New Year's Eve Attacks In Cologne: What We Know So Far
The Debrief: Reports have emerged of sexual assaults on women by gangs of men as they partied in the city's main square
In the German city of Cologne during the final hours of 2015 and the early hours of 2016, while most people were celebrating, gangs of men, who witnesses describe as being ‘of Arab or North African appearance’, sexually assaulted and robbed multiple women as they partied in the city’s main square by the catherdal and the station.
Reports say that dozens of women (although it’s not yet clear exactly how many) were targeted. They found themselves trapped in a crowd of around 1,000 men, who groped them, tore off their underwear, shouted lewd insults and threw fireworks into the crowd to cause distress and confusion.
One young woman told the BBC of how she and her friends became surrounded by between 20 and 30 men. German police say the number of criminal complaints filed after the events on New Year's Eve has risen to 516, 40% of which relate to allegations of sexual assault.*
Germans have been left shocked by the scale of the attacks and Angela Merkel has expressed her outrage and disgust, saying everything must be done ‘to find the perpetrators as quickly and comprehensively as possible and punish them, regardless of their origin or background.’
Yesterday, Cologne’s police released a list of charges which included one for rape. Exactly how many perpetrators were involved remains unclear but what’s clear is that the victims are struggling to identify their attackers because of the crowds, darkness and confusion.
Now, as if this wasn’t bad enough, this awful occurrence, which would normally make headline news straight away was, somehow, completely unreported on for five days and it was only yesterday that the scale of what happened in the early hours of 2016 in the centre of Cologne began to emerge.
The Debrief spoke to Esther Lorenz, a Cologne resident and one of the administrators for the city’s online community, Nettwerk Köln, which has thousands of members.
She told us that while the city’s police are usually quick to post about incidents and events on their own Facebook page, on this particular occasion they ‘actually held back all information, so on the police page you could see nothing – the police actually said “nothing happened last night, everything went well” on their page. So it was dangerous and nobody knew it had happened.’
‘I went bowling with a group of people on New Year’s Eve about 2km from where it happened and I was out until 2am, but I hadn’t heard a word of what had happened at the Dome Cathedral because it wasn’t announced anywhere – so I didn’t know it had happened until Jan 1 because somebody had posted on our page…’
She then went on to tell us that she, and Nettwerk Köln’s other administrators were so shocked by what they read that ‘because we hadn’t heard a word, we deleted the first post because we thought it was like a hate speech because it started with “a thousand Arabs” and we have refugees in town, you know, so we thought it was hate speech and deleted it.’
She says that the page is always closely monitored for any racist remarks and that last night they took the decision to close the page because she, and the other administrators, were receiving hate messages from people who were angry about them supporting refugees.
As accounts begin to emerge of what exactly happened, women are speaking of being groped all over their bodies, men reaching up under their dresses and being trapped by the crowd as they tried to get away.
Last night up to 30 women demonstrated against the violence close to the scene where the attacks took place. One placard read ‘Mrs Merkel! Where are you? What do you say? This alarms us!’
Others bore the phrase ‘Danke Frau Reker!! Armes Koln’ which is a reference to remarks made by the city’s female mayor, Henriette Reker, in the aftermath of the attacks.
The city’s women were shocked when Reker said that German women should behave according to a certain ‘code of conduct’. She made a public announcement, advising women to travel in groups, which sounds sensible. But then, she went on to say that women should keep at ‘arm’s length’ from men they don’t know to avoid being the victim of such attacks.
With the Cologne annual carnival just weeks away, Reker said that her team would ‘publish online guidelines’ so that women could ‘read through and prepare themselves.’
Women, both in Cologne and elsewhere, are understandably outraged and many have accused her of victim blaming. A politician saying that it’s women’s responsibility to keep men from assaulting them – not helpful. The hashtag #einarmlaenge (an arm’s length) flooded Twitter yesterday.
Esther says, ‘The girls are the victims, you know – we can’t tell them what to wear. The mayor lady shouldn’t have said that, ‘be an arm’s length away form any strangers,’ you know. Fuck off! That’s not helping the emotions to calm down. I was laughing at first thinking she can’t mean that; really ancient ideas about how women should behave.’
‘It’s grey and it’s raining here’, she says, ‘which matches the mood in town.’ So why does she think the police took so long to release information about the attacks? Surely it would have been in the public interest to do so?
‘In general, Cologne is a super happy place’, she says. ‘We are the masters of celebrating – come to Cologne you’ll have fun and you’ll laugh your ass off. Things like this don’t happen in Cologne, we are super open-minded. I think the police were just overwhelmed. They’re not allowed to take guns with them, you know, so I think, there were 100 policemen in front of thousands of people. I think they couldn’t do much.’
She adds, ‘The police should have said they made a mistake the next day, but they didn’t. This wouldn’t happen somewhere else, our police law is too weak, that’s the problem.’
Indeed, the German newspaper Der Speigel has obtained a report which states that the police ‘lost control of the situation in Cologne on New Year’s Eve’, meaning that the women involved ‘accompanied or not, literally ran a “gauntlet” through masses of heavily intoxicated men that words cannot describe.’
These events have placed further strain on a country where tensions are already running high over recently arrived refugees and migrants. ‘It’s very emotional,’ Esther says. ‘People hate the mayor, they hate the refugees.’
There are almost daily attacks on refugee shelters across Germany and some in the country have been quick to make a link between the alleged ethnic identification of the attackers and the fact that Germany took in more than 1 million migrants and refugees last year.
On the other hand, there are those, like Esther, who are worried that refugees are being used as scapegoats and that arguments about the implications of the origins of the men are overlooking the women and the horrific nature of the crimes. They feel that it's gender, violence against women committed by men, not race, that's the issue here.
Esther says, ‘People are trying to get back to normal. Cologne is not a dangerous city and we don’t want people to stop coming here.’ But she admits that the atmosphere remains tense. She says, ‘I’ve actually been to buy some pepper spray because I want to protect myself, with the carnival coming up in three or four weeks I think people will want to avoid the area where the attacks took place.’
There may still be a lot of unanswered questions as to exactly what happened, how it happened, who the perpetrators were, the police response to it and why it took so long for information about these assaults to emerge. But one thing’s for sure: it’s not women who need to change their behaviour.
When reports initially broke in early January refugees were blamed for more than 1,000 assaults and thefts, across Germany tensions and animosity ran high. However, the most recent reports suggest that out of 58 suspects who have so far been arrested, only 3 are refugees. According to Cologne's public prosecutor Ulrch Bremer, only 3 of the suspects had recently arrived in Germany, the rest were of Algerian, Tunisian or Moroccan origin, while three were German citizens. He also told Die Welt that 600 of the 1,054 complaints received following the attacks on New Year's Eve, 600 were connected with theft and not a sexual offence.
*This article was updated to reflect developments relating to the results of police investigations as of February 15th 2016.
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