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The last days of Bernhard's life
Once Bernard arrived in China he began regular email contact with us at home. He remained in frequent contact with us, sometimes sending emails every day, sometimes every second or third day from his university in Beijing. Some of these messages were brief, some were more detailed. For us, these frequent letters by email were much-needed links to our son so far away.
In December 2006, this regular pattern of email contact was interrupted; on the fourteenth of the month he wrote but a brief two line note to us.
Six days then passed before the next email arrived, which was very unusual for Bernhard who maintained close links with us. Painful silence reigned until December 20th. With each passing day in silence I grew more concerned as I had read in the newspapers that the Chinese authorities were beginning harsh crackdowns on underground Christian churches as the Christmas holiday approached. Naturally, I feared for my son's safety. Of course I thought that foreigners in China would be safe, and thus Bernhard would be protected, and I also did not believe that there would be many such underground churches in existence. When Bernhard finally made contact, I asked him about his safety and about these churches; he assured me that all was well.
At about three o'clock in the afternoon of the following day (December 21, 2006) the telephone rang at home in Cologne. I was alone. It was Bernhard, which surprised me since we did not speak by phone frequently. I was shocked. The tone of the conversation was more troubling. Bernhard asked that his father and I pick him up in Beijing with all of his baggage. At the time I did not know what he meant, but later I understood. I asked my son why he requested we do this? He simply replied that he felt threatened. When asked further what he meant, he replied 'a political threat.'
When I realized that he sensed a real danger, I asked Bernhard to fly home at once. I told him that his father and I could not obtain an entry visa from the Chinese authorities before Christmas and that he should leave immediately. We expected Bernhard to fly home on the next available flight that day.
When we awoke we were certain that he was already enroute home but we then received an unexpected email from him dated December 22, 2006 (stamped with the time 2:18 Western European Standard Time which would be 9:18 Beijing time). "Unfortunately I cannot find my ticket. For this reason I cannot come. Will you send me a new one? I am very sorry that it is lost."
Later we found what Bernhard did during those following hours. We know that he went to the Kempinski Hotel, entering the restaurant at 11:05. There he ordered some food including two glasses of apple juice. He left the restaurant forty minutes later at 11:57 am. We know all of this because Bernhard paid for this lunch with his Visa credit card which was reported to his father's account. The hotel was later good enough to send us the formal statement of charges, with Bernhard's signature, and it also offered to us a copy of the routine surveillance video camera which recorded his entrance and departure at the Kempinski that day.
Bernhard (with cap) at the last day of his life
Also during this day, Bernhard withdrew the sum of 100 Euros, the equivalent of three week's living expenses; withdrawn in the local currency, the Yuan.
Later that evening, most probably from his university computer room, Bernhard sent the following message to us dated 9:31 Western European Standard Time (4:31 pm local China time) reading: I think that I am being watched, probably have been for many years, but this is much more intense now with a small army of agents all around me now.
I responded to him immediately but I do not know to this day if he ever received my message.
It was now Christmas Eve, December 24, 2006, and I sent one final message to my son.
We did not know at the time that Bernhard had already died.
This terrible news would come to us in just a few hours time.