Iraq's 'ghost embassy' in east Berlin

Dilapidated building is gaining cult status in city's youth scene.

Files remain strewn across the embassy's floors. David Crossland / The National
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BERLIN // The former Iraqi embassy to communist East Germany, deserted by its staff 20 years ago, has turned into a dilapidated time warp of the Saddam Hussein era that fascinates photographers and intrepid souvenir hunters. Over the years, the gold-framed portraits of a smiling Saddam have been stolen from the office walls of the 1970s building in a suburb of eastern Berlin. But heaps of embassy files and official brochures inviting tourists to visit Iraq remain strewn across its floors and stacked in metal filing cabinets.

Rusting typewriters, telephones and telex machines stand abandoned in offices. Visa application forms rustle in the breeze wafting in through broken windows. The place looks as if it was evacuated in a hurry and then hit by a bomb, though, in fact, it was vacated by embassy staff in 1990, when it became defunct because Germany unified and East Germany ceased to exist. That was also the year Iraqi forces marched into Kuwait.

Anyone can wander in through a creaking gate and broken front door into what has been dubbed Berlin's "Ghost Embassy". The 5,000 square-metre site is the property of the German government but has been leased to the state of Iraq, which has exclusive and perpetual usage rights. It is a common arrangement for embassies. "It's a matter for Iraq; there's nothing we can do about it," said a spokesman for the Berlin city planning department. But Iraq has no need for the building and seems intent on ignoring it because it has its embassy in western Berlin. Asked whether it had any plans for the property, an embassy spokesman said: "I can't tell you anything about that; we're not commenting on this issue."

Booklets and papers in Arabic, German and English testify to an age of friendly relations between Iraq and East Germany. Iraq was the first non-communist country to give East Germany full diplomatic recognition, in 1969. It was rewarded with weapons exports, and experts from the East German army gave Iraq advice on chemical warfare. Caught in a diplomatic no-man's land, the property, built from pre-fabricated slabs typical of the state-controlled architecture under communism, seems destined to keep on crumbling. A fire in 2003 gutted several rooms in the three-storey building and charred wallpaper hangs in strips from the walls and ceilings. Shards of broken glass crunch under one's shoes as one walks along its corridors and up the concrete staircase where the walls still show traces of expensive-looking, green decorative tiles.

Yellowed Iraqi newspapers show a photo of a smiling Princess Diana and a cartoon criticising US imperialism. An opened ring-binder contains a photocopied picture showing Saddam speaking to a female visitor. People scouring the shelves and cabinets for Iraqi memorabilia still find tapes with the dictator's speeches on it, and propaganda postcards, and they are free to take them away. The building's spectacular state of desolation has made it a popular subject for photographers and it is rapidly gaining cult status in Berlin's thriving youth scene. Last year it was used as a venue for an impromptu party and a backdrop for a music video featuring Nexus, an Irish DJ.

Its location in a quiet, well-to-do district of eastern Berlin that has clearly put the communist era behind it makes the building stand out even more as an eyesore. Similar office buildings in the vicinity have long since been refurbished and now house businesses and government agencies. The embassy is part of the story of Berlin. The city has undergone so much upheaval since the fall of communism that it is full of old official properties left behind by history. Some have been torn down, like the communist showcase Palace of the Republic in central Berlin. Others have been converted for new uses, like the State Council Building, now a business school.

Many are deserted and yet to be rediscovered. The former Iraqi embassy, however, looks unlikely to escape its past.