Hanau mourns its loved ones murdered in far-right attack
Relatives of Ferhat Unvar hold his portrait aloft during the vigil in central Hanau on Thursday night [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]
Hanau, Germany – On an unassuming street corner in the centre of Hanau, locals arrived on Thursday afternoon with flowers to pay their respects, placing bouquets on the pavement just under the red and white tape that marked off the scene of the previous night’s massacre.
Behind the police cordon were the blacked-out windows of the Midnight shisha bar, a popular all-night hang-out that became the unlikely scene of a far-right attack that has shaken Germany, and led many to question whether the state is failing to address the threat of far-right violence in the country.
It was here at around 10pm last night that a gunman entered, firing a barrage of shots at customers and a waiter, killing at least three people.
The killer, 43-year-old Hanau resident Tobias Rathjen, quickly left the bar and returned to his black BMW, in which he sped two kilometres west through the night to another shisha bar, Arena, in a residential neighbourhood in the west of the city, opening fire again and leaving a further five people dead.
All victims had a migration background, according to police. According to media reports they included one Bosnian, one Pole, one Bulgarian, a number of Turks and Kurds with Turkish citizenship. A 35-year-old pregnant woman is also thought to be among the dead.
At least nine people were killed in a shooting rampage in Germany’s Hanau.
Officials say the shooter had a far-right motive.
Here’s what we know so far 👇 pic.twitter.com/cgn3lZ1TmE
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) February 20, 2020
A manhunt began soon after the attack, with police locating Rathjen’s car outside his home, not far from the second shooting. Officers raided the apartment at about 3am, finding the dead bodies of Rathjen and his 72-year-old mother, as well the murder weapon, a Glock semi-automatic pistol, which he had turned on her and then himself.
German authorities described Rathjen as having “a deeply racist mindset”, evidenced by a series of conspiratorial YouTube videos and a rambling manifesto released on social media, citing Donald Trump and endorsing eugenics.
Hanging back from the crowd of onlookers near the Midnight bar was 19-year-old Makbazi, who was born in Hanau and works in nearby Mannheim. “The mood is terrible at the moment,” he told Al Jazeera. “We’re just shocked.”
The teenager is a regular in the city’s shisha bars, where he smokes, eats and chats with friends in the evenings, sometimes drinking beers where alcohol is served. Arena is a common hang-out of his, and only a few weeks ago he was with friends right here, where the shooting began.
“What happened here could have happened to me,” he said.
“The man entered … and killed them all.”
Wounded survivor recounts the moment a gunman opened fire in Hanau, Germany. pic.twitter.com/zMa2kM4msc
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) February 20, 2020
On Thursday afternoon, German interior minister Horst Seehofer paid a visit, tightly flanked by press as he laid a wreath for the victims. He reiterated Chancellor Angela Merkel’s words that “racism is a poison”, and said he would do everything to clarify the background of the murders, but did not describe it as a “terror attack”.
Watching on, unimpressed, was Akif, who has spent all 48 years of his life in Hanau. He expressed little patience for the conservative politcian’s brief appearance at the scene.
“The problem is exactly this guy Seehofer, these cowards or other politicians have to answer for it because they don’t do their politics properly… the AfD is growing day by day,” he told Al Jazeera.
He also laid blame at the feet of German media, which he says are complicit in stoking violence against Muslims in the country by painting them as extremists.
“They always say Islam is equal to terrorism – and we have so many ignorant people, sick people out there and they believe in bloodshed,” said Akif.
“Attacking Muslims; whether an Afghan, Turk or a Kurd, it doesn’t matter at all. It was a planned attack by people who are sick and who have been blinded by the media.”
A community rocked
A short bus ride away at the city’s edge, where Hanau gives way to sprawling motorways, members of the city’s Kurdish community gathered at a squat, bright orange community centre just off the main road.
Since Thursday night mourners have passed in and out, offering condolences to a grieving family and expressing incredulity to each other over the senseless murders, which have rocked the tight-knit community here. There are between 6,000 and 7,000 Kurds in Germany.
In the main hall, attendees share food and tea, as others tend to the distraught mother of one victim resting in the corner. Pinned to a noticeboard just inside the entrance is a photo of a smiling Ferhat Unvar, the proud son of a devastated family, wearing a pink v-neck t-shirt and resting his hands on a table in front of him.
“He was 23 years old. He finished school, he finished his training and had a good job – and now everything was for nothing, because he is gone and won’t come back,” his grandmother told Al Jazeera.
A refugee from the ethnically Kurdish region of south-eastern Turkey, the woman arrived in Hanau around 40 years ago.
Her grandson had begun work as a heating technician after several years of training, and had recently involved himself in traditional Kurdish dancing here in the community centre.
“We came here to Germany to live a free life, and now this has happened to us for coming here,” she said.
As night fell once more, mourners began to filter out to cars and buses outside the venue, preparing to visit a vigil organised by the city authorities in Hanau’s main square, Marktplatz.
There, thousands gathered quietly in the still winter evening, with Hanau residents, friends and families of victims, and members of the local emergency services all standing shoulder to shoulder.
Some held signs decrying racism, while mourners held candles as the dark set in, some placing them at the foot of a monument to the Brothers Grimm, Hanau’s most famous sons.
The gathering was timed to coincide with solidarity rallies in cities across Germany.
On the illuminated stage, Mayor Claus Kaminsky expressed thanks for a “wave of sympathy” towards Hanau from all over the world. He was followed by Volker Bouffier, leader of the state of Hesse, who spoke of a “day of terror”, and urged the people of Hanau to stand together and not be divided by hatred.
Next spoke German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who earlier in the day met with a number of relatives of the victims.
“Nothing can explain this senseless act,” announced the the grey-haired statesman, describing the massacre as an act of terror.
“What happened carved a deep wound in this city,” he said. “A wound that will only heal if we show common ground, not only in the hour of terror, but also in the days to come – and permanently.”
With those few short addresses the event came to a close, leaving many in the crowd frustrated that no time had been allocated to the families of victims, or representatives from the affected communities.
As Steinmeier stepped off the stage, chants of “Nazis out” pierced the calm, as others called for the opening of state files related to the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (NSU), a right-wing militant cell which killed nine immigrants and one police officer between 2000 and 2006, regarded as a humiliating failure of the German police and security services.
One young woman shouted that if the speakers were serious about fighting racism then they should halt deportation flights to Afghanistan – a reference to the controversial practice of some German states to repatriate Afghans, despite the highly dangerous situation in the destination country.
The gap between rhetoric and action has become unacceptable to many minority communities in Germany, who fear inaction by political leaders, police and intelligence agencies is putting them at risk.
“They do nothing against [the far-right],” Leyla Acar, co-president of the Kurdish Communities of Germany, told Al Jazeera after the speeches in Marktplatz.
“In a few years the right-wing community has got bigger and they’re doing nothing against it. It’s like they’re closing their eyes until something like this happens.”