COLOGNE, Germany – Apart from the presence of several police officers, there were few signs in Cologne central station on a cold January afternoon that just a few days earlier this area had been declared a “no-go area”. Nearly a week after scores of women were assaulted, and at least two raped, by groups of men in a series of attacks on New Year’s Eve, life for most appeared to be returning to normal.
But talk to local women and a very different picture emerges. Some said they were now nervous “walking past big groups of men” or have been told by their brothers or boyfriends that they’re “crazy” to go home late alone. Several said they had started carrying pocket knives and pepper spray, anything to keep themselves safe.
“I was at the central station yesterday around 7pm to pick my sister up from the airport, as I didn’t want to let her take the train alone to the station after what happened,” Giulia Baric told BuzzFeed News. “A man approached and told us to be careful around here, and that girls should not be here past 10pm. It’s insane. The central station is a nice area – it’s not like other stations in Germany.”
The attacks have left Cologne reeling, raising two deeply disturbing questions. The first is a perennial: Why did the police not do more to protect women? The other is new and goes to the very heart of the most controversial issue in German politics: Were the attacks carried out by newly arrived refugees, and if so, what will the backlash be?
Since then, the city’s chief of police has been relieved of his duties. Wolfgang Albers repeatedly insisted his officers “did an exemplary job” on the night of the attacks, and claimed he needed to remain in the position for the upcoming carnival next month to ensure the same level of violence did not happen again.
But the calls for him to go became irresistible when a leaked internal police report obtained by Spiegel revealed the scale of the failings on New Year’s Eve. The internal report, dated 4 January, described the night as “chaotic” and a “shameful situation”.
The report said officers were aware of the sexual assaults that night (“fights, thefts, sexual assaults against women, etc”) and that women were in intense danger (“Women, accompanied or not, literally ran a ‘gauntlet’ through masses of heavily intoxicated men that words cannot describe.”). It described the perpetrators as “male migrants” who intentionally agitated police officers. It listed several officers’ testimonies in which some suspects claimed to be Syrian refugees – one officer claimed a suspect said: “I’m a Syrian! You have to treat me kindly! Mrs Merkel invited me.”
Elsewhere, police across the country have since reported similar incidences of sexual assault, including a case in Weil am Rhein, south Germany, in which a 21-year-old man and two 14-year-old boys are being held over the alleged rape of two girls aged 14 and 15 years old. Despite conflicting media reports, the police did not confirm the suspects were from Syria but said one is a refugee and another is seeking asylum.
The leaked report was a far cry from the police’s first statement, which described the festivities as having a “jolly mood” and being “largely peaceful”. The initial report, released on New Year’s Day, failed to mention the sexual assaults police witnessed that night and made no mention of the description given by police in the leaked report of the perpetrators being “migrants”, leading many to suspect it was an attempt to quell anti-immigration sentiment.
Most citizens of Cologne were forced to piece together their own understanding of what happened that night and what it meant next for their community.
“The night was first described by police as just like any other night,” Sara, a resident of Cologne, told BuzzFeed News outside the central station. Like many BuzzFeed spoke to, she would only give her first name. “No one knew anything otherwise. It was only until the women’s reports started to come out that anyone knew something had happened.”
The victims’ description of the chaos that night and of the perpetrators being of “Arab or North African” descent led many to claim that the latter were refugees, adding fuel to the flames of the already sensitive issue of immigration in Germany (the refugee crisis has seen more than 1 million refugees arrive in the country). Officials and the police dismissed the claim, and the interior minister for North Rhine-Westphalia, Ralf Jaeger, went one step further, saying: “What happens on the right-wing platforms and in chatrooms is at least as awful as the acts of those assaulting the women.” Chancellor Angela Merkel has since said that migrants or refugees who break German laws “risk deportation”.
It took several days before the full extent of the sexual assaults and their perpetrators were revealed, prompting accusations of a cover-up. One by one, reports from women claiming to have been robbed, sexually assaulted, and even raped in those crowds began to surface. In the first four days, 60 complaints of assault and robbery were made. Two days later, more than 90 complaints had been made. By the following Thursday, more than 121 charges had been made by female victims, three-quarters of which involved sexual harassment. Two cases of rape were reported. As the growing number of sexual assault claims came to air, public outrage grew, prompting politicians and the police to condemn the events as “unprecedented” and a “new scale of organised crime”.
“My friend was groped – it was disgusting. The whole situation is disgusting.”
Witnesses told local press they heard women “screaming and crying”, that men were “shouting back and pointing fingers and chasing” girls and women. Two men were seen cornering women and touching them as they screamed for help and tried to fight back. One woman said: “All of a sudden these men around us began groping us. They touched our behinds and grabbed between our legs. They touched us everywhere. I thought to myself that if we stay here in this crowd they could kill us, they could rape us and nobody would notice. I thought we simply had to accept it.” One woman told BuzzFeed News that when she saw what was happening that night, she called an officer over and told him. He told her: “Well, take care of your stuff, I can’t do anything right now.”
Vanessa, a 21-year-old student, was at the station on New Year’s Eve with a friend, and both were targeted by attackers.
“I was in Munich last month,” she told BuzzFeed News, “and a lot of the men came up to me there, some in groups, and harassed me, and made me feel afraid. What happened to us at New Year’s Eve was the same – we didn’t know what to do. My friend was groped – it was disgusting. The whole situation is disgusting. I don’t know how this was all allowed to happen.”
She said she was “frustrated” with Cologne mayor Henriette Reker, who was criticised this week for victim-blaming by suggesting women adhere to a “code of conduct” and keep “an arm’s length distance from strangers” to avoid more attacks like those on New Year’s Eve.
“Sexual harassment happens to me when I’m dressed in a skirt,” Vanessa said, “or how I’m dressed now, in a big coat and trousers. Either way, you end up feeling like your body doesn’t belong to you any more.”
On the steps of Cologne’s cathedral, Michelle, a 46-year-old who has lived in the city for 10 years, sat on the side. One week before, her 16-year-old daughter was standing on the same steps on New Year’s Eve with her girlfriend.
“Luckily, nothing happened to her,” she said. “She saw the big groups of people shouting, a lot of people being pushed. I was so worried when she told me she was there – I wished I was there to keep her safe.”
Distrust in the politicians and police’s reports of that night has been matched only by anger at the initial media reporting of the attacks. Early media reports said there were 1,000 men involved in committing criminal acts, a figure later dismissed by police chief Wolfgang Albers, who said only “a number of suspects” were believed to be involved and that smaller groups were the individuals targeting victims. A reporter behind one of those news stories who wishes to remain anonymous doesn’t believe the number was far off.
“It depends on how you define an attack,” she said. “I come from a country where these attacks are common during festivities. If someone grabbing your bum or randomly touching you is considered by police as an attack – and it should be – then there’s no reason to believe that 1,000 men doing it is an imaginary number.”
Even now, many locals continue to question whether they are still being given the full picture and why the full details were held back from them in the first place. If police feared a backlash by detailing the extent of the sexual assaults and the background of the assailants, the mood in the city suggests they’ve only made it all the more likely.
“It was refugees,” one woman told BuzzFeed News. “A friend who studies Arabic was there and could hear what some were saying about her that night.” Another had a different take: “I don’t give a fuck if it was refugees. It could also be German people. It happens a lot, and it is always terrible when it does.”
Given Cologne’s turbulent history of tension between anti-Islam groups and Muslims largely of Turkish and North African descent, locals have grown to accept the city has become a focal point for Germany’s immigration angst. Over the years, far-right groups such as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) and Hooligans Against Salafists have carved out a home for themselves here. The groups have led rallies through the city, often drawing tens of thousands of supporters in the streets. Last October, water cannon were deployed on a far-right protest despite police efforts to ban the event.
A key problem on New Year’s Eve, police officials said, was a lack of resources: The leaked internal report revealed police believed there were “not enough policemen” that night who were “attentive”, and that had there been, “rape could have been prevented”.
For some Cologne citizens, more police presence at events would ease their minds, with next month’s carnival often cited as the “real test” for police. However, many others question how more police presence would help when so many were present on New Year’s Eve but failed to take action.
“Cologne is a city you always have to be careful in,” a police officer told BuzzFeed News as he patrolled the central station on Thursday. “There’s been a lot of danger with violence and fights in this city, and muggings in this area … and the attacks on the women, that was crazy. But we’ve always had a problem with gangs operating here.”
Cologne police have said the attacks may be connected with a widespread gang problem, linking the events to similar attacks that have taken place in neighbouring cities, including Düsseldorf. There, police have a dedicated force (titled “Casablanca”) to investigate similar incidences of organised crime. Local reports say criminal gangs, often referred to as antänzer, have become an increasing problem in Cologne nightlife over the years.
Still, people say the use of sexual harassment to distract and rob a victim was a tactic they had not heard much of before.
“Sexual harassment coming out of groups of young men (no matter where they’re from) is not uncommon, but most of the time it comes from small groups of three to five persons,” said Frank Neubacher, a criminologist at the University of Cologne. “If the events in Cologne had involved more than 100 accused perpetuators of sexual assault, [prior] arrangements may have been made.”
Alexander, another local, is familiar with the gangs that operate in the area. On New Year’s Eve, he arrived at the station just before midnight and saw girls crying and consoling each other. He was there, like he is most weeks, to collect refugees who arrive at the central station in the early hours and transport them on to local shelters.
“The people that night were known by the police already because they see them every night here, like I do,” Alexander said. “The gangs even sometimes pickpocket from refugees that arrive – we can sometimes hear when they discuss when they’re going to rob refugees who have arrived and are sleeping.”
Several charity workers told BuzzFeed News there had been a number of incidences since New Year’s Eve of attacks on refugees, including a Syrian family having a firecracker thrown at them in their living space.
Alexander refuses to believe newly arrived refugees were involved. “All of the Syrians I’ve met and work with that have arrived here wouldn’t do anything like they did that night,” he said. “They’re often always too tired, and hungry. It would be too much to handle.”
One year ago, a few days after New Year’s Eve, the lights of Cologne’s cathedral, a central landmark for Germany, were switched off in protest against Pegida, which had led a protest against Muslims the previous week. During her New Year address at the time, Merkel accused Pegida leaders of “prejudice, coldness, and hatred”.
“Pegida is made up of an astonishingly broad mix of people, ranging from those in the middle of society to racists and the extreme right wing,” Norbert Feldhoff, the dean of Cologne cathedral, told BuzzFeed News. “By switching off the floodlighting we want to make those on the march stop and think. It is a challenge: Consider who you are marching alongside.”
Now Cologne locals say they are preparing for the possibility of a new spate of anti-Muslim protests. Pegida, which says it is staging a rally outside Cologne central station this weekend to support the victims of last week’s sexual assault attacks, believes the events have helped raise awareness of the group’s cause.
Supporting victims of sexual assault is something Kopetzky Irmgard has been doing for years. Irmgard, who works at a local charity that offers emergency counselling for sexual assault and rape victims, told BuzzFeed News that over the last year, the charity saw no rise in sexual assault or rape cases despite the number of refugees arriving in the country.
“It’s nothing new that women are attacked or molested, or shouted at or groped,” she said. “I spoke to a woman recently who said she was pulled off a train by a man and sexually assaulted, and that 20–30 people sat on the train and watched but didn’t do anything.”
Cologne central station is always a “hot spot” for crime at New Year’s Eve, Irmgard said: “Perhaps police didn’t prepare that night. They look for other things: fights, fist fighting, fireworks. They didn’t look for sexual assault.”
She described the huge number of women who have reported cases of sexual assault as “extraordinary” – not merely for the unprecedented amount of cases made to police, but because most women she works with are too afraid to report a crime and go unreported.
“They feel so supported in the media and on every level, and as a result, they find it easier to talk about,” Armgard said. But she suspects part of that support for victims only exists because of the nationalities of the perpetrators: “That level of support should always be there, but unfortunately it’s not.”
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