Selected writing: Europe

East Germany: The irony curtain

December 4, 2004

When the wall came down 15 years ago, East Germans were promised their lives would be enriched with new homes, money and jobs flowing in from free Europe. Instead a new, invisible wall of hopelessness has been erected — and millions have moved west, leaving semi-derelict ghost towns and growing hostility. Special investigation by Christine Toomey

The illuminated hands of a vast clock sweep relentlessly above the deserted Packhof quarter of Wittenberge; the span of the dial, over 20ft across, makes it the largest clock in continental Europe. That such a giant timepiece should dominate this small town on the banks of the Elbe river seems almost like a taunt; a larger-than-life reminder that, as far as many are concerned, time is running out for Wittenberge.

For this once booming town in the former Democratic Republic of Germany now has a more dubious claim to fame. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall 15 years ago and subsequent reunification of East and West Germany, Wittenberge has seen the most dramatic exodus of people of any place in the former communist half of the country. Contrary to the “blooming landscape” the former chancellor Helmut Kohl predicted East Germany would become, when he basked in the collective euphoria of 83m Germans celebrating turning into one nation again, all that flourishes among this town’s many crumbling buildings are weeds.

Streets stand deserted. Nearly a third of the population — more than 10,000 people — have left. In the former DDR as a whole, nearly 3m — 17% of the population — have moved out, leaving well over a million apartments empty. Most have gone seeking work to the west of what was known as the “anti-fascist protection barrier” — the border that once split the country in two.

Wittenberge’s famous clock tower looms 100ft above what remains of a sprawling disused sewing-machine plant, once the town’s main employer. Alongside it sit the abandoned hulks of an oil-seed mill and textile factory. In recent years the brick facade of the mill has served as a backdrop for a small annual opera festival; an attempt by the town to breathe life into this abandoned part of town for a few days each year. The only other flurry of activity the Packhof quarter sees from time to time is the arrival of film crews shooting post-second-world-war dramas. There’s no need to build a set: the partially derelict, deserted streets offer the perfect location.

The one, hugely expensive, modernisation project completed here last summer, amid great fanfares, was a £52m upgrade of the railway station. But even this was blown a big raspberry by many residents, who viewed the upgrade, mainly of tracks, as a means for trains to thunder through the town even faster. Only once, early in the morning, does a gleaming Berlin-Hamburg express stop here for two minutes. On the rare occasions it stops a little longer, observed Der Spiegel, one of Germany’s leading news magazines, it is so that the driver can hop out “to piss on the floor of this small town before leaving the place once more forgotten by the west”.

When Chancellor Gerhard Schröder arrived to crack open a bottle of champagne to inaugurate the new station, he was greeted by a crowd of hecklers. The protest was just one sign of how deeply disenchanted many east Germans, “Ossies”, are with their west German, “Wessie”, neighbours and vice versa.

The days when millions of East Germans streamed across the newly opened border to be embraced and offered flowers by those in the west seem long past. The moment when ordinary Germans, eastern and western, stood, arms linked, singing “We are one people” is long forgotten. According to one recent opinion poll, 12% of east Germans think it would be a good thing if the Berlin Wall were re-erected; twice as many west Germans think the same. So why has the dream of a reunited Germany turned so sour?

Some have likened what has happened to a once friendly “company takeover” of the east by the west that has turned hostile. Certainly those in the west resent having poured over £1,000 billion into what has become an economic black hole; while those in the east are disillusioned that this investment, much of it in infrastructure, has failed to prevent huge job losses. But the truth lies deeper than economics. It has its roots in a split in the German psyche — a fundamental difference in mentality that exists between those living on either side of the former border, once so brutally enforced by the DDR that over 1,000 of its citizens were killed trying to cross it.

Heinrich August Winkler, one of Germany’s leading historians, describes it as a “mix of economic weakness and long-term disposition”, with its roots in the country’s authoritarian past. “As West Germany was liberated by the western allies and not the Soviet Union, it had a chance to open itself to the political culture of the West. The real tragedy for East Germany was that one form of dictatorship [Nazism] was exchanged for another, which had a tremendous psychological impact. It has taken West Germans time to realise this is a united country but still two societies.”

In the heady first years after reunification, there was talk of the “wall inside people’s heads”, expected to last well after the watchtowers and concrete barricades were torn down; 15 years on it seems, for many, this mental wall has grown. To find out why, there could hardly be a more poignant place to start looking than Wittenberge, and from there trace the stories of those along a section of where the border once followed the Elbe river — across which East and West German soldiers once regularly exchanged fire.

The headline of the newspaper cutting framed on Detlef Benecke’s office wall declares him to be “the luckiest man in Wittenberge”. Benecke runs a removals company and business is brisk. The stocky 42-year-old is a born entrepreneur. Even under the old communist regime, he launched a series of lucrative black-market schemes, including reproducing pop posters as a boy and learning how to blow glass, rolling out dozens of orders a week for family and friends.

When the wall came down, Benecke started a business repairing umbrellas. But as one factory after another closed in Wittenberge, and the mass exodus from the town began, he saw a new opening in the market — he invested first in one removals van and now has a fleet. Discussing the fate of the town where he was born, he switches off his phone and becomes earnest.

“When the factories closed, everything went to the dogs. Those in the west just decided the east would become a region of consumers, not a place where anything was made any more. Little thought was given to what the future would look like here after that. So, first, the men left to find work. Then they took their wives and children. Most of those left are either old or very young or have nowhere else to go. This place is turning into a ‘pair of dead trousers’ [a ghost town].”

One of the reasons the east’s economy was gutted so quickly was Kohl’s decision to exchange old East German ostmarks for deutschmarks on a one-to-one basis. While populist and politically shrewd, this was largely aimed at stemming a potentially disastrous flood of people moving to the west. And in the short term, it did boost the east’s economy by giving those with limited savings some spending power. But in the longer term, it wrecked any chance many East German industries had of remaining competitive; overnight, the wage costs of a much less efficient workforce were hugely inflated, virtually quadrupling the cost of their products.

Winkler, a professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University and author of a recent two-volume history of Germany, accuses west German politicians of “lacking imagination”. The assumption was that the east would soon be pulled into line with the west. Some talked of a “second economic miracle”. Much was made of the “confident, powerful” nation a united Germany would become. Some boasted: “Germany will be unstoppable”. That is not how things now look from Wittenberge.

Benecke, who has become a city councillor to try to shake up the local political status quo, blames a lack of innovative thinking among those in power. The same “old sacks”, he says, have dominated Germany’s political landscape for too long. The bureaucracy, hidden taxes and social-security payments burdening German employers are so onerous, they stifle new enterprise. Instead of stimulating the creation of new jobs by stripping away the red tape, the country has artificially propped up certain industries and manufacturers and continued with a lavish welfare system that the country’s ageing population can no longer afford.

Decades after West Germany’s economic miracle dragged the country from the rubble of war to the height of economic power, books have started appearing with titles such as Germany: The Decline of a Superstar. With unemployment at its highest in recent history, and growth stagnant, the country is experiencing what some are calling a “gloom boom”. West Germans blame it on reunification. But economists argue that the decline would have set in anyway, as Germany had evolved one of the most rigid and expensive labour markets in the world. Reunification, they argue, actually concealed the problem for years as the country went on a huge borrowing spree to pour money into the east, leaving a national debt that has breached euro-zone guidelines each year since the launch of the single currency.

In recent years, Schršder has begun the painful process of reform, causing controversy by cutting cherished social programmes. One fallout is that extremist politicians, both on the left and right, have been voted onto local councils. But from January 2005 these cutbacks will begin to bite even deeper, as unemployment benefits will be slashed from two-thirds of previous salary to a fixed welfare payment of under £100 a week. With the official unemployment rate in the east running at around 18% (unofficially the rate is closer to 40-50% in some places), compared with just over 8% in the west, this will lead to much greater hardship for those in the former DDR.

Rudiger Overlach is bent low over a small artificial pond, absorbed in creating a miniature Japanese landscape in the garden of his modest home on the outskirts of Wittenberge, as his wife starts talking about how she believes he will fare once the new reforms take effect. “From January my husband will receive €340 (£235) a month,” says Daniella, 48, who has an advanced terminal illness. “Once I’m gone, Rudi is planning on starting his own business designing Japanese gardens.” From the look of the wilted rushes surrounding the pond her 53-year-old husband is tending, this could be an uphill struggle.

“Life was good for us before. I worked in a bakery. Rudi was a builder. We raised a few pigs on the side and made enough money to build our own house. Our life was secure. When the wall fell, we thought life could only get better. But the small man has been forgotten. Our lives have become very hard. We feel used.”

Not that the Overlachs were great lovers of the old system. When he was a teenager, Rudiger escaped to the West by swimming across the Elbe. Incredibly, he swam back, undetected, a few days later after feeling guilty about leaving his ailing mother. Loose talk about what he had done led to him being jailed for two years. When Daniella applied for a passport to leave the DDR, it was denied. She became one of millions subject to surveillance by the Stasi, the secret police, among whose bizarre methods was the compilation of a “smell database” comprising stolen items of clothing such as socks and underpants, to help sniffer dogs track supposed subversives.

“We wanted freedom and now we have it,” says Rudiger, finally slumping in a chair in the garden. “But what good is it doing us? There is no work. Our young people are leaving. Our police state has collapsed, but what we have been offered in its place is an ‘elbow society’ where everyone is just out for themselves.”

As hard as it was for them, the Overlachs encouraged their only son to leave Wittenberge to find work in the west. Before I meet him at the end of my trip, when the deep divisions that still exist between those living on either side of the former border become startlingly clear, a series of encounters serve as painful reminders of how brutally divided physically Germany once was.

One road out of Wittenberge winds through a small village, little more than a street lined with old farmhouses, where 75-year-old Inge Lemme lives. One wall in her home is lined with photographs of a handsome, smiling young man with unruly blond hair; the last photograph taken when he was 21, just a few months before he was killed. This is Hans Georg, Inge’s son.

The last time Inge saw her son, he was waving at her as he cycled away from their farm after paying a short visit home during his period of compulsory military service with the East German army. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, August 1974. Later that day, Hans Georg was due at a nearby military base, before being posted as a guard to a high-security camp for political prisoners in the north of the country. When he failed to report for duty, soldiers were sent to question Inge and her late husband. They genuinely had no idea where he was. “He wanted to protect us,” says Inge, absently stroking a photograph of her son. “Only later did we discover he had admitted in a letter to his uncle that he did not know how he was going to get through his military service.”

Inge believes the prospect of being posted to guard political prisoners, and the cruel conditions her son was expecting to have to enforce there, pushed him to attempt to escape. He was a strong swimmer, a lifeguard. He thought he could make it across the Elbe. But as soon as he was reported missing, border guards ordered floodlights to be trained on the stretch of the river nearest to his home. He didn’t attempt to cross that night. The next night, the floodlights were still on, but he felt desperate enough to attempt his escape.

The details of what happened next only emerged after the Berlin Wall fell and records of border fatalities were scrutinised by authorities seeking prosecutions of both politicians and military officers considered responsible for the shoot-to-kill policy enforced along the border.

Hans Georg, it was recorded, almost made it to the western bank of the Elbe before being seen by an East German patrol boat that had been ploughing back and forth looking for him.

When the boat drew level with him and tried to pull him on board, according to one crew member, he dived below the surface, shouting: “It’s now or never.” The captain of the boat then systematically raked his craft backwards and forwards at speed until he felt the propeller meet resistance, then announced with satisfaction: “That’s got him.” The propeller had sliced through Hans Georg’s skull. His body was left to rot in the water for three weeks in the hope that this would disguise the exact cause of his death.

When his body was returned to his family, his parents were told they were to blame for “bringing him up improperly” and “filling his head with false ideas”. The family had relations in West Germany with whom they exchanged limited correspondence. Six years ago an attempt was made to prosecute the captain of the boat for manslaughter. But his crew mates suffered a sudden bout of amnesia, claiming they could not recall what had happened, and he was acquitted.

“I paid the highest price possible because of the wall,” Inge says. “I understand how desperate a lot of people feel because they have no work. It is not an easy situation. But I cannot understand anyone who says they want the wall back.”

Further along the river, in the hamlet of Vockfey, Hans Ebeling, an elderly farmer with a smallholding that had once sat precariously close to the electrified fence following the line of the Elbe, recalls sometimes hearing gunshots fired at those trying to cross the border. “We never thought contact with the west would come so rapidly. The sudden freedom was both beautiful and unexpected,” says Ebeling, who became a local councillor when the wall fell, and fought hard for the community of Neuhaus, within which Vockfey sits, to be incorporated back into the west German region of Lower Saxony, to which it traditionally belonged. This has brought the area some financial benefits. But it still lags far behind the prosperous Lüneburg across the river and, further afield, Hamburg, one of the wealthiest cities in Europe. “Young people today have no idea how it was back then,” says Ebeling. “They look back and think things were better.”

You do not have to search far to understand what he means. The young in nearby Neuhaus are unanimous in their belief that their only hope of a job lies across the river in affluent Lüneburg. And yet they express a strong sense of nostalgia — or “Ostalgie”, as the Germans have dubbed it — for the East German way of life their parents knew.

Drawing a veil over the fact that it was a society more spied on than any other in history, they, like many others, talk of the former DDR as a cosy, communal Heimat (homeland). Such sentiments have made the recent German film Good Bye Lenin! a hit, and meant former food staples such as Bulgarian plums, ersatz coffee — made from charred vegetables — and the old-fashioned Trabant cars that families waited years to acquire are now undergoing a revival.

Without meaning it as a metaphor, Iris Goigal, a 17-year-old pupil at Neuhaus’s high school, says: “At least you knew where you were when the wall was there.” She means it literally, explaining that her mother used to get lost in East Berlin and could only orient herself by looking at the wall. But it is as if not only her mother’s generation but hers too now feels so lost, they can only find their bearings by referring to the psychological barrier that still separates east and west.

Little remains today of the real Berlin Wall. Most of it was ground to rubble and used as the foundation for a network of new autobahns across east Germany. Potsdamer Platz, once a no-man’s-land across which concrete barriers and barbed wire stretched, now has a McDonald’s and Starbucks. When an artist recently re-created a portion of the wall in the capital near the former Checkpoint Charlie, erecting 1,065 wooden crosses in memory of those who lost their lives trying to cross the border, it caused an outcry. The installation was condemned as a “Disneyfication” of the cold war. But many saw the row as a sign that those in the west would prefer to forget the country’s troubled past.

Sitting in a classroom discussing their hopes for the future, Iris and other pupils in Neuhaus constantly repeat the message they receive from their parents: that life was more secure before the wall fell. A job, at least, was guaranteed, health care was free and the education system better. Only one boy, Denny Lengkeit, dares to say: “We wouldn’t want the wall back, or the spies or the border guards.” But, with the brashness of youth, he voices the belief, widely held but rarely expressed so openly that: “Even so, there was a lot about the old system that was good.” At this the girls in the group talk enthusiastically about the “community spirit” their parents once enjoyed and they crave. There is little doubt that under the extreme conditions of a totalitarian state, neighbours and friends (ones not signed up by the Stasi, that is) had to support each other more to devise ways of loosening society’s straitjacket.

On the outskirts of Lüneburg, in the driveway of the smart house that Daniella and Rudiger Overlach’s 29-year-old son, Silvio, has built for his family, a new Mercedes CLK 200 sits as a gleaming symbol of newly acquired wealth. While the car is mainly used for driving back to Wittenberge to visit his father and ailing mother, it is clear that, in material terms, moving to Lüneburg has enabled Silvio, his wife, Kathrin, their young son and baby daughter, to achieve a comfortable lifestyle. Not that it wasn’t hard won. When Silvio first moved west he says he encountered the sort of discrimination many East Germans complain about. Employed by a construction company for almost half the wage paid to his West German counterpart, he and the other Ossies were given accommodation in a removals container. “We were considered cheap labour, so naive and desperate for work that we would take whatever we were given.”

When his wife joined him and started work as a book-keeper, they were able to rent a small flat. Silvio then started an internet company selling ornamental swords and daggers, which grew out of his passion for the martial arts. To his surprise the company quickly took off, enabling the family to buy a plot of land and start building their own home. But this led to further trouble.

Their elderly neighbours appeared to take an instant dislike to them, eventually complaining to the police that Silvio had exposed himself in the garden, a complaint that the police found groundless. Silvio believes at its root was a feeling of resentment many Wessies feel for their Ossie neighbours. “People here seem to simply look for reasons to pick a fight,” he laments.

In the comfortable setting of Lüneburg town hall, Ulrich Medge, the mayor, tries to explain what he believes lies at the root of such antipathy. “In the beginning, those from the east were welcomed with open arms. But when the euphoria subsided and reality set in, west Germans realised east Germans would be competing with them for jobs, and then there was this huge outflow of money from their pockets to try and shore up the former DDR. When all they heard in return were complaints from those in the east about how hard their lives had been, things began to wear thin. From the west German perspective there is a feeling that we struggled for 40 years to pull this country out of the ashes of war and yet those in the east expect their lives to be transformed overnight.”

Medge is too diplomatic to admit that basic prejudices arising from different mindsets also run just below the surface. While Ossies see themselves as more open- and social-minded than those in the west, Wessies view them as whiny and slow-thinking. And while Wessies see themselves as modern, sophisticated and experienced in the ways of western capitalism, they are viewed in the east as arrogant and making Ossies feel like second-class citizens.

As far as Medge and most Germans are concerned, it will take another generation, maybe two, before the tensions between east and west ease and the mental wall that continues to exist in many people’s minds finally crumbles. But right now, for Silvio Overlach, the differences are simply too great. He has recently decided to try and move back to Wittenberge. His expanding business, he feels, can be conducted just as well from there — if not better. “Workers in the west have had it so good for so long they don’t put much effort in and, I have found, are unreliable,” says Silvio. “I’d rather employ someone from the east any day. I know they’ll show up for work. They need the money.” There is some documentary evidence to support this: one recent banking report noted that east German workers, on average, clock up 100 hours more per year than their western counterparts.

“As far as I’m concerned it is east Germany, not west, that is the land of opportunity,” Silvio concludes. “Just like in America, when the pioneers started moving out to the Wild West.”

Few exemplify this “pioneer” spirit better than Detlef Benecke; even if, in his case, it has a rather macabre edge. Once Benecke has helped all those who want to leave Wittenberge, I inquire, what direction does he see his business taking? Without missing a beat, he replies that he has been thinking about opening a funeral transportation service, maybe a crematorium.

“It looks like only the old will be left here soon,” he says. “They will need catering for eventually.” But if others like Silvio Overlach start moving back, bringing new business opportunities with them, there may be hope for Wittenberge yet. The future of the east, says the historian Winkler, depends on a “renaissance of civil society”. And already, he says, there are “positive symptoms”.

On my way out of Wittenberge, I glance up at the giant clock and note it is running 15 minutes fast. Rather than time running out for places like this, optimists like Silvio would argue they could, eventually, find themselves ahead in the race to galvanise Germany and rid it of its reputation as the sick man of Europe. But at the moment, in east Germany, optimists are in short supply.

Spain’s stolen children

March 1, 2009

During General Franco’s reign, tens of thousands of children were taken from their families, handed over to fascist sympathisers and brainwashed. Now growing old, they are fighting to discover the truth about their past before it’s lost for ever. By Christine Toomey. Photographs: Clemente Bernad

The only memory that Antonia Radas has of her father has haunted her as a recurring nightmare for nearly 70 years; it is the moment of his death.

Antonia is a small child in her mother Carmen’s arms. Both are looking out through the refectory window of a prison where Carmen’s husband, Antonio, is being held. They see him lined up against a courtyard wall. Shots ring out. Antonia sees a red stain burst through her father’s white shirt. His arms are in the air. Another bullet goes straight through his hand.

After that Antonia believes she and her mother must have fled the prison. But Carmen and her two-year-old daughter were soon arrested. They had been arrested before. That was why Antonio had given himself up, thinking this would guarantee their freedom. But they were the family of a rojo or red — a left-wing supporter of Spain’s democratically elected Second Republic, crushed by General Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces during the country’s barbarous 1936-to-1939 civil war. As such they would be punished. These were the years just after the war had finished, and the generalissimo’s violent reprisals against the vanquished republicans were in full flow.

Antonia is now 71 and living in Malaga. Her memories of much of the rest of her childhood are clear, and many of them happy. “I was raised like a princess. I was given pretty dresses and dolls, a good education, piano lessons,” she says.

It is only when I ask what she remembers about her mother, Carmen, from her childhood that Antonia’s memory once again becomes sketchy. “I remember that she was thin and she wore a white dress. Nothing else. I didn’t want to remember anything about her,” she says with a steely look. “I thought she had abandoned me.”

This is what the couple who raised Antonia told her when she came home from school one day when she was seven years old, crying because another child had said that she couldn’t be the couple’s real daughter since she did not share their surnames. “They told me that my mother had given me away and that my real family were all dead. They said they loved me like a daughter and not to ask any more questions. So I didn’t.”

By then a culture of silence and secrecy had descended on the whole of the country, not just the south where Antonia grew up. These were the early years of Franco’s dictatorship, when loose talk, false allegations, petty grievances and grudges between neighbours and within families often fuelled the blood-letting that continued long after the civil war had finished. In addition to the estimated 500,000 men, women and children who died during the civil war — a curtain-raiser for the global war between fascism and communism that followed — a further 60,000 to 100,000 republicans were estimated to have been killed or died in prison in the post-war period.

Even after Franco’s death in 1975, after nearly 40 years of fascist dictatorship, few questions were asked about the events that had blighted Spain for nearly half a century. To expedite the country’s transition to democracy, the truth was simply swept under the carpet.

Franco’s followers received a promise that nobody would be pursued, or even reminded, of abuses committed. In 1977, an amnesty law was passed ensuring nobody from either side of the bloody conflict would be tried or otherwise held to account. A tacit agreement among Spaniards not to dwell on the past took the form of an unwritten pacto de olvido — or pact of forgetting, which most adhered to until very recently, when the mass graves of Franco’s victims began to be unearthed.

While the majority of his nationalist supporters had long since been afforded decent burials, the bodies of tens of thousands of republicans — many subjected to summary executions — were known to be buried in unmarked pits.

In 2000, a number of relatives’ associations sprang up to try and locate the remains of missing loved ones. When the socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was elected in 2004, the agreement not to rake over the past was ruptured; during his election campaign he made much political capital out of the country’s left-right divide by repeatedly reminding voters that his grandfather had been a captain in the republican army and had been executed by Franco’s military.

To mark the 70th anniversary of Franco’s coup, Zapatero, in 2006, drafted a controversial “historical memory” law intended to make it easier to find and dig up the mass graves of republicans by opening up previously closed archives. In addition, the law — a watered-down version of which was passed after much heated political debate — ordered the removal of Francoist plaques and statues from public places. It also set up a committee to which former exiles, political prisoners and relatives of victims could apply to have prison sentences and death penalties meted out by the Franco regime declared “unjust” — not illegal, given the huge financial implications for the state in terms of compensation this could entail.

Since then, however, such issues surrounding atrocities committed by Franco’s henchmen have become bogged down in a legal quagmire.

Attempts last autumn by one of the country’s leading judges, Baltasar Garzon, to have Spanish courts investigate, as human-rights crimes, the cases of more than 100,000 “forced disappearances” under the Franco regime came up against a judicial brick wall when the country’s high court ruled it had no jurisdiction over such matters, given the 1977 amnesty law. While legal experts continue to argue over whether such crimes recognised by international law are subject to statutes of limitations, regional courts have been asked to gather information about those who disappeared — most of them killed — within their territory.

It is amid this current legal wrangling that one of the least-known chapters of Spain’s sad history has emerged — and it is not about the dead but the living. It concerns those like Antonia, who have come to be known as “the lost children of Franco”.

Both during the war and the early years of Franco’s dictatorship, it is now estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 children were taken from their mothers — many of whom were jailed as republican sympathisers — and either handed to orphanages or to couples supportive of the fascist regime, with the intention of wiping out any traces of their real identity. Often their names were changed, and they were indoctrinated with such right-wing ideology and religious dogma that, should they ever be found by their families, they would remain permanently alienated from them psychologically.

While similar policies of systematically stealing children from their families and indoctrinating them with lies and propaganda are known to have been carried out by military regimes in Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Guatemala and El Salvador, in these countries trials and truth commissions have long since sought to expose and punish those responsible. But in Spain, the process of uncovering what happened to these children — like that of unearthing mass graves — is only now stirring intense and painful debate.

This is partly because the events happened much longer ago, making them more difficult to unravel. But also because the country’s tense political climate has turned what has become known as “the recovery of historical memory” into such a contentious issue that many argue it should be dropped from the public sphere altogether and remain a purely private or academic matter.

Where this would leave the “lost children of Franco” is unclear. Just how many are still alive and looking for their families is uncertain. But given their advancing years, at the beginning of January Garzon sent an additional petition to regional Spanish courts arguing that, as a matter of urgency, they should offer help to such “children” — now pensioners like Antonia — and families wanting to uncover the truth about the past before all traces of their origins are lost.

Garzon is requesting that DNA samples be taken from those searching for lost relatives — such genetic databases have long existed, for instance, in Argentina — and believes the cases of the “lost children” should also be treated as forced disappearances, ie, human-rights crimes without any statute of limitations. The DNA would be taken from those who are looking for missing relatives and matched with samples taken from those who believe their identity may have been changed when they were a child.

In many ways Antonia considers herself lucky. More than 50 years after she was separated from her mother in prison, the two were finally reunited, briefly — Carmen died 18 months later. Yet despite the apparent happy ending to her story, Antonia displays such deeply ambivalent feelings about her mother as we talk that it is clear that Franco’s aim of psychologically alienating the children of “reds” from their families was achieved. Even now Antonia does not like to be reminded of the name her mother gave her when she was born — Pasionaria, in honour of the civil war communist leader Dolores Ibarruri, known as La Pasionaria. She tuts loudly when her youngest daughter, Esther, writes it in my notebook.

“I believe if she [Carmen] had really wanted to find me when I was still a child, she would have,” Antonia says bitterly, ignoring the fact that when her mother was released from prison in the mid-1940s, like other former republican prisoners, she lived a life of penury, her freedom to work, move and ask questions severely limited.

Mother and daughter were reunited in the end through the efforts of one of Carmen’s older daughters, Maria, who, together with another daughter, Dolores, and son Jose, both then in their teens, had been left to fend for themselves when Carmen was imprisoned with their baby sister. Determined that her mother should see her lost child before she die, in 1993 Maria appealed for information about her sister on a television programme dedicated to locating missing relatives, which Antonia saw, by chance.

It was only then that Antonia learnt that her mother had signed a document handing her daughter into the care of a fellow prison inmate about to be released — prison rules dictated that no child over the age of three be allowed to remain with their mothers — on condition that the girl be returned to her when Carmen herself was freed from jail. Instead, her infant daughter was given, or sold, to the couple who raised her — devout churchgoers who took her to live in Venezuela for some years when she was a teenager, which was when they finally changed her surname to match their own. Carmen had already changed her daughter’s name to Antonia when she was a young child to try and protect her from the wrath of anti-communists.

All this Carmen was able to tell her daughter in the short time they had together before she died. The couple who raised Antonia were already dead by the time of the reunion, but she seems to bear them no grudges, realising they gave her a more comfortable childhood than her siblings had. The deep rancour this still causes between Antonia and her eldest sister, Dolores, is evident, as I see the shadowy figure of Dolores stand briefly outside the window of the downstairs room where I sit talking to Antonia in a rambling house in Sarria de Ter, Catalonia, where she is visiting her daughter, grandchildren and other members of her natural family. Dolores looks in at us, glowers, then walks off, shaking her head. She does not like her sister talking to strangers about the past, and jealously guards her own family secrets. She will not tell Antonia, for instance, where their father’s body is buried — though Antonia knows she carries the details on a piece of paper in her purse — believing that only she, who suffered a life of poverty and misery during and after the civil war, has the right to place flowers on his grave.

Such complicated emotions between siblings and other relatives concerning the events of the civil war and its aftermath are mirrored in families throughout Spain. It is one reason why this period of history was so little discussed for so long. “It is astonishing how many families are from mixed political backgrounds, with maybe a husband on the left and a wife on the right, which meant such things were not discussed over Sunday lunch,” says the historian Antony Beevor, author of the definitive history of the civil war — The Battle for Spain. Beevor believes that public debate about such events is long overdue. “The pact of forgetting was a good thing at the time, but it lasted too long. When you have deep national wounds and you bandage them up, it is fine in the short term, but you have to take those bandages off fairly soon and examine things, preferably in a historical context rather than in a completely politicised one.”

Like many others, Beevor believes Garzon’s attempts to bring such matters before the courts have turned them into a political football that is now being kicked about both by the right and the left for their own ends at a time when Spain can ill afford such bitter polarisation. The country is still grappling with the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, carried out by Islamic fundamentalists, continuing terrorist attacks by Eta, growing demands for more regional autonomy, and the fallout of the global financial crisis.

“Why try to drag all this through the courts now. Who are they going to put on trial after all this time? Ninety-year-olds who are beyond penal age?” says Gustavo de Arestegui, spokesman for the country’s conservative Popular party. “Those at the top of the hierarchy of the Franco regime are all dead. Let history be their judge.”

But such arguments miss the point, says Montserrat Armengou, a documentary-maker with Barcelona’s TV channel, who both wrote a book and made a film about Franco’s “lost children” with her colleague Ricard Belis and the historian Ricard Vinyes. “There never has been and never will be a good time to uncover the truth about this country’s past. But the longer we wait the more difficult it will become, because those who were directly affected and know what happened will have died.”

Another part of Garzon’s petition to the courts at the beginning of this year regarding Franco’s “lost children” was a plea that regional magistrates urgently order statements be taken from surviving witnesses to how children were separated from their mothers in Franco’s jails before their testimonies are lost. One such witness is Trinidad Gallego, who we meet in her small apartment in the centre of Barcelona. Aged 95, she talks lucidly, and in a booming voice, about the things she saw when imprisoned with her mother and grandmother in a series of women’s jails in Madrid after the end of the civil war.

As a nurse and midwife, Trinidad was present at the birth of many babies in prison, though few records — either of children brought into the prison or born there — were ever kept.

“I saw some terrible things in those prisons,” she says. “Mothers were kept separated from their children most of the time and all mothers knew their children would be taken away before they were three years old. The priority was to brainwash the children so they would grow up to denounce their parents.”

From the early 1940s onwards, many children of prisoners were transferred into orphanages known as “social aid” homes, said to have been modelled on children’s homes established in Nazi Germany. Their parents were not told what happened to them after that; a law was passed making it legal to change the names of the children, who, thereafter, had no legal rights. The historian Ricard Vinyes has described the orphanages as “concentration camps for kids”. Those who spent time in such places have spoken about how they were made to eat their own vomit and parade around with urine-soaked sheets wrapped around their head.

Victoriano Cerezuelo was registered simply as “child number 910 — parents unknown” when he was placed as a baby in the maternity ward of an orphanage in Zamorra at 8am on April 15, 1944 — the day recorded as his birthday, although he was already weeks or maybe months old by then. When he was five, Victoriano was adopted by a farming couple, but was returned to the orphanage seven years later when the wife, sick of being beaten by her husband, threw herself down a well. “After that I placed an advert in a local paper trying to locate my real parents. As a result, I was beaten to within an inch of my life by a priest, while a nun at the home told me “the more you stir shit, the worse it smells”, recalls Victoriano, 64, as he sits in his Madrid apartment fingering a small black-and-white photograph of himself as a boy. “I would just like to know who my parents were before I die.”

Uxenu Ablana, who spent most of his childhood being transferred from one orphanage to another in Asturias, northern Spain, knows who his parents were. His mother was tortured to death by nationalist forces to extract information about his father, who had been jailed for lending a car to republican officials during the civil war. Uxenu can still recite by heart all the fascist

Falange anthems that were drummed into him in these homes, together with so much force-fed Catholic dogma that, initially, he quibbles about meeting me when I tell him my first name is Christine, so much does he still hate religious reminders. “I have no words to describe all the pain I went through. We were domesticated like dogs, beaten and humiliated, made to wear the Falange uniform and give fascist salutes,” says Uxenu, 79, when we eventually meet in Santiago de Compostela, where he now lives.

“I am not a lost child of Franco — I am dead. They killed me, what I could have been, when I was put in those homes. They brainwashed me against my father and true Spanish society.”

When he was able to leave the orphanage at the age of 18, Uxenu, whose name had not been changed, was tracked down his father, who by then had been released from jail. But the two were strangers and quickly lost contact. “I had to keep quiet for so long about what happened to me, and I still feel like a prisoner in a society that does not want to talk about the past,” says Uxenu, whose wife is so opposed to him recalling his childhood experiences we have to meet in a restaurant.

The problems that Uxenu, Victoriano, Antonia, and who knows how many more, have faced and continue to face regarding their past as Franco’s “lost children” is justification enough in the eyes of Armengou and others for Garzon to pursue his attempt to get what happened to them classified as a crime against humanity. Fernando Magan, a lawyer for a group of associations representing Franco’s victims, vows he will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations if Spanish courts fail to properly address the issue. “Justice is not only about prosecuting those responsible for crimes, it is about helping victims uncover the truth about what was done to them or to their loved ones — in this case in the Franco era,” argues Magan.

To those who say it is time Spain turned the page on this period of its past, Uxenu voices what many feel: “Before you can turn a page you have to understand what was written on it. Unfortunately here in Spain, we are still at war — a war of words and feelings.”

Endangered Species

 13th March 2011

It’s the lonely heart of the bird world, pushed to the brink of extinction by human greed and its own choosy habits. As a new film depicts one parrot’s happy search for a mate, Christine Toomey follows the distressing real-life saga of Spix’s macaw

As we twist and turn through a labyrinth of back lanes on the outskirts of Puerto de la Cruz, not far from northern Tenerife’s well-worn tourist track, the two scientists by my side are only half-joking when they say they are trying to disorient me. When I ask the name of the road they become nervous: “You’re not going to print that, are you?” one asks. Rolls of razor wire loop across a tall concrete wall embedded with jagged glass and surrounded with banks of infrared security cameras. Heavy steel gates slide open to reveal huge mesh cages containing some of the rarest creatures on earth. So precious are they, and so great is the fear for their safety, that not one is on public display anywhere in the world.

At first they’re hard to spot among the vegetation. But then, with a flutter of turquoise wings, two exquisite parrots emerge and fly towards us. Meet the Spix’s macaw, the world’s rarest bird. Gram for gram they are worth more than heroin and many precious gems. These parrots, named after the German naturalist who discovered the species, have been hunted to extinction in the wild. The last Spix’s macaw seen in the wild, in Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia, was dubbed the “world’s loneliest

bird” when it was spotted flying alone through the jungle in 1990. For 10 years it was seen swooping through the trees in a forlorn attempt to find a mate. Despite conservationists’ desperate efforts to pair it with a captive bird released into the wild, the lonely-heart macaw was last seen on October 5, 2000, and after presumed dead.Now the sorry tale has been retold in a multimillion-pound 3-D animation film. Rio has voice-overs by Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg and Produced by 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios, it is the creation of the Brazilian director Carlos Saldanha, 42, whose Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is one of the top 20 highest-grossing films of all time. Mindful of the sensitivities of cinema-goers, Saldanha admits his film is “different from reality — it has a happy ending”.The true story is, as James Gilardi, director of the World Parrot Trust, puts it, “a tale of human greed run amok”. There are approximately 85 Spix’s macaws left alive in the world, and most of those are in the private hands of wealthy collectors. Fifty-six are owned by a billionaire sheikh in Qatar, three by a wealthy businessman in Berlin. The nine hidden away at the Loro Parque Foundation in Tenerife are kept there on behalf of the Brazilian government. A few others are in private aviaries, coveted as exotic trophies.

The story of how the Spix’s macaw came to be in such a precarious position is a salutary tale about mankind’s disregard for other species. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), roughly one-fifth of the world’s vertebrates are now listed as endangered, including 13% of all bird species.

“Trying to bring a species back from the brink is far more difficult if they have been left to go extinct in the wild,” says David Waugh, director of the Loro Parque Foundation. To appreciate why, you need to know more than you might like to about the sex lives of parrots.

Tony Juniper is the British environmental campaigner who co-led the expedition to track down that last lonely Spix’s macaw. One problem he faced was the difficulty in telling if it was male or female. Like many parrots, Spix’s macaws are “monomorphic”. To the human eye, the sexes appear identical. Parrots, on the other hand, have no trouble identifying each other: they have a broader visual spectrum of colours than humans. For the movie, Saldanha took creative liberties, making the captive male a vibrant blue all over while giving his wild love interest the more accurate colouring of a paler blue-grey head. When the real-life plot was hatched to release the captive bird in the same area of Brazil as the single wild bird, it took lengthy analysis of dropped feathers by scientists at Oxford University to determine that the lonely creature was male.One reason many parrots are monomorphic is that they pair for life, so few need to attract new mates. In captivity they show similar loyalty to humans. This, with the destruction of their habitat, explains why parrots are the most endangered bird family on Earth; of roughly 360 species, only four, including the budgerigar, are not listed as conservationists chose as a potential mate for the last lonely wild male.After being cooped up in a cage for years, the selected female needed an intensive fitness-training programme before she could be released into the area of forest from which she had been snatched. The two birds flew together for just a few months before she flew into an electricity pylon and perished. In the lonely years that followed, the last wild male temporarily teamed up with a smaller green female parrot of an entirely different species. The pair mated, but none of the hybrid eggs survived. Now just a small number of captive Spix’s macaws survive.

So many rumours abounded as to where some are, that when a pet owner made a call to a vet in Denver, Colorado in 2002 requesting help for a “Spix’s macaw”, it was dismissed as a hoax. The woman, whose identity has never been revealed, was asked to take a picture of the parrot posing alongside that day’s newspaper before specialists would believe her. When a vet went to the owner’s house, she found the parrot pining and listless.The woman had named her pet Presley after the singer’s blue suede shoes. He was in a sorry state. The perches of his cage were so wide that he had been forced to stand flat on his feet, so his legs were weak and his balance poor. Fed on an inadequate diet of commercial pellets, he was bad-tempered and difficult to bathe, his feathers were in bad shape and his beak misshapen. He no longer remembered how to fly. Presley’s owner, who told authorities the bird had been left with her in the late 1970s, had no idea how old he was. (Parrots can live for 50-60 years.)

Presley’s discovery caused quite a storm in avian circles. Despite his poor health, he was hailed as a welcome addition to a breeding programme set up in 1990 eventually incorporating all known birds of the species, even those in private hands. Many were related through having been bred in captivity; Presley constituted “fresh blood”. Hopes were high that he would breed with a captive female.

So Presley was bundled into a cage, tucked under the arm of a Brazilian conservationist, and flown back to his native land. After some debate he was paired with a female at a privately run parrot-breeding centre near Sao Paulo. Press reports about Presley being flown back to Brazil helped fire Saldanha’s imagination.

“I found it really touching. The sad truth is that many birds become so domesticated they can never be returned to the wild,” he says. His animated hero fares better. Saldanha portrays the male lead, Blu, eventually flying off into the blue yonder with his newfound female friend to procreate discreetly.In real life Presley wasn’t so lucky. Optimism about his sexual prowess proved unfounded. His advanced years were no obstacle, but he couldn’t get it on. Or rather, he couldn’t get on and stay on. Parrots don’t have penises, so they must perform a delicate balancing act to ensure their semen is deposited in exactly the right place to fertilise a female’s egg. Unused to flying, Presley couldn’t extend his wings enough to stay in the right place.The frustrated breeders eventually gave up and paired him with a parrot of a different species for company. Recent visitors to the breeding centre where he is kept — the Lymington Foundation near Sao Paulo — say he appears “cranky”. Some experts have advocated storing his genetic material so that his genes could be passed on by artificial insemination, or by cloning if it became possible to clone birds. But this is where politics, ego and human pride come into play.

“The problem is that the Spix’s macaw is probably the most politically contentious bird that ever existed,” Waugh explains. Although there are only five Spix’s macaws left in Brazil, including Presley and two pairs at a facility attached to Sao Paulo Zoo, all decisions regarding the breeding of the remaining known birds have to be approved by an international committee — called the Working Group for the Recovery of the Spix’s Macaw — overseen by an environmental division of the Brazilian government.”As far as some politicians are concerned, the Spix’s macaw is part of the natural patrimony of Brazil,” says Waugh, whose foundation handed ownership of its birds back to their native country on the understanding that it continue to breed them at the Tenerife facility. In the past, co-operation totally broke down, with acrimony between private owners sinking the survival of the species into grave doubt.In 2002 the original committee set up to oversee the breeding was dissolved by the Brazilian government when Wolfgang Kiessling, the German founder/owner of Loro Parque, and others became outraged over the unauthorised “transfer” of four parrots from a private breeder in the Philippines to Sheikh Saoud bin Mohammed bin Ali Al-Thani, a member of the ruling family of Qatar. Speculation was rife that vast sums of money had changed hands.

Sheikh Al-Thani is an avid collector renowned for paying handsomely to own the rarest of the rare; in 2000 he is reported to have paid nearly $9m for a hand-illustrated copy of Audubon’s Birds of America — more than double the sum auctioneers estimated the book would fetch. A passionate nature-lover, the sheikh runs a state-of-the-art breeding centre, Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation, on a “farm” of 2.5 square kilometres where he keeps rare Arabian oryx, cheetahs and other endangered species.Al-Thani displays a picture of himself with two Spix’s macaws perched on his arm on Al Wabra’s home page. The provenance of some of the 53 birds of the species he now owns is unclear. Kiessling claims the sheikh came to see him in the late 1990s in Tenerife, claiming he had been visited by a man from Pakistan who had thrown a hessian sack onto a table in front of him containing 11 blue parrots of another protected and extremely rare species, the Lear’s macaw. Kiessling claims the sheikh wanted to know how these birds could be “legalised”.

After the Spix’s macaw breeding committee was dissolved in 2002, the US holder of the official stud book, which records the genetic details and pairings of all known birds, withdrew from the breeding programme without passing on details crucial to its success. It took several years before the committee was reconvened under a different name and a new stud-book keeper — working for the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation — was appointed so the official breeding programme could get back on track. Now, when a potential breeding match between two of the parrots is determined, birds are flown back and forth across continents in an effort to get them to bond. “They’re very choosy,” says Waugh. In the past 18 years Loro Parque has managed to breed just six chicks.Conservationists say no further attempts will be made to release Spix’s macaws into the wild until the captive population has risen to around 150. But for Yara Barros, the Brazilian co-ordinator of the breeding programme, the real problem is private collectors who keep the birds illegally. “It’s a disgrace. With such a small population, every single bird is essential to the programme.”

For those who have bought birds in contravention of the ban — some are known to be in Switzerland, others are rumoured to be in the Czech Republic and Russia — “it’s a bit like having a stolen Matisse,” says Waugh. “You can only show it off to a select group of people.”According to both Interpol and Cites, the networks trading rare animals are sophisticated. “It’s an evil but lucrative trade,” says John Sellar, chief enforcement officer for Cites. “In many cases it’s the soft underbelly of organised crime.” In South America smuggling wildlife is a popular sideline for drugs barons seeking to diversify.

Sellar argues for more resources, pointing out that a major-league criminal dealing in, say, people-trafficking could potentially be brought to justice for the lesser offence of smuggling a parrot. Yet the annual budget of the Cites enforcement department is just $5m, its global staff just 23. “Wildlife and environmental crime is simply not a priority for most governments,” agrees David Higgins, head of Interpol’s environmental crime programme.In an effort to get tougher on wildlife crime, last year Cites, Interpol, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Customs Organization and the World Bank set up a consortium targeting the illegal trade by bringing more stringent legislation to bear on it, such as that applied to money-laundering or racketeering. It faces an uphill struggle. In one central African country, which Sellar refuses to name, the maximum penalty for any type of wildlife crime is just $10.

Here, the penalties are far higher. Last summer an international egg smuggler was sentenced to 30 months in jail after being caught at Birmingham airport with 14 rare peregrine falcon eggs which could fetch up to £70,000 strapped to his body. Jeffrey Lendrum admitted he was planning to sell the eggs to a wealthy Arab in Dubai, where falconry is a national sport. Bird smuggling in most European countries dropped significantly with the 2005 EU import ban on almost all birds caught in the wild, prompted by the outbreak of avian flu. Before it came into force, every year about 1m wild birds were imported into EU countries, this legal trade providing cover for illegal smuggling operations. Now bird-smuggling has shifted to the Far East, says Richard Thomas of Traffic, the wildlife trade-monitoring network. There, the newly affluent covet, and will pay high prices for, trophy birds.Our widespread destruction of unique habitats such as rainforests accounts for many recent extinctions. As we spend billions of dollars searching for evidence of life on other planets, the superabundance of what we have on Earth is being frittered away, says Nigel Collar of Birdlife International. “Within our lifetimes the natural world will have shrunk by a greater amount than any human before us has witnessed.”

Yet there is some room for optimism, according to Michael Hoffman, senior scientific officer at the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. “We have evidence that we can not only prevent extinctions but actually engineer recoveries.” He cites a 2006 study listing 16 bird species, such as the iconic Californian condor, that would have gone extinct between 1994 and 2004 were it not for conservation efforts. The Spix’s macaw was not on the list. Its fate still hangs in the balance.

If the holders of the remaining Spix’s macaws co-operate, the species could yet be brought back from the brink of extinction and reintroduced into the wild, as happens in Saldanha’s film.

“Let’s keep hoping one of these programmes works out,” says the director of Rio, who wants to stage special screenings of the film to help fund conservation efforts. “Because it doesn’t just depend on the birds being bred, it also depends on creating special protected areas where they can be safe when they are returned. I touch on that in my story.” He describes his film as a labour of love. “If people walk away from it with more awareness of the problems of nature, that would be great. I always wanted the story of the Spix’s macaw to turn out right.”


Sun, sea and debt

April 26, 2009

After pooling everything to buy a place in the sun, thousands of Brits are drowning in debt and having to kiss their dream lifestyle goodbye. Photographs: Clemente Bernad

A wedding album thick with cards offering congratulations and photos of a smiling couple lies abandoned on the kitchen counter. Boxes full of toys, clothes and other personal belongings stand stacked in corners. One box full of family snapshots shows two young children with their parents in a swimming pool, on the beach, at a restaurant — in all the pictures the sun is blazing and the family looks happy.

This, in the apartment they fled in the small village of Benijofar on the Costa Blanca, is all that remains of the dream of one British expatriate family who moved to southern Spain two years ago in search of a better life.

“They just disappeared overnight, packed a couple of suitcases and went, leaving no forwarding address,” says the British employee of a Spanish bank whose job it is to prepare repossessed properties in the area for auction.

“There are thousands of others like them. Often they don’t tell anyone they’re going, because they’re leaving behind debts that they can’t pay, even though they might have substantial equity in the property they’re abandoning.”

In the case of the family whose apartment he shows me, this amounted to nearly £50,000 on a property bought for £140,000. But since the collapse of the Spanish property market the family would have stood little chance of reselling. Spain has a massive glut of unsold properties — around 1m, of which 500,000 are newly built.

“Many people, particularly young families in recent years, sold up in the UK and put everything they had into their ‘place in the sun’, only to find everything go badly wrong as the economy collapsed and work dried up,” says the bank worker, requesting anonymity for fear of repercussions from his employers. Spain currently holds the European record for unemployment at more than 15%.

“Some feel badly treated. The banks here can get very heavy-handed as soon as people fall into arrears on their mortgages. Men in suits turn up at the door making demands, and people don’t know what to do.”

“Many Brits are running scared. Many are angry,” he says, describing the damage some have wrought on their properties before leaving. One man backed a cement lorry onto the rear patio of his apartment and had the entire ground floor filled with cement.

“The mood here has turned ugly,” he adds, estimating that around 10% of all properties bought by the 40,000-50,000 British who live in the Valencia region of southeast Spain alone are going through various stages of repossession.

Multiply this across Spain, where more than a million British passport holders now live either full time or for part of the year, and a sorry exodus back to the UK is unfolding.

While Spain is unique because of the sheer number of Britons who have moved there over the past 20 years — only Australia has more, with approximately 1.3m — and because of their tendency to create enclaves that could easily pass for small-town England, it is not the only country where expats are now hard-pressed.

Those living throughout the eurozone and relying on fixed incomes from savings or pensions in the UK have found the value of their incomes drop by around a third as the pound has plummeted in value against the euro, from €1.5 in January 2007 to near-parity. (At its peak in 2000, £1 was worth €1.75.) On sun terraces and verandas across Europe, in the shire outposts of “Dordogneshire” in southwest France and “Chiantishire” in Tuscany, conversation revolves around little else.

Many who moved to these more affluent areas in search of sunshine and a better quality of life may talk of cutting back on meals out, or reducing the quality of the wine they drink at home, but they are not facing economic disaster.

Many of those who moved to Spain, however, are pensioners or have taken early retirement and are relying on diminishing fixed incomes paid in pounds in the UK. For them — and for young people who went abroad with their families in search of work — times are increasingly tough.

In Dubai, too, the dream is over. Those who bought into the promise of quick fortunes to be made in businesses such as property speculation in Dubai — where Sharia law metes out harsh sentences for defaulting on debt — risk jail merely for bouncing a cheque. The prospect of such draconian penalties accounts for the growing number of luxury cars being found abandoned at the country’s international airport — 3,000 in recent months. Most are found by airport police with keys left in the ignition and some with used-to-the limit credit cards in the glove box. A few of them display notes of apology from the owners that gather dust on the windscreen.

Those who face financial hardship in Britain are at least on familiar ground and are able to fall back, in extreme circumstances, on support from the state. They are also more likely to have friends and family at hand. But those who have moved abroad enjoy few such benefits: when hard times hit, many find themselves struggling to understand the legal, health, social-security and other backup systems of the countries to which they have moved.

Rational observers might say they should have done their homework more thoroughly before they left the UK and now deserve little sympathy. But it is difficult to accept this view when you meet those affected, particularly those who have worked hard for much of their lives and made plans for a new life at a time when few had any idea that the global economy was facing meltdown. Even the government, with all the problems it faces at home, is turning its attention to the plight of expats, particularly those in Spain and Portugal, where many young families and pensioners are facing real hardship.

In recent months, the British embassy in Madrid has teamed up with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to create a programme advising expats on the help they might be entitled to. Co-ordinated through local British consulates along the length of Spain’s southern and eastern coastline from Tarragona on the Costa Dorada to Benalmadena on the Costa del Sol, a series of “road shows” have been held to answer questions from worried expats on how best to weather the economic downturn. The programme could soon be extended to Portugal.

There was little cheer, however, for those who turned up at one of these road shows held in Torrevieja on the Costa Blanca at the end of February, attended by the DWP’s most senior civil servant, Sir Leigh Lewis. Far from lifting the mood of those gathered in a large hall in the town centre, Sir Leigh struck a sombre note: “Much as I would love to wave a magic wand and tell you everything is going to be all right and we will pay your pensions and benefits in a standard euro rate in future, the truth is we are not.

“The fall of the pound against the euro must be extremely tough for those of you receiving pensions and other benefits who have seen their value fall. But the fluctuating exchange rate is something we all have to live with,” the mandarin said bluntly. “Over the years there have been good times and bad. It’s a case of swings and roundabouts.”

“The big message to anyone still thinking of moving abroad is: think very carefully before you go and don’t take anything for granted,” says Gillian Merron, minister for consular affairs, who has recently returned from a visit to southern Spain. “Life happens. Things go wrong, and they go wrong in Alicante just as they do if you stay at home.”

Take a turning off many of the main roads lined with swaying palms that run through the Vega Baja del Segura area of Valencia, where Torrevieja is located, and you feel like you are straying into a slice of 1950s Middle England. This southern part of the region of Valencia has the highest concentration of British residents anywhere outside the UK — in some communities they make up over 75% of the population. Ask some of the British who moved here why they left the UK and Britain’s “open-door immigration policy” quickly crops up in conversation; few seem to see any irony in having themselves become immigrants who make little effort to integrate with the local Spanish community.

The older expats, who moved here for a more comfortable retirement, are keen to put a brave face on the financial predicament they are in now that their pensions have fallen in value by a third. Volunteers at the Torrevieja branch of

Age Concern, for instance, have been horrified by reports in the British press of their efforts to provide a warm lunch for struggling pensioners run under headlines such as “Costa del Soup Kitchen” and “Helldorado”.

“We were simply serving a winter warmer soup to people who came into our centre when temperatures dropped in January, the coldest winter here for nearly 40 years,” explains Judith Ferris, the local Age Concern president. When pressed, however, she mentions one elderly British woman standing shivering outside the doors of the centre who has not been able to afford heating in her apartment for more than a month. The woman refused to be interviewed.

The truth is that this older generation are proud and reluctant to discuss their finances; they feel uncomfortable at the media spotlight turned on their straitened circumstances. Many are also more accustomed to hard times.

“My wife keeps a careful eye on the housekeeping, so we’ll muddle through,” said one 80-year-old retired postal worker from Truro sitting on the terrace of Torrevieja’s Casa Ventura bowls club.

The club’s vice-captain, Phil Mornachan, a 57-year-old private investigator from Stockport, was less optimistic: “Unless you’re well and truly loaded, the expat dream here is dead. I’m thinking of going home.”

His despondency is more typical of those who moved here with families in recent years, particularly those who sought work on the back of the property boom. Down the coast from Torrevieja is a vast complex of small villas and apartments known as Orihuela Costa, where of the 28,000 registered residents, around 23,000 are British, many of them young couples with children.

“This used to be a buzzing community, full of life, but now it’s turning into a ghost town,” says Paul Moran, owner of the Emerald Isle Leisure Centre, where young families gather on a Friday night. He cites the dozens of small bars and restaurants in the area that have closed in recent months as growing numbers return to the UK.

Of those families attempting to stay, many are finding they can only survive if the husband commutes out of the country to work. “We had to struggle to make a new life here. But we wanted a better quality of life for our boys,” says Mark Strudley, who moved to the area from west Wales with his wife and three young sons four years ago.

Like many new arrivals, Mark worked selling property for several years, but when the property bubble began to burst two years ago (prices have since plummeted by as much as 30-40%), he was forced to look for work much further afield. He has since found a job as an offshore oil worker on a rig in the North Sea and spends two weeks out of every four away from his family.

“We’re determined to stay here. We wouldn’t say we’d never move back, but we don’t want to,” he says, as his young sons play nearby.

This view is shared by another young family relaxing close by at the Emerald Isle. Neil and Denise Couzens originally wanted to start their own business in Spain so that their nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter could enjoy a life “away from knife crime, gangs and bullying”. But Neil now finds himself commuting back and forth to Norwich to continue running a pub and sandwich bar he owns there so that his wife and children can continue to live in Spain. “It’s no different from working away from home in the army,” he says with a shrug.

Those with little stamina for long-distance commutes have no choice but to return. Derek Beetham, 55, also once sold property in the area, but was laid off in 2007 when the estate agency he was working for closed down — as have an estimated half of Spain’s 80,000 estate agencies in the past 18 months. “If I could afford to stay I would,” he says, looking out over the pool of the four-bedroom villa he bought with his wife eight years ago and has now put up for sale. “We bought this long enough ago that we should still make a profit. But who knows what we’ll be able to afford back in the UK.”

Mark and Julia Edwards are a younger couple who have also decided to make the move back this summer. They have run a small teashop in San Miguel, Orihuela Costa, for several years. “Our business has gone well and we have been happy in Spain. But this feels like the right time to return, mainly for our son’s education,” says 45-year-old Mark, from Bedfordshire. Their son, Jack, is 15.

“We have had a good seven years here. But things are changing fast. I hope what is happening now will make people stop and think about some of the madness that has gone on here,” he adds. “I hope it will put an end to the culture of greed, both that of the Spanish who have massively overdeveloped this area and that of many Brits who simply came out here looking to make a fast buck.”

In expat enclaves such as the Dordogne, where the property market has not collapsed so decisively, the effects of the recession have been less dramatic. “We don’t have hordes of Brits sitting around with their suitcases packed. They would have to sell a house in a market where it’s difficult to get a good price and they would be returning to a country where the credit crunch is hitting even harder than it is here,” says Alexandra Thevenet, of the Dordogne’s Franco-British chamber of commerce and industry.

Compared to Spain, the fall in property prices in France has been more gradual.

The French National Estate Agents Federation (Fnaim) estimates that prices dropped by 5% in 2008, though since last autumn the decline has become steeper, and Fnaim anticipates a drop of 10% this year.

The more frugal attitude to credit in France — where banks typically insist that credit-card bills be paid in full every month and few mortgages exceed 75% of the value of the property — means it is harder to sink into the sort of financial quagmire that has prompted Brits to flee from Spain because of substantial negative equity on their homes and bills they cannot pay.

Nevertheless, of the 200,000 British passport holders permanently resident in France, there are those who are bidding au revoir to the Gallic dream. Among them are Brits who traded in suburban semis for remote ruins that they turned into gîtes, with romantic visions of tourists pouring in. The financial crisis has meant that fewer tourists are travelling abroad — particularly to the eurozone, where the pound is so devalued — and the rising cost of living has made such ventures less viable.

Even those with more ambitious plans, such as the former City lawyers Patrick and Collette Bergot — whose renovation of a 16th-century chateau in the Limousin region of south-central France featured in the Channel 4 series No Going Back: Chaos at the Castle — say they have had to put plans to extend their family-run hotel on hold until they are more certain of the number of guests coming in future. “We can’t help but worry with the way things are going.There are definitely fewer people looking for holidays this year than last,” says Patrick.

“While we are fairly confident of bookings over the summer, the number of people booking weekends as a treat is definitely down.

“We would almost certainly not have been able to make the move out here in the current economic climate — we did it on the strength of the value of our property at home.”

In the 13th-century market town of Eymet in the Dordogne, meanwhile, where around a third of the population of 2,500 is British, one local removal firm reports a “flurry” of Brits moving back to the UK in recent months. The numbers are still small: half a dozen or so couples and families left the area in the weeks around Christmas. “Before that, we were dealing with an almost exclusively one-way traffic of people coming out,” says Alan Chorley of the locally based AC Light Haulage. “People are still coming, though in fewer numbers than before.”

Tony Martin, who runs French Liaison, a help centre in Eymet for British people, confirms that a steady number of expats are still arriving. “They are tending to rent rather than buy now, as they can’t sell their homes in the UK, and they are testing the waters here more carefully before they make a permanent move.”

The same trend is confirmed in countries further north, such as Belgium, where large numbers of British expats work on short-term contracts for international companies or organisations such as the European Commission.

“The sword of Damocles is hanging over some people I know as they await the verdict of contract renewal,” says Paul Morris, editor of Expatica Belgium and France, an internet forum for English-speaking expatriates.

In France, as in Spain, it is British pensioners and those who have taken early retirement and are relying on fixed incomes from UK-based funds and savings, who are hardest hit by the recession. Not only are they suffering the effect of the falling value of the pound, but changes to French law are forcing non-working expats who arrived in the country after November 2007 but are not yet of retirement age to seek private medical cover. Such cover can run as high as €2,500-3,000 per person a year — a substantial sum for a couple.

One financial-consulting firm based in Bergerac in the Dordogne reports a significant rise in the number of British expats seeking help with equity-release schemes, previously little heard of in France.

“I’ve had nearly 100 inquiries since the start of the year from British people who are struggling now to pay food bills and other expenses like medical insurance,” says Céline Monier, of Make It Easy Consulting. “Arranging these schemes now makes up 50% of my work. Last year it was less than 20%.”

Yet in exclusive enclaves such as the Luberon region of Provence, made famous by Peter Mayle’s original “flit-lit” bestseller, A Year in Provence, the credit crunch does not appear to be biting. “I’m sure there are people who are really hurting,” says one British writer living in the medieval village of Ménerbes, where Mayle set the book. “But I can’t get a table for lunch tomorrow at our favourite local restaurant because it’s overbooked, and I still can’t get a plumber to fix our radiators in anything less than six weeks, because they are all occupé.”

Likewise, in Tuscany, dubbed “Chiantishire” because of the generations of well-heeled Brits who have sought the good life among its rolling hills and vineyards, there is little evidence of expat suffering. “Like everywhere, people are feeling the pinch,” says Peter Shaw, editor of Italy magazine, who has a home near the walled city of Lucca. “But I’m not seeing any signs of a mass exodus. Those who can afford to live in Tuscany can afford to live in Tuscany.”

Compared with Spain and France, the number of British citizens registered as permanent residents in Italy is relatively small — around 19,000 — though there are an estimated 50,000 who own homes in the country and live there for part of the year. “Brits who moved to live here with a view to working or setting up businesses are in a rather different situation from those who went to countries where English is more widely spoken,” Shaw stresses. “In Italy you pretty much have to learn the language, and you also have to battle with so much more red tape than in other countries, so most will have done a lot more homework before moving here in the first place.”

Expatriates working in Italy are also less likely to be affected by the credit crunch than those elsewhere, argues Bill Thomson, head of the Italian department at the international estate agents Knight Frank and a Tuscany resident for more than 20 years. “There’s much less of a debt culture here, mainly because Italian banks are so strict in their criteria for lending money. So people live more according to their means.”

Those who are selling up and leaving Italy are more likely to be driven by the opportunity to capitalise on the increased value of their property by converting any profit from its sale in euros into sterling, argues one estate agent in the more recently popular central area of Le Marche.

“The market has changed,” says Gildo Ercoli, of A & G Immobiliare in the medieval hill town of Amandola. “There are more English selling and fewer buying, though their place is being taken by the Dutch, for instance, who are not affected by the problems of the falling pound.”

This underlines a point also made by Tony Martin in Eymet in the Dordogne: that many who are now moving back to the UK from Europe never intended to “stick it out” anyway. “Those who were never completely committed to living abroad are using the economic downturn as an excuse to return home,” says Martin.

It is a view echoed by the novelist and screenwriter Frederic Raphael, who divides his time between the Dordogne and London.

“I certainly don’t want to imply that it serves anyone right, because it is very easy to jeer at others’ misfortunes. A lot of people went abroad on fixed incomes thinking they were going to play golf for the rest of their lives, and they have been hit very hard — and I don’t think anyone should gloat about it.

“But for those who only went abroad for financial advantage, it is some kind of warning,” he says. “I don’t feel frightfully sorry for people who used to splash it about and now don’t have enough water in the bath to splash. To them I’d say: have a good wash with a flannel, ducky.”

Christine Toomey: my hilltop home in Le Marche

August 10, 2008

Finding an unexploded shell in the bedroom was only the first of many surprises for Christine Toomey when she set about renovating a hilltop townhouse in central Italy

At first, the good-humoured poliziotto showed only mild interest in the second world war shell I found perched on a shelf in one of the upstairs rooms of my newly acquired home in Le Marche. Striking a pose in his knee-high black boots, tight trousers and shiny white belt, he held it up for me to photograph before tucking it nonchalantly under one arm and taking it away for disposal. Given the many things that could go wrong when buying property in Italy, this seemed nothing more than a minor hiccup.

Within the hour, he was back, looking flustered and cradling the shell, a great deal more cautiously this time, in both hands. “Scusi signora, but we can’t allow this to be taken out of your house,” he said. “It’s too dangerous.” Then he hotfooted it back upstairs and placed the shell gingerly – prone this time, and in a box – back on the shelf. I discovered afterwards that he had been told he should not have touched it in the first place.

A few minutes later, the wail of a police siren could be heard approaching at speed, then two more policemen in even more dashing uniforms – one with the epaulettes and braided cap of an ispettore capo, or chief inspector – hurried up the narrow lane to my house. “This matter requires the attention of experts, signora,” said he of the braided cap as he ushered me politely out of my house. Minutes later, it was sealed with crime-scene tapes wound around the door handles. There was talk of evacuating residents close by. In the end, a carabiniere was posted to keep a nightly vigil outside my house until the experts arrived.

It was to be a long wait – during which I had plenty of time to ponder whether it had been such a good idea to mention the shell to my neighbour, who had helpfully offered to call the local police station for advice.

I had not initially planned to buy a house in town at all. Like many Britons who buy in Italy, my dream had been of a renovation project in the country. For years, when taking my daughter to visit her Italian grandparents in a busy town in Umbria, I had trekked along dirt tracks to look at what were little more than piles of stones in the countryside. Then, after a visit in which I had to negotiate the car back along miles of precarious mud path, the patient friend who was accompanying me suggested that I might want to restore a townhouse instead.

Since I would be overseeing the works from London, during snatched weekends and holidays taken in between reporting from far-flung places for this newspaper, I realised she was right. It was the gentler pace of Italian life I wanted to savour when I could. And what better way to do this than in the heart of a small community?

Slowly, I started to venture further afield. It was then I discovered Le Marche, one of the most beautiful regions of central Italy, and in particular the string of medieval hill towns that circle the stunning Monti Sibillini National Park, perched on the spine of the Apennines. This was an area of fierce fighting and partisan strongholds during the second world war – hence the old ordnance I found in the house, which I bought in the summer of 2004.

I returned to London and, over the weeks that followed, received regular telephone updates from the chief inspector. It was nearly a month before an army bomb-disposal squad arrived from Rome to resolve the problem. On the day of their operation, an ambulance was placed on standby in the main square, together with officers from the three branches of the Italian police forces.

The army team confirmed that the shell was still live. They identified it as an old German “rocket” with a firing range of more than half a mile and a double-trigger mechanism – making it doubly unstable, I was told later, as it deteriorated with age. It contained half a kilo of TNT. Placing it in a metal case lined with sand, they drove it to an isolated field, buried it and detonated it by remote control. The explosion left a crater more than 20ft wide.

Just whose idea it was to keep a shell as a household memento remains a mystery. I asked to see the police and army reports. Copies of their faxes marked “urgentissimo”, together with a local newspaper article about una signora inglese and the “quick-thinking police” who had averted disaster, revealed few clues.

The last permanent occupant of the property, I was told, was a priest who had lived there at the turn of the last century. During the course of the restoration, I was to find both touching and intriguing time capsules from this period: crates full of letters written to him by his father, sister and a brother, who had emigrated to America; journals handwritten in immaculate script; books from a different age, including one promoting priestly celibacy, called The Limits of Sexual Morals; and wooden cabinets full of religious statues and ecclesiastical paraphernalia.

The house was full of other surprises, too. When I bought it, for about £80,000 at the then more favourable euro exchange rate, it required a complete overhaul. Spacious – about 250 square metres, set over three floors – it had no electricity or plumbing to speak of, needed a new roof and just about everything else. In the course of knocking through walls and opening up rooms to let in light, however, I found old beams, arches and stonework, some of it dating from the Middle Ages, hidden by false panelling. Underneath the plasterwork of one of the domed bedroom ceilings were fine coloured stencils.

There were less welcome surprises, including the disappearance of the former ballet dancer turned architect on whose advice I relied in the early days – he left me grappling with contractors who doubled their prices overnight. Then there was the weather. The fact that one of the neighbouring towns is a ski resort should have alerted me to the heavy snowfalls in winter, but I had viewed in spring and bought in summer.

Over the years, I have come to love the dramatic change in seasons in the Monti Sibillini. Throughout most of the year, I enjoy the rare privilege (for a townhouse) of a large sunny garden with a towering palm, mature walnut, laurel and fruit trees, and church bells echoing across the rooftops. On summer mornings, I can swim in the Adriatic, a 45-minute drive away, before exploring the area, with its year-round calendar of festivals: wine, truffles, theatre, music. At Christmas and New Year, I have an open fire, while snow blankets the mountains, of which my house has spectacular views.

Most of all, though, it is the warmth of the local people – more low-key than their flamboyant neighbours in Umbria and Tuscany – that sold me on Le Marche. One lesson I learnt from my experience with “the bomb”, however, is to be more circumspect when asking them for help. Especially when it comes to mentioning other discoveries made in the house during its restoration.

In addition to my other finds, I came across, tucked away in the attic, two large, rolled-up oval oil paintings, so dirty they were almost black. I brought them back to London to be cleaned and delicate portrayals of saints, angels and the Virgin Mary emerged from the grime. I am told they date from the late 17th to early 18th century, and am intrigued. What if they turn out to have been stolen? I might find crime-scene tape wound around the handles of my house again.

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Quotas for women on the board: do they work?

June 8, 2008

All across Europe companies have been told to put more women in the driving seat, or be penalised. The ruling has been a huge success — but what does it say about sexual equality? Photographs by Lars Bech

Ansgar Gabrielsen’s voice echoes across the lobby of Norway’s Stortinget parliament as he shouts to a passing female politician.

“Am I a feminist?” he booms, letting out a deep rumbling laugh.

“You are!” teases the woman, who is wearing a red jacket and is in too much of a hurry to stop and discuss what he’s done to earn her approval.

“Really, I’m not,” Gabrielsen insists conspiratorially, lowering his voice and leaning closer to me as if he is sharing a confidence that he would rather not broadcast.

“You could say that I’m the opposite – a man, a conservative and I come from Mandal,” he explains, as if his place of birth disqualifies him from being a champion of women’s rights. Mandal is a small town in the far south of Norway, which is the country’s Bible belt, and Gabrielsen is a Pentecostal Christian, a bearish man, a former government minister and an archetypal alpha-male businessman.

But we are sitting in the Stortinget to discuss what Gabrielsen calls the “shock bombing” of Norway. As he tells it, the explosive formula was cooked up during a secret meeting, just six months into his job as minister for trade and industry, in association with one of the country’s most senior political correspondents. Gabrielsen had bumped into Alf Bjarne Johnsen of Norway’s biggest-selling daily newspaper, Verdens Gang (“The Way of the World”), or VG, in February 2002, and on the spur of the moment, he offered the veteran journalist the biggest story of his career if he would come to his office to meet with him within the hour.

The next day the people of Norway woke up to front-page headlines that rocked the nation: tycoons blanched, boardrooms rumbled and Gabrielsen’s fellow cabinet colleagues gasped in surprise and shock – he hadn’t deemed it necessary to include the government in his plans.

What the VG front-page story said, under the banner headline “Sick and Tired of the Old Men’s Club!”, was basically this: women would be wearing the trousers in future. The story listed the country’s leading companies with only men at the top of them. Out of 611 companies, 470 did not have one female board member. Little more than 6% of all the board positions were occupied by women.

Gabrielsen, the paper reported, was not just about to lift the glass lid on the meritocracy – he was smashing it with his meaty government fist and with all the force of the law.

Hundreds of men would be gradually removed from their positions as company directors and replaced by women. A new global record in business management would be achieved by making sure that 40% of all boardroom positions in companies listed on the Oslo stock exchange would be held by women within five years. If companies did not comply, the minister warned, he would introduce legislation and they would be prosecuted.

His cabinet colleagues, the then-prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik and his centre-right coalition government, even Gabrielsen’s own Conservative party, must have choked on their breakfast bran. The ebullient minister had consulted none of them beforehand.

“If I had told them before, the initiative would have been killed by one committee after another,” he says. “No, I had to employ terrorist tactics. Sometimes you have to create an earthquake, a tsunami, to get things to change,” he says, laughing at his own daring. “If a left-wing feminist had come out with something like that it would have been dismissed as just another scream in the night,” he continues. “But because I said it, I knew that people would take notice.”

The fallout was instant. Business leaders and employers warned of dire consequences: a decrease in company competence, plunging shareholder confidence and a flight of foreign capital were just the immediate pinstripe reactions. Little short of financial Armageddon was forecast – the prospect of high heels kicking the chairs from under the men who dominated boardrooms would create economic meltdown.

But Gabrielsen had his finger on Norway’s pulse. The public mood in this traditionally liberal society didn’t just warm to the plan, it embraced it with a passion. Bondevik’s coalition government had no choice but to bow to public opinion and back the proposal. It decreed that state-owned enterprises would have just one year to meet the target, the deadline being January 2003. Private companies were given a period of grace of two years – until July 2005 – to increase the number of women on boards

to near parity with men. To reinforce the message, a draconian measure was held over their heads. If companies failed to meet this target, they would face closure.

By the government’s deadline of 2005, the percentage of women on company boards had quadrupled to 24%, which was still short of the target of 40%, so legislation was drafted. Companies had until January of this year to get their houses in order – or else.

This spring the government announced full compliance, even in the most intransigent sectors of banking and financial services. Between 560 and 600 women had been voted onto company boards. Hundreds of male board members were axed, although a small number of companies complied merely by expanding the size of their boards to avoid losing male directors.

It is now six years since Gabrielsen’s “shock bombing”, and the sky has not fallen in as predicted on this Scandinavian country, which is ranked year after year by the United Nations as the best place in the world to live, and last year was ranked the most peaceful by the Economist Intelligence Unit. It is too early to assess the real impact on the bottom line of the companies affected. The evidence that does exist, however, suggests that Gabrielsen’s plan had merit

beyond the politics of equality. A survey of the colleagues of women newly appointed to board positions showed that most of them have significantly higher educational and professional qualifications than many of the male colleagues they replaced, or sit next to. The women are not only brighter, they are younger, and the majority have distinguished themselves in a wide variety of other professional careers before being appointed to company boards.

This, says Gabrielsen, was exactly what he intended. He was not driven by ideology aimed at creating equality between the sexes, he says, despite accusations that the quota law was created by “fetishists of diversity”. The boardroom revolution he ushered in was inspired by studies in the United States showing that the more women there are at the top of a company, the better it performs. The move also made sound national economic sense.

“What’s the point in pouring a fortune into educating girls, and then watching them exceed boys at almost every level, if, when it comes to appointing business leaders in top companies, these are drawn from just half the population – friends who have been recruited on fishing and hunting trips or from within a small circle of acquaintances?” he says. “It’s all about tapping into valuable under-utilised resources.”

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Sceptics will argue that such a social and business revolution could only be achieved in traditionally egalitarian societies such as those within Scandinavian countries – and especially in oil-rich Norway with a welfare system offering generous support for working women.Norway is not typical of most countries. Until the discovery of huge gas and oil deposits in the North Sea in the 1960s, it was one of the poorest countries in Europe – a nation of farmers and fishermen. With husbands so often away at sea, Norwegian women became heads of the family, so equality between the sexes is deeply ingrained.

Women have long matched men in politics too. After Gro Harlem Brundtland became the country’s first female prime minister in 1981, 8 out of her 18 cabinet ministers were women. Every cabinet since has maintained roughly the same balance. The country has also enforced the 40% quota on all public committees for more than 20 years, and the internal rules of nearly all its political parties require an equal mix of men and women on electoral lists.

Now, as one of the world’s leading oil exporters, Norway registers an enormous budget surplus every year. This funds a generous welfare state for its small population of 4.7m, with benefits that are the envy of working parents everywhere. Free childcare is widely available. Maternity leave on full pay lasts a year – fathers get six weeks “papa leave” – and women are allowed to return home for one or two hours in the middle of a working day to breast-feed.

The Gabrielsen initiative was already pushing on an open door – but would it work elsewhere? Cue Spain. It has also now passed a similar law. Companies must give 4 out of 10 board positions to women within seven years. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right government is moving in the same direction, the first step being a “voluntary charter” committed to gender equality, and the Netherlands is pledging the same commitment to putting women in charge at the top.

And it’s not just in business that the barriers are being stormed by women. The move in traditional Spain was dismissed by many as another political ploy by the country’s wily socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, to curry favour with the electorate. But his female-friendly initiatives have caught the national mood. He recently unveiled a new cabinet with more female than male ministers – including a heavily pregnant minister of defence.

The British cabinet fields just 6 women to 16 men and, though public opinion might favour action to address the imbalance, the evidence suggests that it is women themselves who might oppose it. When David Cameron suggested this year that he would operate a quota of women cabinet ministers to address the gender imbalance, some of the most vehement objections came from female colleagues. The former Conservative minister Ann Widdecombe said she would be “grossly insulted” if she were given a front-bench position on those terms. She is by no means alone in her opposition.

As far as many women are concerned, the idea that they might be chosen for any job on the basis of gender alone is galling.

“There is no appetite for quotas here,” says Jacey Graham, co-director of a FTSE-100 cross-company mentoring programme for women and the author of a recently published book on women in boardrooms in Britain. “There is an appetite to facilitate talented women coming through, but they must be seen to compete on the same terms as male colleagues.”

It is a view shared by business leaders.

“I agree completely that we don’t have enough women on boards, but I think the problem is much more deep-seated than that – it is that companies are not ensuring sufficient numbers of women are coming through their structures into senior management and executive positions from which they can break through the glass ceiling and into boardrooms,” says Sir Richard Evans, chairman of United Utilities. “The biggest assets of most businesses are their human capital, so what on earth can the argument be for not treating all those assets in the same way?

“But getting the best out of all the human capital begins in schools and universities, at the stage of careers advice and, later, advancement in the workplace. A big culture change is required to tackle that, and I do not necessarily believe changing the law changes people’s attitudes.”

Anna Dugdale, board director of the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and one of the few female financial advisers to a big NHS teaching trust, goes further: “I think a quota law would be the worst thing possible for women. You would never know if you were there on your own merit or owing to some legal requirement.”

But back in Norway, the “tokenism or talent” debate has already been consigned to history. Women just picked up the baton and ran with it.

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Benja Stig Fagerland is a figure straight out of Norse mythology. Over 6ft tall, she is a beautiful blonde who projects strength and intellect. A Dane who moved to Norway 16 years ago, she has been in the forefront of the female raiding parties who have stormed and conquered the male strongholds of the old order.

The 37-year-old economist with two degrees, an MBA, and three daughters aged 7, 4 and 1, penned an impassioned letter to one of Norway’s leading business magazines after Gabrielsen’s bombshell. It didn’t matter whether you were for or against quotas, she said. That argument was irrelevant and outdated. What was needed was more women in positions of power. In fact, Stig Fagerland had always been against quotas.

“I was young. I was clever. I was competitive and I believed I could do whatever I wanted to do without anybody’s help,” she says, sipping a large mug of coffee in her immaculate home in Oslo’s exclusive residential enclave of Nesoya.

She had been working for a business-software company and, together with a group of friends, had set up a network of young executives in their late-twenties and early-thirties called Raw Material. “We were like the winning team, a little arrogant, and determined to fight the old Scandinavian attitude of Janteloven – never believing you are better than anyone else. We wanted to get to the top.” But when her first daughter was born she realised that it was not just a question of relying on talent. “I began to see it was not that easy,” she says, “that was not how the world worked.” In fact, a survey commissioned by the British government in 2007 found mothers face more discrimination at work in this country than any other group.

After her letter was published, Stig Fagerland was contacted by Norway’s equivalent of the Confederation of British Industry, the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise or NHO, and asked to spearhead the drive to get more women onto company boards. Since the NHO is one of Norway’s most traditional and conservative organisations, long opposed to the idea of quotas for women, she hesitated before accepting the challenge, afraid that the appointment might be little more than window dressing. Once in the post, however, she set up a project called Female Future, and invited companies to go “pearl diving” for women within their ranks who had talent that had not been fully utilised by the firm and whose potential could be nurtured, an initiative that made the issue of quotas redundant.

“This was an extremely important exercise as it got companies to focus on talent regardless of gender,” says Stig Fagerland, who now runs her own consultancy company that is aimed at empowering talent. Once these “pearls” were identified, they were put forward by their companies for training by Female Future. She believes that she also identified a key obstacle women face in rising through the ranks: “They don’t sell themselves in the same way men do.”

Part of the training programme she ran for the next two years involved teaching women how to do just that. “If you bump into your CEO in a lift and he asks you who you are, you need to be able to sum yourself up in 20 seconds; be honest, not over-modest,” she says. The project also set up a database of experienced businesswomen, which companies could tap into when looking for potential board members. “They could no longer claim that female candidates for these top positions didn’t exist just because they didn’t meet them in their private male clubs. We listed hundreds of strong, keen women who wanted these positions of responsibility.”

Of the 600 businesswomen who have taken part in the programme since it started, 300 now occupy board positions. “As an employer’s organisation, although we wanted more women in senior positions, we were against the quota law from day one, believing such decisions were entirely up to shareholders,” says Sigrun Vageng, an executive director of the NHO. “We thought that the threat of closing companies if they did not comply was quite ridiculous. But now we have to acknowledge that it is only because of the law and the public debate it provoked that real change has happened.”

“There’s no going back,” says Kjell Erik Oie, the country’s state secretary for equality and children. “We’ve realised it’s good for business.”

Like Gabrielsen, he refers to American research showing companies with the most women in top positions return higher profits than those with the least number of female directors. One study last year by the influential New York think-tank Catalyst, which ranked hundreds of Fortune-500 companies by the percentage of women on the board, found the top quarter outperformed those in the bottom quarter with a 53% higher return on equity. While another 2007 report, by the international management consultants McKinsey, looked at 89 top European companies and found those where women were most strongly represented on both the board and at senior-management level outperformed others in their sector in return on equity and stock-price growth.

Some argue that this is because those companies with a less traditionally male boardroom are more likely to be innovative and forward-looking. That, says Oie, is precisely the point. But are Norway’s top tycoons convinced about this?

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The man in the photograph Verdens Gang chose to illustrate the front-page story of Gabrielsen’s attack on “The Old Men’s Club” is a hard-nosed former fisherman turned billionaire. Kjell Inge Rokke is sometimes referred to as Norway’s Donald Trump. He once famously said his education was in “the university of the gutters”. After leaving school he went to work on long-distance trawlers in Alaska before returning to Norway, buying and restructuring companies and then rising to take control of the country’s leading industrial conglomerate. Aker is Norway’s largest private employer, with more than 27,000 employees in 35 countries and annual revenue in excess of £6 billion. It is the parent company for eight stock-exchange-listed firms in the traditionally male bastions of oil-drilling, shipbuilding and construction. Until 2004, Aker had no women on its board of directors, and in the words of one of its former presidents, it was a “club”, selecting new board members on the basis of “you put me on yours and I’ll put you on mine”.

When the 40% quota was proposed, Rokke opposed it, saying such decisions should be left solely to shareholders. Just how much things have changed since then is spread before me when I visit the company’s headquarters on the banks of an Oslo fjord.

Fanned out on the table are pictures of the current board members in both Aker and its subsidiary companies; out of 48 directors there are now 20 women. Yet this is clearly uncomfortable territory for Aker’s executive vice-president Geir Arne Drangeid. He is tense when we meet to talk about the conglomerate’s boardroom transformations. I’m at a loss to understand why until he concludes our meeting with the aside that he hopes the reason he was not re-elected recently for the board of one of Aker’s subsidiary companies was to make way for a woman.

Talking later to one of the Aker’s most senior former board directors, Kjeld Rimberg, the extent of the company’s initial opposition to the move becomes clear. “The view was that it was a political manoeuvre to pay lip service to feminists and had nothing whatsoever to do with the way companies were run,” he comments.

Seeing the writing was already on the wall, Rimberg says he told Rokke not to hesitate in asking him to stand aside in favour of a woman –which his boss promptly did.

“I did not take it personally. I consider myself lucky to have been invited to the party for 20 years,” says the former head of Norway’s state railway system. “After all, men have been protecting their power for years and years, and there are a lot of stupid and incompetent men on company boards.” It might have been because he was talking to me on the phone from a beach in the south of France that Rimberg finishes our conversation by saying that he is now feeling “quite relaxed” about the new law.

Among the women Aker has recruited to its board are two former government ministers: Kristin Krohn Devold and Hanne Harlem, sister of the country’s one-time prime minister. When Devold was defence minister, she says she was used to chauvinistic treatment on government trips abroad; in Italy it was assumed she was an assistant and she was asked if her group would like coffee. “But if women can hold positions in the most important boardroom in any country, its cabinet,” she says, “then they can certainly contribute to the running of a company.”

Women are more intuitive and sensitive to potential problems such as divided interests in boardrooms, says Devold. Hanne Harlem, a former justice minister, agrees with this sentiment and goes further: “Women are much clearer when it comes to ethical issues. They are not afraid to ask awkward questions.”

This is something Kaci Kullman Five, one-time senior executive at Aker – also a former trade minister and current member of the Norwegian Nobel committee – knows only too well. She was briefly acting head of Norway’s giant state-run oil company Statoil in 2003, after its chief executive was forced to resign in a scandal over alleged bribery in its dealings with Iran. “Women are better at working as part of a team and listen more than men, who tend to stick to positions for the sake of their pride,” says Kullman Five, who sits on five company boards.

The growing number of women who now sit on a wide variety of boards brings accusations that, just like men, senior businesswomen are now creating their own exclusive “club”.

It’s almost taboo to admit this openly, says Stig Fagerland, but what is happening in some cases is that older women are pulling up the ladder behind them and leaving younger talent behind.

“I tell young women now to ‘Watch out for the long-stockings!’ ” she laughs. “There will always be plenty of things that women need to fight for, even here in Norway, like equal wages. But I feel more like a relay runner now, ready to pass the baton on to my daughters one day.”