domingo, 10 de janeiro de 2016
'I’ve never experienced anything like that': Cologne in deep shock over attacks
'I’ve never experienced anything like that': Cologne in deep shock over attacks
As police reveal that 18 of the 31 New Year’s Eve suspects were asylum seekers, the far-right is using the fear to fuel its anti-immigrant campaign
Kate Connolly in Cologne
Friday 8 January 2016 18.14 GMT
Laden with an armful of single white roses, each with a message attached, Abdessadbour Ben Hamed stood at the main entrance to Cologne’s main station and gestured to women coming in out of the rain to take a flower.
Some flapped their hands in rejection, and walked on quickly. Others nodded in appreciation and took a rose; some stopped to talk and read the slip of paper.
“The events of New Year’s Eve did not happen in our name,” it read. “But we also strongly condemn the fact that they are being instrumentalised for far-right gain.”
The 28-year-old chemistry student, who came to Germany from Tunisia ten years ago, says he was shocked by what happened on the spot where he and members of the groups Tunisian Youth and the German-Turkish Association are now standing.
Here, on Cologne’s Domplatz or Cathedral Square in front of the station, hundreds of men gathered with other revellers on New Year’s Eve, and over the course of the evening sexually attacked and mugged an unknown number of women.
The number of attacks was so large that there is a growing belief they may have been coordinated. The violence was not confined to Cologne, but took place in some form in some other German cities and other European metropoles from Helsinki to Zurich.
Police statements backed up by victims’ own accounts initially suggested the men involved were of north African and Arabic appearance and did not include refugees. But on Thursday police said that of the 31 people identified, 18 were asylum seekers. Overall, nine of the suspects were Algerian, eight Moroccan, five Iranian, four Syrian, two German, as well as an Iraqi, a Serb and a US citizen.
“What happened hurts enormously,” said Ben Hamed. “Most of us were born here and could not be better integrated into society. North Africans have been coming to live in Germany for 60 years or more. But suddenly we’re being looked at with great suspicion, because we look exactly like the people who are accused of carrying out these horrible acts.”
He was not alone in his anger. “We’re here to apologise to people on behalf of any Tunisians who might have carried out these attacks,” said 34-year-old Abdullah Brik, a Cologne bus driver, who arrived as a political asylum seeker 18 years ago. “We want to show not all dark-skinned people should be put in the same boat, which we feel is happening right now.”
Nasan Nandinian, who runs a nearby newsagent, recalled the “large numbers” of women who entered his shop during the evening asking for shelter. “They came from the station, and said it was absolutely horrible – crowds so deep you could hardly move, and men who were intensely aggressive towards them. They were shaking. Some were crying. I let them stay here and use the toilet,” he said.
The 63-year-old came from Iran 18 years ago, and has German citizenship. “I’ve seen it all – the raucous carnivals that are a mainstay of Cologne life, the Christopher Street Day parades, and 18 New Years. But I tell you, I’ve never experienced anything like that night. It was very unpleasant and not at all joyful.”
His son Robin, 18, said since the start of “the large wave of refugees last summer”, he has felt the mood towards what he calls “dark-skinned Cologners” starting to turn sour. “I get on the train and it quite often happens that anyone say a couple of generations older than me refuses to sit next to me. For sure they think I’m a terrorist,” he said. Since the events of New Year, he believed it would only get worse. “I try to ignore it but it’s hard.”
Back in the station forecourt a woman wearing a pair of white hot pants and matching thigh-high leather boots was posing for a photograph, holding a sign saying: “We will not be cowed.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far to demonstrate my feelings,” tutted a 53-year-old hairdresser called Beate – who declined to give her last name – on her way home from work and clutching a rose. “But it does feel like we’ve lost our city a little bit after what happened and I guess all that woman is trying to do is reclaim it.”
She said her neighbour’s 19-year-old daughter had been out on the square that night. “She had bruises to show for how she was pushed around,” she said. “They pinched her behind and grabbed her breasts, and shouted offensive remarks at her.”
Picture taken on 31 December shows people gathering in front of the main railway station in Cologne. Photograph: Markus Boehm/AFP/Getty Images
Concert goers on their way to the traditional New Year’s Eve concert in the Philharmonie told the Kölnische Rundschau the mayhem had started as early as 5.30pm when young, clearly drunk men, who according to eyewitnesses spoke mostly Arabic and French, gathered on the steps of the cathedral, and began throwing bottles and setting off fireworks into the crowds. By the time people spilled out of the concert around three hours later and tried to get back to the station, the mood had grown considerably more aggressive.
The question many Cologners are asking is why it took the police so long to realise the gravity of the situation. The square was not cleared until 11.30pm, and even then in such a chaotic way that one police officer, in an internal report, said he feared “people could have died in the crush”.
Inside the station, as people tried to get back home, the abuse of victims continued. “The place stank of vomit and marihuana,” said a cleaner called Rita, who said she would lose her job if she revealed her full name. “I saw girls desperate to get back outside despite the dangers, because they felt even more trapped by the male-dominated crowds inside.”
Was it, as some have suggested, because the police have been so primed not to stoke racial tensions that they did not intervene and then later insisted there were no refugees among the suspected perpetrators, even though they had not arrested anyone?
An initial internal police report released to the Kölner Stadt Anzeiger said that among an estimated 100 men questioned by police over their behaviour during the evening there were not only trickster pickpockets typical to the area – so-called ‘Äntanzer’ or ‘waltzers’ – who dance with their victims, unbalance them and use the opportunity to rob them, but also newly arrived refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The compiler of the report admitted he had suppressed detailing their nationalities because it would have been “too politically sensitive” to do so. The police have declined to confirm or deny the reports.
But Cologne now finds itself in a deep state of shock. Many are aware that the events which took place in a space that could hardly be more public, underneath the floodlights of the country’s most popular tourist attraction, the towering gothic spires of Cologne cathedral, may be looked back on as the tipping point of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open door policy. Germany has seen more than a million new arrivals in the past 12 months, many fleeing war and persecution.
That so many women were reportedly forced to take refuge from the groping hands and weapon-like fireworks within the cathedral itself has only added fuel to the arguments of those who say that a fundamental clash of cultures is at play.
Many of the voices are those of rightwing populists. A leading member of the fledgling anti-immigrant political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) called it a “foretaste of our country’s impending cultural and civilisational collapse”.
Mina Ahadi, of the Central Council for ex-Muslims, who lives in Cologne, said she was convinced darker forces were at play than just a group of young men, their inhibitions dissipated by drugs and alcohol, who all happened to have found themselves on the square at the same time.
“I have no evidence, but to me it seems too much of a coincidence that young Muslim men were seen to deliberately fire their rockets in the direction of the cathedral,” she said.
“That and the entire way this appears to have a political element to it, including the humiliation of women and undermining the law – I would not be surprised if it wasn’t coordinated by people who want to destabilise Germany and undermine the refugee policy,” she said in a cafe close to the square.
Germans have been stunned by the way in which, since details of the violence began to emerge, they have even seeped into the US election campaign. Donald Trump remarked on Twitter: “Germany is going through massive attacks to its people by the migrants allowed to enter the country. New Year’s Eve was a disaster. THINK!” Such comments aptly reflect the increasingly brazen views of anti-immigrant protesters in Germany.
Lutz Bachmann of the anti-Islam movement Pegida tweeted that Merkel and other politicians held “joint responsibility for the abuse in Cologne and Hamburg”. Using offensive terminology, the far-right website Politically Incorrect wrote of the “hordes” who had enjoyed “great days in the cathedral city”, while videos posted on YouTube filmed during New Year’s Eve called for “gas chambers for Muslims” adding that “Merkel can join them”.
A Cologne policeman who took part in the New Year’s Eve policing operation, told a German paper: “I have followed Merkel’s politics. It’s a really horrible feeling that this is now playing smack-bang into the far right’s hands.”
The anxiety has extended to the media, including the evening news programme that tweeted the question to its viewers: “How should we cover the events in Cologne?” and baulked at even touching the item itself until five days after the event.
But nowhere has the nervousness been felt more than in the office of Henriette Reker, the mayor of Cologne, who struggled even to find words to describe the events of that night, initially calling them a “phenomenon”, and later urging women to adopt a “code of conduct” at night by “keeping at something more than an arm’s length” from strange men.
In the fury following her remarks there was little room for any recollection of how she herself narrowly survived an assassination attempt on the eve of the mayoral election in October when her windpipe was sliced through by a knife-bearing man who resented her support for refugees.
Merkel, who stood accused this week by Christian Lindner of the liberal Free Democrats of having “plunged the continent into chaos” with her refugee policy, has outwardly at least retained her characteristic calm and conviction that she is doing the right thing.
But this week she insisted the nation had to “keep talking about the basis of our cultural coexistence in Germany”. There was no repeat of her upbeat appeal just over a week earlier, when, dressed in a shimmering red taffeta jacket, she had urged Germans in a televised new year’s address accompanied by Arabic subtitles, to see refugees as an opportunity for the country.
Back in Cologne station, Marcus Schmidt, a musician, was picking up a special edition of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to mark the anniversary of the attacks in Paris last January.
“It’s out of respect,” he said. “We haven’t suffered a terror attack like that in Germany, and I would be cautious about drawing parallels, but we are feeling particularly vulnerable,” he said. “I never thought I’d be in a situation where I have to tell my 16-year-old daughter to take care in her own city. I’m a tolerant and open person. I hate the feeling that my fear is directed at people of another skin colour.”