COLOGNE, GERMANY — New Year’s Eve in Cologne is a sort of jolly anarchy. People let off fireworks as and when the spirit moves. If they bounce off a building on the way up or errantly whiz past the ear of an unsuspecting reveller, “et es wie et es,” the Cologne equivalent of “c’est la vie.”
I was at the main station, alone after midnight, as I often am, happy to have had a lovely night watching fireworks at the Rhine. Imagine my surprise, six days later, to discover I had been within 100 metres of a roving gang of rapists without noticing that anything was amiss.
“All these women were rappèd,” said my student. “Raped,” I corrected without thinking. It’s a strange subject to discuss with someone you teach English to, and it’s also patently untrue. As of Friday evening, two women have reported being raped, and around 200 made complaints of harassment or theft. It’s also unsettling to see genuine terror from educated adults who should know better, and painful to have people I have found to be welcoming and supportive of me as an immigrant be so frightened of brown ones.
What exactly happened on New Year’s Eve isn’t clear — investigations are still in the early stages. There may be even more to investigate on Saturday, after the Islamophobic group Pegida and the pro-refugee Köln gegen Rechts (Colgoners against the Right) protest simultaneously at the main station.
My student’s husband told me he wished Germany had guns like America (Germany has stringent gun-control laws). They live in a village of 500 with 300 newly arrived refugees. Men loiter, as unemployed people on the fringes do, and middle-aged Germans remember the growing pains that came with the first generation of former-Yugoslavian, and before that Turkish, immigrants.
This unease is not just in Cologne. And certainly not just as a result of the events of New Year’s. Much of Europe has already shifted to the right politically and in the east part of Germany, where there are fewer non-white foreigners, far-right political parties and Pegida are growing in number and power. The elephant in all the conversations I’ve had is that everyone knows baby steps soon turn into leaps and those go only one way. Whether the best way to avoid a slide into fascism is to expel the refugees or embrace them is something Germans will have to sort out for themselves.
Police identify 18 asylum-seekers among 31 suspects linked to New Year’s attacks in Cologne
Those conversations are continuing, even a week after the incident. But a sense of perspective in the international press is still largely absent. When the chief of police (who, under intense criticism, stepped down on Friday) said that anyone who did not actively stop an attack was then an accomplice to it, that didn’t mean that everyone in the crowd was actively trying to cause harm. The mayor called an emergency meeting with the police to discuss ways to prevent the area from descending into lawlessness — which it certainly isn’t, and wasn’t. Walking through the station and the area around the cathedral nearly every day, I’d never guess it was anything other than a normal European tourist spot.
That’s not to say that nothing happened. Something clearly did. Common to these areas is a scam like what you encounter on the steps in front of Sacre Coeur in Paris. Namely, one or two men approach a woman and distract her by touching or trying to dance with her while another helps himself to her valuables. Germans call it antänzen, a sort of dancing up on, the way someone might grind on a stranger at a club.
Police are still working out whether there was an organized attack or not. It seems unlikely, if only because it was unnecessary. For thieves, pickings don’t get much easier than loads of drunk people in a confined space.
Where the night seems to have taken on another dimension is when people returned to the station to catch a train home. The main square in front of the station forms a natural kettle and when it is packed with people, as it was on New Year’s Eve, the only way out is on a train. And when the normally every-10-minute local trains stop running, as they did because people were walking on the tracks, the crowd can quickly become a festering mob.
People from home are asking me if I’m frightened. I am more afraid than I was yesterday, but not of being attacked. I will still walk the city centre as I have always done and not think twice about it. It’s other people’s fear that makes me wary.
Normally, the people of Cologne are known for their relaxed approach to life. The local credo has always been “et hätt noch immer jot jejange” — it always ends well, so don’t worry about it.
For the first time since I arrived at the main train station in three years ago, uprooted, jobless and with no idea of what my future in Germany would hold, I’m not so sure.
This piece first appeared in The National Post (Canada).