“It’s worth it for just one person”

40 years ago the “Cap Anamur” rescued 11.000 Vietnamese refugees the life. Christel Neudeck says: “The obligation to save people from drowning is more relevant than ever. And the order to the policy actually clear.

Interviewer: Cap Anamur is now celebrating its 40th anniversary. How present to you is that feeling from back then that something had to be done to save the Vietnamese refugees?

Christel Neudeck (peace activist, co-founder of Cap Anamur and widow of Rupert Neudeck): The feeling is very present, although we hadn"t planned it all this way. Rupert went to Paris in February 1979 to interview Sartre. He had done his doctorate on Sartre and Camus and now had the opportunity to talk to him. The French told him they had a ship to rescue refugees in the South China Sea. Their images were very present to us – similar to the images from Yemen or the Mediterranean today.

And the French had this good idea but no money and asked Rupert if he could raise money for them in Germany. Rupert asked Heinrich Boll if he would participate. After two days, he called Deutschlandfunk, where Rupert worked until his retirement, and said: "We have to do that". And that was the beginning of a new life – also for me.

Interviewer: She, her husband, Heinrich Boll and a few others acted at that time. They have also launched a ship for Vietnam in Germany. How difficult was it? What opposition did you have to overcome?

Neudeck: It was difficult because we didn’t have any money. Franz Alt mentioned in "Report Baden-Baden" – there were only two TV programs in 1979 – the account number of the donation account. After one week, we had 1.3 million mark. That was the order for us to charter our own ship: the Cap Anamur. Until today Cap Anamur finances all projects from donations. We have stuck to this principle.

At that time, we thought the whole thing would take three months, then we would have no more money, because a ship and heavy oil are very expensive. We were, I would say, young and naive and we thought we can help and then we do that. Drowning people should not be allowed to drown, even today. But the donors have never left us and have always trusted us until today. Because of these donors, we had the opportunity to finance the ship month after month, and a total of 11.000 people to rescue.

Interviewer: In addition to these 11.000 people, they have 35.000 people on board their ship to receive medical care. Is that proof that it pays to stand up for others?

Neudeck: It is always worth it. You just have to imagine that you yourself are this famous drop in the bucket. It is worth it even for a single person. And if you can do something for others, it’s much more pleasant than having to call on help yourself. We have always been able to fight for others. It’s much easier. Of course there were resistances and setbacks. Martin Buber said: Success is not the name of God. We also experience this, for example when three of our employees are kidnapped in Syria. Then you ask yourself whether you have done everything right. Then it’s also not just a Christmas when all three of them can free themselves after three months and you didn’t have to pay a ransom. Sometimes it is very, very difficult.

Interviewer: From the sea rescue at that time, you and your husband have developed a permanent commitment to sustainable development and peace work. Working for and with Cap Anamur for a long time, but also with other NGOs like the Green Helmets. What role has this commitment played in your life??

Neudeck: I am quite honest: In 1979 I was at home with two children and being a housewife did not make me very happy. Rupert was a workaholic. He worked very, very hard and wanted to do his habilitation at that time. And when he came from Paris with this idea, I was immediately very intrigued by it and thought: If he already works so much and can help people with it and I can be part of it, then let’s do it.

For 14 years our living room was the headquarters of this organization. It was just tremendous fun to do this work together with friends. I have never sacrificed myself and neither has Rupert. The situation in Syria, which I have just described, was terrible. But most of the time everything went well and most of the time you were quite happy when, for example, a bridge in Afghanistan was broken and you had the opportunity to rebuild it. And it’s a wonderful feeling when the first truck crosses the bridge and you no longer have to swim across the river. What can be better than to succeed for others with friends who want it as much as you do? It has enriched my life.

Interviewer: When her husband died in 2016, hundreds of Vietnamese came to the funeral service, if not more. Was that a consolation for you?

Neudeck: Oh you know, my husband died a good three years ago now and I still – if I’m honest – can’t understand why he doesn’t come back. He was on the road a lot, a lot. But all of us who have experienced it know that there is a difference between someone being away a lot and coming back and not coming back. At that moment I could not think of consolation. Of course, it was very, very nice to feel the gratitude of the Vietnamese. I knew then that I had to give the Vietnamese friends a way to say goodbye and I was very grateful that the large church of St. Apostles was made available to us.

And if I may say so: Rupert was a very pious man. I think that this has increased even more with age. But he always saw faith in such a way that I was almost envious of it. He used to say to Muslims in Afghanistan: "We all believe in one God who created heaven and earth. That’s why I wanted something to happen at the Bereavement Free in addition to the Catholic Mass. And then I was very happy that Navid Kermani gave a speech at this funeral service that made it clear: God is bigger than we think and all-embracing. All in all, I was very happy about that.

Interviewer: Saving lives should be self-evident, but it is not. The EU has stopped its own sea rescue operations. Private sea rescuers are not allowed to dock their ships in safe harbors and are criminalized. What goes through your mind when you hear reports about it??

Neudeck: It goes through my mind that unfortunately nothing has changed at all and the situation is like it was in 1979. I would like to quote Heinrich Boll – because what he said in 1980 is more topical than ever: I think that in all disputes and controversies we must not forget that we are dealing with drowning people and that no one, but really no one, should presume to say: He must drown and he must not drown. If you criminalize Carola Rackete, it speaks against our society. But there are also many people who see it differently. For me, Mrs. Rackete is a "humanitarian missile". We need more people like them. She is modest and she is professional.

One must not let oneself be driven crazy by these complainers. You have to stick to what you want and have to do. Of course, the many refugees who come to us – and Germany is first and foremost – are a test of courage and a challenge. But you have to accept that. Whether all refugees can stay here is another question. But you have to save them. They must not be allowed to drown.

Interviewer: Most recently, Chancellor Merkel suggested a resumption of state rescue at sea. See this as a sign of hope?

Neudeck: Yes, I see Mrs. Merkel at all as a sign of hope. When she let the refugees in dire need into the country in 2015 – one forgets the drama that preceded it – we were quite proud. That Germany, of all countries, astonished the world that such a thing is possible. In many countries we are still seen as Hitler’s Germany. But I am skeptical whether Mrs. Merkel will be able to assert herself.

Interviewer: What do you want to say to politics?

Neudeck: That is relatively simple. I have had a lot to do with refugees in the last three years. There was a cabaret artist who said: The Germans didn’t have to build a wall between East and West, it didn’t have to be so expensive. All you had to do was put up a red light, no one would have crossed the border anymore. And I see these red lights everywhere in the bureaucracy. I could write a whole book about that. I would really like to call for creativity in the administration – where there are a lot of committed people – to turn these red lights green and say: I am acting sensibly.

The refugee who lived with me for two years and with whom I have close contact is now in his third year of apprenticeship as an electronics technician. We need electronic engineers. The asylum procedure is insanely expensive, lengthy and costs the state a lot of money. You could say: Okay, you speak fluent German and abide by the Basic Law. You are learning a profession that we need. We first stop the procedure and after three years we check whether you are really allowed to be German and whether you continue to behave like that. But that does not happen.

Interviewer: Even today, many people fight for more humanity and risk a lot for it. You have just mentioned Carola Rackete, the captain of the Sea-Watch. From your experience back then, do you have a message for these helpers?

Neudeck: To these helpers I have the message that they should not be afraid. One tries in all possible areas to make others afraid. We are constantly told what we can die of, but have never grown as old as we do today. Somehow it doesn’t quite add up. I would say to the helpers: live together with those who are in need and don’t let yourself be driven crazy by all those who do nothing and only groan. This is my experience. When I used to be asked about doing a lot at home first and not outside and then asked back what they were doing, nothing came. Grumbling is usually done by those who do nothing. One should not be irritated by this.

The interview was conducted by Hilde Regeniter

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