Laden with an armful of single white roses, each with a message attached, Abdessadbour Ben Hamed stood at the 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 instrumentalized for far-right gain.”
Illustration: Mountain People
The 28-year-old chemistry student, who came to Germany from Tunisia 10 years ago, said 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 revelers 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 might have been coordinated. [Editor’s Note: According to Agency France-Presse (AFP) on Monday, top-ranking police officer Dieter Schuermann said that “nothing in our investigation so far suggests that the presence of the crowds or the small groups was organized or steered.”]
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. However, on Thursday last week 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.
[Editor’s note: According to AFP on Monday, German federal police have identified 32 suspects who participated in the night’s events: nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, an Iraqi, a Serb, an American and three Germans. Of these, 22 were asylum seekers. They are accused of robbery and violence. AFP said that according to local police, 19 suspects have so far been identified, including 14 from Morocco and Algeria. Four have been detained, but they are accused of robbery, not of carrying out sexual attacks. AFP cited Deutsche Presse-Agentur as reporting that of the 19 suspects, 10 are asylum seekers, nine of whom entered Germany illegally.]
“What happened hurts enormously,” Ben Hamed said. “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 apologize to people on behalf of any Tunisians who might have carried out these attacks,” said Abdullah Brik, a 34-year-old 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,” he said.
His son Robin, 18, said since the start of “the large wave of refugees last summer,” he has felt the mood toward 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,” Robin said.
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,” said 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 neighbor’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.”
Concertgoers on their way to the traditional New Year’s Eve concert in the Philharmonie told the Kolnische Rundschauthe that 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 about 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 realize 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 marijuana,” 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 Kolner Stadt Anzeiger said that among an estimated 100 men questioned by police over their behavior during the evening there were not only trickster pickpockets typical to the area — so-called Antanzeror 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.
However, 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, might be looked back on as the tipping point of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open door policy. Germany has seen more than 1 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 said that a fundamental clash of cultures is at play.
Many of the voices are those of right-wing populists. A leading member of the fledgling anti-immigrant political party Alternative fur Deutschland called it a “foretaste of our country’s impending cultural and civilizational 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 destabilize 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.
“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!” Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump said on Twitter.
Such comments aptly reflect the increasingly brazen views of anti-immigrant protesters in Germany.
Lutz Bachmann of the anti-Islam movement PEGIDA said on Twitter that Merkel and other politicians held “joint responsibility for the abuse in Cologne and Hamburg.”
Using offensive terminology, the far-right Web site 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 newspaper: “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 program that tweeted the question to its viewers: “How should we cover the events in Cologne?” and balked at even touching the item itself until five days after the event.
However, nowhere has the nervousness been felt more than in the office of Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker, 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 last year when her windpipe was sliced through by a knife-bearing man who resented her support for refugees.
Merkel, who stood accused last week by liberal Free Democrats Chairman Christian Lindner 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.
However, last 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 more than one 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.
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