If Peter Reichert was younger, he would be in Ukraine to help defend the country against the Russian invasion.
Instead, he is trying to raise awareness of the invasion by holding daily protests – with an effigy of Vladimir Putin – on Highway 97 in 100 Mile House. He maintains he is only rallying for peace in Ukraine, and nothing else.
“I went to my doctor last Monday and asked him if I was able to go to the war and he said ‘Peter, don’t do this, you have an artificial hip, bad knees and are too slow to follow the soldiers,” Reichert, 60, said. “If I was younger I guarantee I’d go into the battle to help these poor people.”
Reichert is no stranger to Russian political ideology and how men like Putin treat those who disagree with them.
Growing up in Leipzig, East Germany during the Cold War, he said he always believed there were two sides to every coin and resented his teachers telling him that only one side of the ideological coin was correct. When he graduated, his teachers made note of his lack of loyalty to communist idealogy which he said hamstrung his efforts to get a job.
He eventually found work as a stonemason before being conscripted into the National People’s Army in 1981, at age 18. He was trained to be an explosives expert and a sniper but after a year-and-a-half in the military, Reichert decided to leave his country.
“I was not able to do it legally, so I had to do it on my own. I knew the border very well. I had friends who lived there who told me they had minefields, electric fences and guards who would shoot you full of bullets,” Reichert said.
“But I didn’t care, I said ‘I want to be a free man, I cannot live anymore in this country.’”
Reichert asked his best friend to join him and one night they found an unguarded stretch of fence. But as they scrambled over it, his friend accidentally triggered a tripwire that sent up signal rockets into the air.
“Soldiers were following us and then I heard the first shots. I knew from the army when you hear the first shots you have to go down on the ground but my best friend had no idea so I dragged him down to the ground,” Reichart said. “When the shooting stopped we started running like hell and ran into a soldier who was loading a machine gun.”
Reichert and his friend surrendered and were handed over to the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Stasi), East Germany’s secret police and intelligence agency. He was tortured before they offered him a deal – to work for them in exchange for his freedom – but Reichert flatly refused.
He was shocked at trial when he discovered his best friend had accepted the deal and turned on him. Despite committing the same ‘crime,’ Reichert was sentenced to a year and 10 months in prison while his friend only received parole. As he was taken away, Reichert gave his friend the peace sign.
“You have to stand up for something,” he said.
“Prison was a very hard time for me but I was 20 and in good shape from the army. Sometimes the criminals – they want to have some sex with you, and I told them ‘when you touch my arse, I’ll kill you,’ and nobody did that,” Reichert said. “We had to work very hard in the prison, eight hours a day, fabricating metal pieces for furniture.”
With just four months left in his prison sentence, Reichert became one of the 33,000 political prisoners the West German government paid to free over the course of the Cold War. March. 24, 1984 was the best day of his life because he was finally a free man.
For the next 20 years, Reichert worked as a stonemason in both West Germany and later Germany after the reunification.
When he was introduced to Canada by a hunting friend in the early 2000s, he didn’t hesitate, moving to the South Cariboo in 2003.
“I fell in love with people and the nature here … this has been the best years of my life. I’ve lived under the communist system and the capitalist system and right now I live in the freest country in the world.”
The Ukraine invasion, however, has reminded him that not everyone is as lucky.
“I saw the pictures in the news of the babies hiding from the bombs in basements and I was crying. I’m a strong guy but I can’t stand to see pictures like that,” Reichert said.
While he wishes he could do more to help the Ukrainian people, Reichert said he’s happy he’s free to call for peace and an end to the war.