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Rebuilding the Berlin Wall

In preparation for the 20th anniversary of the wall's fall, artists gather to paint the rebuilt East Side Gallery.

Russian artist Dmitri Vrubel works on his mural of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing his East German counterpart Erich Honecker, painted on a segment of East Side Gallery, the largest remaining part of the former Berlin Wall, in Berlin, June 22, 2009. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

BERLIN — An army of artists has assembled along the Berlin Wall on recent summer mornings, shielded by straw hats and baseball caps. Paintbrushes in one hand, laminated photographs of their old work in the other, they are repainting murals from almost 20 years ago. Thanks to the artists, the canvas is still standing.

"It was just in time," said Iranian-born Kani Alavi. "If the city hadn't finally agreed to do something, the wall would have just fallen over."

Alavi was an unlikely advocate to save the Berlin Wall. But along with 118 of his fellow artists who swooped in to paint the concrete barrier as Germany re-unified in 1990, he has petitioned the city of Berlin for more than a decade to rebuild and preserve what remains of its most hated monument.

Reunification didn't come cheap, and the city of Berlin is a whopping 60 billion euros ($83.6 billion) in debt. But this year it scraped together 2.5 million euros ($3.5 million) from lottery sales as well as federal and EU funds to fix up one of the city's top tourist attractions ahead of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall this November.

According to the artists, the money came not a moment too soon.

German communists built what they called the "anti-fascist protection barrier" in 1961, sealing off East Berlin from West Berlin.

"They just threw it up in a few days," said Andy Weiss, an earringed German artist busy repainting elephants onto the wall. "It was pretty shoddy East German construction."

Not much remains of the wall, and what is still standing was left in bad shape. In the euphoria of 1989, "wall woodpeckers" hacked away at the barrier with chisels. Tractors lifted out chunks of the wall that ended up in bank lobbies, private mansions and sculpture gardens across the world.

In 1990, Alavi, Weiss and the other artists painted what is now the largest remaining section of the wall, known as the East Side Gallery. The 1,300 meters (1,500 yards) of concrete are adorned with images of peace signs, doves and Dmitri Vrubel's famous "fraternal kiss": Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev planting a Communist smooch on the lips of his East German counterpart, Erich Honecker. "God, help me survive this deadly love" reads Russian script over the mural.

Over the years taggers and souvenir seekers chipped away at the surface of the East Side Gallery while weather gnawed at the interior. Steel support rods rusted, holes appeared. Vrubel had used cheap paint, which started to peel. A crack opened and ran down the length of Brezhnev's face.

The city of Berlin declared the East Side Gallery an historic monument in 1992, but despite artists' pleas provided no money for its maintenance.

"Sometimes I got the idea that Berlin politicians were just sleeping or on mental vacation," Alavi said.

"They were hoping the wall would fall down so they could just sweep it under the carpet," was Weiss' more cynical take.

The city government was aware that rebuilding or refurbishing the wall in any way is a touchy subject among Berliners. The idea drew less than 30 percent approval ratings in polls by local newspapers.

A few years ago, the city shut down a different, privately funded project to rebuild part of the wall near Checkpoint Charlie, for fear of creating a "Wall Disneyland."