Disco Inferno

An essay and an excerpt from CECIL BROWN’s novel, DISCO INFERNO

Where were you on April 5, 1986? I know where I was. I was in bed, in a city with a wall around it.

April 5, 1986 changed my life forever. On that cool, spring morning around 1:15, two hundred and eighty five young people in a disco had their lives shattered when a bomb exploded near the bar where I had often sat.

The phone rang. It was my friend Steve, a PhD student from MIT, and another American expatriate like me. “They bombed La Belle!”

La Belle? Our nightclub? All of our buddies met up there on a regular basis and it was just my luck I wasn’t there that night.

After I heard how bad it was, that some people had been killed, I asked about our friends David, Carnell, and Ollie. He didn’t know. As I dressed and hurried over to the American section of Berlin, I wondered who could have done it?

Was it the Neo Nazis who didn’t like Black G.I. clubs? It took a few days before the word got out that it was Qaddafi and his terrorists at work.

In those days, in both East and West Berlin, he was Berlin, was a rebel, a hero, who fought against Reagan, the imperialist.

In East Berlin, Qadaffi’s Libyan People’s Bureau (LPB) sent terrorists (disguised as “Diplomats”) over the Wall into the West Berlin to blow up Americans—black Americans at that! We now know that the East German government allowed this to happen, because Qaddafi was fighting against the capitalist West. Just as today, people are reluctant to believe that Qaddafi would attack his own people, then it was hard for the American and the European left to believe that he would attack third world people (i.e. Black Americans)

Somebody had placed the bomb at the bar. While the music was playing, ‘Fly Girl,’ one of the first hip-hop songs to cross the Wall, the blast went off. The bomb killed sergeant Kenneth T. Ford and Nemin Hannay, a 29-year-old Turkish woman. Another G.I. Sergeant James E. Goins, from my home state North Carolina later died a few days from his injuries.

By the time, I got to Friedenau, the spot where La Belle was located, the police had blocked it off with yellow tape, but I got through to the entrance and saw where the bomb had blown off the front of the club. The destruction was incredible. The walls caved in, the ceiling collapsed, and bodies were strewn all over the streets and the meridian divide.

I asked for information on my friends. I ran into somebody who told me that most of the people were taken to the Victorian hospital.

I called up a German friend, Tamara, with whom I had been working on a story about the Neo Nazi, to come down and meet me. We agreed to meet in a Chinese restaurant directly on the opposite side, and, taking comfort in drinking a pot of tea, watched the aftermath of the massacre.

“Who could have done this? Could the Neo-Nazis be behind it?” we puzzled over and over again.

There were a lot of attacks in Berlin at that time by the Neo-Nazis. (I had been in a museum when a bunch of young German thugs came in and smashed all the displays they could get their hands on and walked out.) Just then I saw one of the young German guys we had interviewed standing in the crowd across the street. Dashing out the restaurant, into the rain, I ran up to him as he was mingling in the crowed. I had to be sure. I pulled his coat and he turned. “What are you doing here?” He seemed surprise to see me. “Well, you know, I’m interested in this kind of stuff…” He said it in German. Then he laughed, turned, and walked off with his friends. On the sidewalk, somebody had painted, “Amerikaner Raus!” (American army get out!)

I came back to the table and told her it was him for sure. We were sure that the Neo Nazi had something to do with it. I was stuck on stupid, thinking that the Neo-Nazis had blown up the place.

I was visiting some friends in the hospital, when I over heard on a television that Reagan bombed Tripoli and the news revealed that Kadaffy had been intercepted by America’ spy agency. I saw Steve Richards, the bartender, in the sitting room. He showed me his burns, and we talked a bit about what happened. But I kept noticing a young boy, about seventeen, who sat on the sofa smoking a cigarette. One of his legs was cut off above the knee. He seemed to be absorbed in a television program. Steve told me he was in the bombing. I felt sick thinking about it.

How was this boy going to bear his suffering? Then, the news came on about Reagan’s bombing of Libya. Steve said he didn’t believe that Libya was behind the bombing of La Belle. Reagan was covering for the Germans’ racism. They knew they could get away with it. Hadn’t they? Everybody hated Qaddafi, and it was true, Qaddafi was to be despised and hated and the Germans were to be loved as our allies and friends.

That day I took a taxi back. The driver had to make a detour.

“What’s up?”

“Street blocked off.”

I looked out the window and saw why. A large crowd of people was marching in our direction. They were carrying placards, and as we turned around, I was able to read some of them. “Reagan is a Fascist!” And another one, “Hands Off Libya!”

Not long after the incident, Qaddafi’s cruelty and racism became apparent.


April 5, it said, in this place some young peope died because of a violent bomb attack.

They should have added: by the hands of the cruel tyrant, Qaddafi.

Immediately after Raegan’s attack on Libya, many of us suspected Qaddafi and his “diplomats” from East Germany did it.

I went to the club and so did many of my closest friends. According to John O. Koehler, ‘s book Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police, the East Germany decided to plant the propaganda that the Americans had planted the bomb themselves. “”The fairy tale [that the Americans pulled it off themselves] was concocted by the MfS disinformation department,” he wrote, “Its dissemination was handled by the controllers of Stasi agents in West Berlin…and aided by a number of left-wing German journalists. The most enthusiastic supporter of the Stasi fairy tale was the left-wing West Berlin newspaper, Tageszeitung.”

No one was willing to believe that Reagan was right. Because Qaddafi was the hero of the Third World, it was difficult for Blacks to believe that he was their enemy. Many of the expatriates were anti Reagan and Pro African found it inconceivable that Qudaffi would delivery kill innocent black G.Is.

The American press was equally gullible. They didn’t know that La Belle was a black club, or if they knew, they didn’t think it made a difference. They could have no idea what the GI club meant to the Germans, and therefore they could not understand the significant it had on the Black and white Expatriates living in Berlin.

When the international news reported the bombing, they referred to La Belle as a G. I. club, not as a “Black G. I” Club. Even with that distinction, they could not value the significance what the GI s club meant.

Germans who wandered out of their cocoons encountered the Black American culture. Along with the American Houses, the GI club was where one was to meet face to face with what made American different from what they saw on television and in the movies. When I arrived in 1982, the last of the great GI clubs were vanishing into history, such as the “The Talk of the Town,” “Starlight,” “Silverwings,” and the “Stingray.”

I visited them for an article I was writing. The occupants were usually older Germans, who had been around when the music was soul, and the dancing was slow. Now the old clubs were giving way to the ones that played disco music and Hip-hop, and the soldiers wore fade-haircuts and Italian suits.

The New G.I. club differed from the old G. I. club in that White Europeans managed them. Enzo Dinunno, who owned La Belle, for example, was an Italian, who never had been to America, and didn’t know black people. But he had a good ear for what both the Blacks and the Europeans liked to dance to.

He also had the good sense to create the club more like what we know as a form of social networking. This was the first time I had been to a club where they gave you a calendar of events. There were the Miss La Belle contests every weekend. There were dancing contests. Even the drinks had special names and special histories.

When the two German girls who bought the bomb in the club entered the club, Enzo greeted them and had the bartender Steve Richards serve them a special drink he called the “Kiwi Wonder.”

At the door to the La Belle club, there was never any real security. The main problem was that brothers—being brothers—would bring their razors or knives and occasionally threatened to crave somebody up. So the doorman would pat you down for a knife. The women were never checked for anything. Why would a German girl who is already heads over heels in love with the Black culture and life want to harm anybody here?

East German girls, of course, were different. (My German writer friends, Peter Schneider and Hans Buch, had told me how to tell if a German girl is from the East or West. If her favorite book is Goethe, she’s apt to be from across the Wall. One night in La Belle, I tried it out. I met this girl and asked her what she liked to read. She said, “Goethe!” Sure enough, later that night, into her flat, I sat on the bed and saw that she had The Sorrows of Young Werther opened on her nightstand.)

Some of the East German girls had received permission to leave by the East German police. They were required to give information back to the East German authorities. This was the case with Verena Chaana . Verena’s work as a spy included gathering intelligence on army locations and army size.

She gave the Stasi and the Libyan Peoples bureau information on the location of the La Belle. They had other choices, but if they had entered white G.I. club, they may have been searched. The black club was, indeed, a softest of targets.

It was not until the Berlin wall went down in 1989 that proof of the existence of the terrorists who had set the bomb. This discovery proved that we had been right in our conclusions that Qaddafi had pulled it off.

Sometimes in 2005, I flew back to Berlin from San Francisco to meet one of the most famous lawyers who defended the La Belle victims. He told me that he became a very rich man because Qaddafi had finally settled to pay a large sum of money to the victims for the bombing in 1996.

He said that after the fall of the Berlin wall, in 1989, he went to the Stasi headquarters and found the files on the Libyan People’s Bureau (LPB) Embassy. Somebody had attempted to destroy the files. He had to get down on his knees on the floor and piece together the papers, and from this reconstruction he discovered that Libyan diplomats had sent a bomb expert (one Yasser Chraidi) from Tripoli to East Berlin. In a Volkswagen Golf bearing East German diplomatic license plates, he traveled through Checkpoint Charlie into West Berlin.

The bomb was stashed in an apartment belonging to a Palestinian student. At the right time, it was delivered to Ali Chaana department. Chaana’s wife, Verena and her sister Andrea, who lived in the same apartment and knew about the plot, went with her to the La Belle.

By choosing a soft target, Qaddafi changed the Cold War into a Hot, Fuzzy War. After the bombing, everybody in Berlin was perplexed. You could feel the shift in the air. The fear that most people in Berlin had of the East bloc was transferred immediately to the nightclubs.

Previous to the Berlin attach, Qaddafi had attacked an airport in Italy, and right before that December 27, 1985, he attacked United States in Rome and Vienna airport in shootings that left eleven people dead.

Next came Berlin, April 5, 1986. Then, a few years later, on Wednesday 21 December 1988, the Lockerbie jet went down. Again, the idea was to bring terrorism to an “everyday places.” There was no longer a need for a wall between East and West.

In fact, it was not long after this that the Wall came down, 1989. It came down because it didn’t protect the West any longer the East. As it turned out, the danger was not on the other side of the Wall, but within the confinements Wall.

It seemed unlikely at the time that Qaddafi would kill Black people. Now when we see that he kills his own people in Libya, it is easy to follow his thinking regarding La Belle. His strategy was based on the assumption that nobody would believe that he did the crime. Years later, he apologized and paid out billion of dollars. He was forgiven and returned to a high status in the governments of America and Europe. In his attack on American symbols, Qaddafi sacrificed African Americans’ lives and the lives of his own people.

When I went back to Berlin the last time, I visited the spot. There was a lady in the book store who said on April 5, of each year, a limousine pulls up and a lady in a big dark hat gets out and leaves a bouquet of roses in front of shop where the nightclub use to be. Another merchant told me the same thing. Nobody knows who it is. I think it is the “Duchess.” The “Duchess” was the name we gave to this very elegant woman who always gave to the club, sat in the back, sipping a “kiwi Wonder, ” and never left with anybody. It’s nice to think that it is she who leaves the roses.

Except from novel my novel, Disco Inferno:

That evening, seated in the Savigny Café with Ilona, I listened to somebody’s radio. But then a blond woman seated in the back of the café, who was sneaking glances at me, interrupted my concentration. She wouldn’t come right out and look at me, but gave me these furtive looks. She would always look away when I turned my head. I thought, perhaps, she was waiting for Ilona to leave the room.

I just continued eating and listening to the radio.

“This is the AFN news. In West Germany and West Berlin several thousand protesters took to the streets on Tuesday in a series of spontaneous demonstrations against the American bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi. Police said the protests, called by the environmentalist Green party and other left wing groups, took place in thirty West German cities….”

Soon after Ilona left, the blond got up from the table and went to the cigarette machine, which was next to my table. She started dropping coins in the slot while casting sideways glances over at me. In the background, the sound of the newscaster went on in a gravel voice. “…The bombing of a West Berlin discotheque frequented by American servicemen ten days ago, may have prompted the American strike against Libya, but that didn’t deter thousands of young West Berliners from turning out on the city streets to stage angry and sometimes violent protests against the American attack….”

Reaching down for the package of cigarettes, she let me get a good look at her beautiful ass. She looked at me and I felt very lucky.

“…Carrying banners that read ‘Americans get out of Libya’ and changing slogans such as ‘Reagan is a fascist,’ the angry youths fired rockets and threw stones at American Hamburger restaurants in the city. The protesters were only prevented from attacking the American cultural centers by a massive police presence.

“In other news, Mr. Gorbachov, accompanied by his wife Raissa and a Soviet delegation, touched down at East Berlin’s Schoenfeld airport this morning, and was given full red carpet treatment by his East German host, Erich Honecker.

“In other news…the French allies object to specifically banning Libyan diplomats from West Berlin because they’re said to have argued that there is still insufficient evidence pointing to direct Libyan involvement in the bombing.” Did you want to say something to me?” I asked her as she lingered near the cigarette machine opening the package.

“Are you an American?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I hate your fucking President!” she spitted out. Then she went into a tirade saying that the president was an asshole that wanted to blow them all up. I was so shocked that all I could come back with was something lame, like she had my permission to hate him. I can’t remember now, but I probably added something to the effect that he wasn’t my president and that I had not voted for him. I could have told her that I was a victim. I never got the chance. He was dangerous, she said, and even when I asked her name, she didn’t stop. Her name was irrelevant, she said, but she told it to me anyway, reluctantly. Soon, two of her friends came in and stood in front of her table. I was afraid they were going to start in on Reagan, too. Freya said she needed a tequila shot before she could begin talking about what to do about Reagan. Her friend, Gisela, said they had just been in front of the American Haus on Hardenbergestr. When their friend, Rainer, returned with a tray of tequila shots, they began chanting a German song from Nietzsche. Gisela, armed with a tequila shot, joined in, “I will not die, you will die, because of your envy. Even the evil people have their songs!”

I must have looked puzzled, because Freya leaned closer to me and explained the words and the biography of the poet.

I’ll never forget the three of them drinking and chanting Nietzsche, secure in their hatred of an American symbol, a hatred which allowed them to ignore all the things they enjoyed about that despised country called America. And I sat there feeling bad. I wasn’t about to repeat that mistake this time in Berlin. That’s why I didn’t like being there any longer.

[End of excerpt]

CECIL BROWN is the author of I, Stagolee: a Novel, Stagolee Shot Billy and The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger. He can be reached at:


Cecil Brown is the author of Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department?. His latest book is Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor.