. And then we hold inquests and ask ourselves how it happens.

Why do we keep a 37-year-old man in total isolation, hermetically sealed, for two months—a father of two teen-aged girls who was addicted to heroin and Sudoku, who never committed a violent crime in his life, and who even turned himself in to police when he broke parole?  

After weeks in solitary, Chris wrote that he’d “like to get my mental health issues under control.” He asked to speak to a psychologist, concerned about what he called the “stigma” of mental illness.

Eighteen days before his suicide, he stopped his almost daily phone calls to family and friends. He went silent, often a sign of depression.

Three days before his suicide, he barricaded himself inside his cell, broke a broom handle, and threatened prison staff with it, through the food slot on his cell door.

The actions of a disturbed man? One prison staffer who talked to him described Chris as “wide-eyed,” “very distracted,” and “all over the place.” He displayed the classic symptoms of paranoia—worried that fellow inmates could get into his high-security cell and kill him.

But he never saw a psychologist. Or a psychiatrist. Matsqui Institution, with a prison population of nearly 300, has a psychiatrist come in for one afternoon a month.

I just spent three days in a coroner’s inquest in Burnaby, listening to the story of Chris Roy’s life and death in June, 2015. Sitting there, I vividly recalled the horrifying story of Ashley Smith, the woman who died of self-inflicted choking in solitary in 2007 while prison guards watched.

Her death produced more than a hundred recommendations for humanizing Canada’s prison system. Among them was a call for end to indefinite solitary--a prisoner never knowing when the isolation will end. Most of the jurors' recommendations have not been acted on.

The coroner’s jury in the Chris Roy suicide had just 25 recommendations but, because they have no force in law, they will also likely go unheeded.

A coroner’s jury, unlike a courtroom jury, is not allowed to assess blame. Jurors can’t point fingers, or hold anybody to account. There’s no righteous outrage. No lawyer’s histrionics. Proceedings are very civil and dignified.

But the Chris Roy story warrants some outrage.

A CCTV video of events in the segregation range on June 1, 2015—the day Chris hanged himself—contains some graphic irony. At the moment that he slipped the makeshift noose around his neck, the hallway in the range is quiet, virtually deserted. By contrast, in the minutes after his body is taken down, the range is a scene of frenetic activity—nearly 20 guards, paramedics and other prison staff focused on herculean efforts to revive him.

At the point of death, Chris was the center of attention. No efforts were spared to restore a pulse. By contrast, in life, penned up in 70 sterile square feet, he was largely forgotten—with only his tangled thoughts to keep him company.

In the last days of his life, he was despondent, lonely and afraid. He was worried about a drug deal inside prison that had gone bad. He was afraid that other inmates could get into his cell and hurt him. From his cell, he’d heard somebody in the yard yell:  “We know where you are.” They called him a “rat.” Worst of all, word was getting around that he was a sexual offender—it was only a rumor, but it was the kind of thing that could get you shanked in a prison culture that has its own hierarchy of “right” and “wrong” offenses

To make things worse, a prison staffer-- I'll call her S.C.----had just delivered some bad news:  Chris was being re-classified as “maximum security” and would soon be transferred to Kent Institution, a maximum security facility that holds a higher number of violent inmates

It  was S.C.'s job to tell him about the changes in his status.  So at 4:25pm on the afternoon of June 1, 2015, she passed him some paperwork to this effect through the food slot of his cell in the segregation range. In a CCTV prison video, we see S.C. opening the slot and passing Roy the papers. Then we see his hands emerge as he signs the documents.

Later, Chris’s father Rob would call this transaction “the triple knockout blow.”

It was Chris’s last communication with the outside world. Weeks earlier, when he was first put into solitary, he’d spoken to his mother Brenda on the phone, and he’d assured her, pointedly, that she shouldn’t worry, “I would never kill myself, I just want to finish my time and get into a drug program.”

But now, something snapped.

Later, under questioning, S.C.  was asked if she had a discussion with Chris about the implications of the transfer to Kent, how it might affect him psychologically.  “He didn’t request (a discussion),” she said. “If he had refused to sign I would have taken this to mean that he was unhappy.”

In fact, what we know now is that, talking to Chris though a food slot measuring 17 inches by 6 inches, it was not possible for the parole officer to assess just how truly unhappy he really was.

Chris was one of the 28 inmates in S.C.'s caseload. Normally, she sees her cases once a week, but she had just come back from leave so she wasn’t up to speed on his file.

“You didn’t have an opportunity to review the file?” she was asked.

“I don’t recall,” she said.

S.C. was then asked if, when an inmate is told he was being transferred to a prison like Kent, “can this have a significant impact?”

She answered: “It could.”

It could. And it did.

Sometime in the next hour, Chris gave up on life.

First he covered the small plexiglass window of his cell with a paper towel so he wouldn’t be disturbed. Then he tore a strip off a bedsheet. Looking up at the ceiling of his cell, he found a convenient suspension point that would support his weight: the metal casing around an overhead heat detector.

Standing on a chair or his bed, he rolled the bedsheet strip into a ligature, tied it around his neck, affixed it to the suspension point, and jumped--cutting off the oxygen to his brain.

At 5:32pm, a corrections officer, J.G., came down the range in the company of a male nurse doing his regular rounds with a cart of pills. J.G. noticed that the window of cell #24, Chris Roy’s cell, was covered by paper. “Mr. Roy,” she said, “Are you there? Health care is here if you need anything.”

No response.

As precious seconds passed, she rushed back to the “bubble”—a security post at the end of the segregation range—and requested that a guard there try to raise Chris on an intercom system that connects with every cell.

Again was no response, so J.G.called for guards to come and open the food slot to cell #24. Holding a transparent plastic shield over the food slot, a guard opened it and looked inside. (The shield is used in case an inmate tries to spray the guards with urine or feces.)

“Mr Roy appeared to be standing at the door,” J.G. said. “All we could see was his arms and torso . . . Soon we could see that he was hanging.”

Finally, the cell door was opened and a guard cut Chris’ body free. He flopped to the floor, his fall partly cushioned by plastic garbage bags full of clothes on the floor of the cell.

A guard started chest compressions, and J.G. made the call that would bring paramedics to the scene. When the medics arrived, it took 15 minutes before they could get a pulse, and once they did, Chris was rushed to Abbotsford Hospital.

He remained on life support for two days. A pair of armed prison guards were on duty at his hospital door.  At one point, Chris’s father asked the attending doctor if there was any hope.  Rob Roy remembers how the doctor framed his prognosis: “The chances of Chris walking out of here,” he said, “are the same as you winning the Power Ball (lottery) twice.”

There would be no medical miracle. Chris was pronounced dead at 6:49pm on Wednesday, June 3, 2015. He was 37 years ago.


At the inquest into Christopher  Roy’s death, an assistant warden of Matsqui Institution put it this way: “The response (to the suicide) took too long and we have to get better at it.”

As an employee of Corrections Service of Canada, what he couldn’t say was what was on the minds of Roy’s parents attending the inquest, and on the minds of the five  jurors: Why was this recovering heroin addict in a solitary cell in the first place? Why, given what we know about the psychological effects of solitary confinement, was he in there for 60 consecutive days? And why, after all that time, did nobody twig to the fact that he was suicidal?

Chris Roy was a non-violent criminal with a serious drug habit—a one-time roughneck in Alberta’s oil patch who became a hardened addict in his late 20s. It was an addiction that ruined his marriage, and alienated him from his two daughters. “He would just do a disappearing act,” his father Rob told me. “To his credit, he made sure his daughters never saw him when he was high.”

When his money ran out, Chris began breaking into private homes and stealing to raise money for his next fix. But he wasn’t very good at B & E. In his last offense, he put his fist through a window, cut himself and the blood allowed police to track him through his DNA.

He was sentenced to two years plus a day—a federal rap—from which he got an early release. But he breached his parole and then, at his mother’s urging, he gave himself up to police. That’s how Chris found himself in Matsqui. For reasons that are not clear, he was placed in a solitary cell. To await a transfer to another institution that never came.

In a sense, he fell between the cracks of the system.

Chris called his mother, and told him to send him as many Sudoku puzzles as she could “so I can keep my sanity.”

He was joking. But as the days dragged into weeks, that sanity would be pushed to the breaking point.

Ed McIsaac, a former member of the Office of the Correctional Investigator, a prisoner’s ombudsman group, was asked by the coroner if he had any views on the maximum amount of time any prisoner should be in solitary.

He answered: “Five days.”

But in fact, Chris Roy's sentence was life.

The Collapse of the Berlin Wall

LeipzigAbout 70,000 people walk through the city centre of Leipzig on Oct. 9, 1989, during one of the so-called Monday demonstrations against the East German Communist regime. Former CBC correspondent Claude Adams and his cameraman, Philippe Billard, clandestinely filmed one such protest about a week before the Berlin Wall fell. They transported the footage back to the West by burying it amid video of Adams's son's birthday party. (Reuters)

Growing up as a German-Canadian, I always knew it as just "The Wall"  die Mauer. The "Berlin" was implicit, a crude scar down the middle of my heritage. It was built the year I became a teenager, shortly after I got my Canadian citizenship papers, and it was torn down just after I turned 41. And I was lucky enough to be there when it was first breached.

Standing in Potsdamer Platz in the centre of Berlin, on a cool, overcast November night, wearing a Cold War-era trench coat and holding a CBC microphone, I remember thinking that this was a defining moment in my professional life. As such, I had to be careful. I needed to approach this story with professional detachment, without any emotion whatsoever, even though or perhaps, because this was such a pivotal moment in 20th-century history. I had to wear a mask of dispassionate impartiality. At the time, we called this "getting out of the way of the story." Watching the tapes of my broadcasts 20 years later, however, I'm embarrassed by the lack of passion in my voice. If ever there was a moment for a tear, a tremor in the voice or a trill of joy, that was it.

The collapse of the Wall, of course, was the climax of a bigger geopolitical story that I and other members of CBC's London bureau had been following for weeks in the fall of 1989. Seismic events in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other Warsaw Pact countries were keeping us busy; we sensed that we were witnessing the important end of something. The "p" and "g" words were on everyone's tongue: perestroika and glasnost, reform and openness. Mikhail Gorbachev was stirring the tectonic plates of Europe. So our eyes were on the entire Soviet Bloc, but our attention was fixed mostly on Germany.

I vividly remember Leipzig. It had begun with a peaceful candle-lit march by 40 people, demanding that East Germans be free to travel. In successive weeks, the march grew to 80 people, then several hundred, then tens of thousands, walking in defiance of local authorities. My cameraman, Philippe Billard, and I decided that this was something we needed to witness. So, we packed a small portable video camera and passed through Checkpoint Charlie posing as tourists. In the camera was a videocassette with footage of my son Patrick's eighth birthday party.

We arrived in Leipzig in the early evening about a week before the fall of the Wall, and a huge candle-lit demonstration was already underway. Philippe filmed the march surreptitiously, on the last half of the birthday cassette. Then, on the drive back to Berlin, we rewound the tape. It was an inspired precaution. Sure enough, at Checkpoint Charlie, East German border guards demanded to see our tape. We handed it over, and they watched portions of the tape of Patrick blowing out the candles on his birthday cake. "A handsome boy," they said, and sent us on our way. The next day, the first video images of the Leipzig marches were shown around the world.

There are few things more thrilling than to touch history on the run. The early evening of Nov. 9, 1989, was overcast and wet in East Berlin. The media were gathered at a routine press conference by a Politburo member, Guenther Schabowski. It was boring, and I was looking forward to a dinner of sausage, red cabbage and beer. Shortly before 7 p.m., as he was wrapping up, Schabowski made a curious comment. It was delivered sotto voce, almost like a throw-away line; the instantaneous translation made it sound as if the government was lifting the rules that prevented East Germans from travelling abroad. The Wall, he seemed to say, would be open starting the next morning. Without elaboration, Schabowski gathered his papers and walked out. I bolted out of my seat, told my camera crew to follow me, and we chased him to his waiting limousine. "Mr. Minister," I said, with forced calmness, "aren't you afraid there will be a huge exodus as a result of this?" Stepping into his car, choosing his words carefully, Schabowski replied: "Nobody can say what will be the result of this step, you see. But we are trying to do our best for the people."

History sometimes swings on such banal words. Within an hour or two of this announcement, tens of thousands of East Berliners began gathering at crossing points at the Wall. They demanded immediate travel visas. They wanted them now. The guards were nonplussed. They said the Wall would not be open until the next morning, but the crowds were so large, and so insistent, that the border guards threw up their hands and let them through. I was in my West Berlin hotel suite shortly before midnight, editing my story about Schabowski's curious statement, when my cameraman came running in, waving a videocassette and shouting: "People are going through the Wall by the thousands!!" The Ossies , as the East Germans were called, were already beginning to flood West
Berlin's high-end shopping district, the Kurfuerstendamm, with fistfuls of useless currency.

Within a day or two, the sledgehammers began knocking down the Wall. In March 1990, there were free elections. By the following October, there was only one Germany. Twenty years later, the emotion that I suppressed so "professionally" in my reporting of these and subsequent events, is still with me.