An attack on German women - and rights

By Justin Huggler in Cologne

The area outside Cologne's main train station and cathedral on New Year's Eve and early on New Year's Day became unsafe for women. Photo / AP
The area outside Cologne's main train station and cathedral on New Year's Eve and early on New Year's Day became unsafe for women. Photo / AP

For German women, 2016 has got off to a shocking start. Dozens of women trying to see in the New Year in the centre of Cologne found themselves trapped in a crowd of some 1000 men, who groped them, tore off their underwear, shouted lewd insults and threw fireworks at them.

To make matters worse, a series of sexual assaults that would normally make headline news went almost completely unreported for five days - and the scale of what happened that night in the western German city is only now emerging.

Women looking for reassurance from the authorities, therefore, were shocked when Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker, a survivor of a far-right assassination attempt, said that German women should behave according to a certain "code of conduct".

She said women should travel in groups and stay at "arm's length" from men they did not know to avoid such attacks happening to them.

"This means they should go out and have fun, but they need to be better prepared, especially with the Cologne carnival coming up. For this, we will publish online guidelines that these young women can read ... to prepare themselves," she said.

Women's rights campaigners have accused her of victim-blaming.

Then in an open letter, city councillor and far-right activist Judith Wolter called the city centre unsafe and a "no-go area" for women.

This is all highly unusual in a country where women generally feel safe and, in recent years, the number of rape cases and associated offences has fallen by about 8 per cent.

In Hamburg, where a series of attacks also took place at New Year's, bouncers warned women not to leave nightclubs because of an increasingly hostile crowd on the streets. But the warning was so unusual that several women ignored it and were sexually assaulted.

The reason so many women in Cologne were caught up in the violence was because they believed the area around the main station would be safe.

Police have now confirmed that sex attacks took place in three cities: Cologne, Hamburg and Stuttgart. So far about 120 women have come forward, claiming to be victims.

Witnesses have told newspapers that men were entering bars and clubs, grabbing women's backsides.

One woman only identified at Katia L, 28, told the Cologne tabloid Express that she and three friends were stopped by a group of "foreign looking men" outside the station.

"Suddenly I felt a hand on my bottom, then on my breasts, then I was groped everywhere. It was horrible. Although we screamed and flailed about, the guys didn't stop. I was beside myself and think that I was touched about 100 times."

The newspaper Bild reported that Evelyn, 24, was also at Cologne train station. "I had a knee-length skirt on, and suddenly I felt a hand on my backside under my dress. I turned round immediately and saw a grinning face." She fled into the cathedral where she was surrounded again. "I was grabbed and held by the arm and it was a nightmare. We were trapped in a mass of people."

Lea Westkamp, 19, added: "I was surrounded and helpless ... These men were all over me."

Michelle, one of the female victims of the sex attackers in Cologne, spoke on television of her shock at how the New Year's celebrations party turned into targeted attacks on women Photo: cen/ N-tv
Michelle, one of the female victims of the sex attackers in Cologne, spoke on television of her shock at how the New Year's celebrations party turned into targeted attacks on women Photo: cen/ N-tv

One of the victims has told how she was surrounded by a gang of 30 "angry" men forcing her group of female friends to huddle together, holding hands for protection.

"They were full of anger, and we had to make sure that none of us were pulled away by them. They were groping us and we were trying to get away as quickly as possible," said the 18 year-old, who gave her name only as Michelle, describing how she had gone out around 11pm and found the main station full of young men.

As the women fled, the men pressed themselves against them, stealing mobile phones, wallets and other personal possessions from their pockets as they passed. Officers in Cologne were overwhelmed by crowds of men.

Witnesses described them watching helplessly and one unnamed policeman told Bild: "If you spoke to a suspect you were immediately surrounded by his friends. It was threatening".

What makes this highly unusual situation even more combustible are police reports that the crowd of attackers was made up of men "of North African or Arab appearance".

There have been allegations of a police cover-up for fear of setting off racial tensions.

The Government has been quick to announce there is no evidence that refugees were involved.

On Wednesday, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the cathedral in Cologne, demanding for more respect for women. Among the counter-protesters was Antonia Rabente, a 26-year-old student and union activist who expressed anguish at the assaults.

"On the one hand there's a feeling that what happened is wrong and many people are concerned about this. But where people are split is in how to respond," she said. "I think it's important to keep the focus on the women who were affected. They [mustn't be] misused for attacks on the right to asylum."

Antonia Rabente was among protesters calling for women to be shown more respect. Photo / AP
Antonia Rabente was among protesters calling for women to be shown more respect. Photo / AP

What happened

The chaos: Several hundred young men swelled out of the city's main station, many drinking heavily. The area is the main point of entry to the city centre. "Hundreds of men were throwing firecrackers or rockets at groups of people," a witness named Patrick told Spiegel. "An ambulance was going back and forth and was also pelted with fireworks."

The victims: Women say they were surrounded by gangs of dozens of angry men who groped them. As the women fled, the men pressed themselves against them, stealing mobile phones, wallets and other personal possessions. There were more than 120 reported cases.

The police: The few police were heavily outnumbered and called for back-up. By the time reinforcements arrived, the crowd of young men had swelled to around 1000. "If you spoke to a suspect, you were immediately surrounded by his friends. That was intimidating," an unnamed police officer told Bild.

Clearing the area: At 11.30pm the police moved in and cleared the square in front of the station and the cathedral steps, allowing the the station entrance to reopen by 12.45am. However, it appears that the worst assaults took place after that when the crowd moved on to the back streets. "From about 1am more and more complaints came in from women who had been sexually assaulted or robbed," the police officer said.

- Telegraph Group Ltd, AP

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