“I’m angry at what happened to the women of Cologne but I am also angry at the conspiracy of silence that has followed.”
Ilse, 32, looks searchingly around the city’s main square flanked on one side by the railway station and on the other by the city’s twin-towered Gothic cathedral.
On this crisp winter’s morning, it feels laughably far from the no-go area for women described by Cologne’s city councillor – far right activist Judith Wolter – earlier this week. A bustling thoroughfare, it is the very heart of this socially and politically liberal city, where couples wrapped up against the cold drink coffee at outdoor tables and groups of excited school children are led up the steps into the historic church.
Some pause, almost puzzled by the little posies of flowers that lie by the railings; ushered on before they can read the inscription on the card: “Solidarity with the victims of the attacks of New Year’s Eve. These acts must never be repeated.”
For Isle, however, they are unlikely to be forgotten. While unharmed, days on, she is still traumatised by the terrible events ofNew Year’s Eve when female revellers were sexually attacked, humiliated and robbed by up to 1,000 men described as being of North African or Middle Eastern appearance.
“Something terrible took place here, but it’s as if it never occurred,” she says. “I was there in the chaos and terror and I saw the police doing nothing. And now we are expected to say nothing? Just because the perpetrators were immigrants? This is another attack on women; first on our bodies, now on our rights.”
“It was terrifying, I got separated from my boyfriend and as they were pulling at my clothes. I thought I would be raped right there in public,” says one 26-year-old woman. “I screamed for help but everywhere I looked the same thing was happening; attack and robbery. But just women. They targeted us because we were women.”
Victims suffered permanent burns as the men threw fireworks into the crowd to cause fear and confusion.
A father told how he watched helplessly, clutching his baby son as his partner and 15-year-old daughter were swept away and mauled by men thrusting hands inside their jeans and underwear.
As I listen to the eye witness accounts, it’s clear that what happened that night was criminal and shocking. But the egregious official cover-up has since escalated the situation and thrown a harsh spotlight on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s unilateral open door refugee policy.
The police, wary of appearing racist (it’s not an exclusively German paranoia as the cover ups of Rochdale and Rotherham will attest) did not intervene. They also stated categorically that there was no evidence refugees were among the assailants which has now been proved as a falsehood; leaked papers have shown they knew from the very outset.
Then in a bizarre act of self-censorship one major television network deliberately chose not to report the story. It was several days before the news got out, despite the fact over 100 women had come forward and variously reported assault, robbery and, in two cases, rape.
“I would deport the lot of them,” says Isabella Prodam, 24 who speaks in agitated tones. “New Year’s Eve was a nightmare. These men bring with them African values that have no place in Europe; they treat white women like objects, without respect. I lived in Africa for three years and when I did, I obeyed their customs. They must do the same or go home.”
Her openness and anger are vanishingly rare in a city, a country where there is great – some might say excessive – sensitivity over actual or implied right wing views.
When a checklist of German cultural expectations was recently printed in Arabic for asylum seekers – banal advice such as ‘Punctuality is Important’ and ‘Do Not Touch Women in the Street’ – it was met with derision and decried as ‘discriminatory’ by the left wing press here.
This blanket refusal to treat or even acknowledge incomers from a very different, male-dominated culture as “other” has led to an extraordinary myopia over the social and religious chasm that now exists between the general population and its growing ethnic minority.
It is also the attitude that pervades Cologne – even among some women here.
“What happened in Cologne is awful, but we can’t blame the entire immigrant population for it,” cautions Ursula, 60. “We have to maintain a perspective. Bad things can happen anywhere.” She sees nothing contradictory about the fact she now feels the need to keep her purse hidden inside her coat and smilingly pats carry the concealed rape alarm beneath her scarf.
I ask another smartly dressed woman in her 40s about the attacks. She shrugs and says: “I was on the other side of the railway station,” as though being 400 yards away absolved her of an opinion.
“Don’t you feel solidarity with the women who were attacked?” I press her. “I feel solidarity with all of mankind,” she retorts crisply as she strides off.
The sins of the past still weigh heavy on Germany; welcoming over one million refugees is not just about economics, it is a point of principle, a symbolic and humanitarian gesture that represents as a salve to the collective conscience.
“This is a common problem for the Germans,” concedes medical student Tilman Zadow, 18. “Because of our past we don’t want to appear prejudiced against other races. We worry that even mentioning someone’s skin colour or place of origin might be construed as racist so healthy debate is closed down before it can even start.”
His girlfriend and fellow medical student Lena Reimer, 18, admits to frustration at the current atmosphere of victim-blaming. Cologne’s women were told by their female mayor, Henriette Reker, to protect themselves from such attacks in future by keeping “more than an arm’s length away” from strangers. With an eye on carnival celebrations that begin in the city next month, she also urged women to “stick together in groups”.
“I feel angry that women are being expected to change their behaviour” says Miss Reimer. “I have nothing against refugees and I believe we should allow them into the country, but women are the victims here yet it is our freedom that is being curtailed.”
In the last few days it has slowly emerged that similar attacks occurred in Bielefeld, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Berlin. In every casewomen were seized, forcibly kissed by multiple strangers and preyed upon. Around 50 have reported their assaults to the police.
It’s an utterly horrifying crime wave, yet again and again those I speak prefer not to make uncomfortable connections or examine the wider implications.
Late in the evening the main railway station is brightly lit and welcoming, shops – Esprit, Accessorise, The Body Shop – are doing a brisk trade along the concourse.
But the area is bristling with burly policemen and as I look on, two scruffy non-European men are seized, patted down and arrested. Sheafs of paper are passed about from one officer to another. It subsequently transpires that two rape suspects were arrested in the station, carrying crib sheets of crude phrases with which to attract women’s attention – though they were later released for lack of evidence.
Were those the pair I saw? I have no idea. Commuters and shoppers hurried by, aware, surely of the menacing atmosphere, the dull clank of metal handcuffs – but pointedly refusing to take notice.
That is of course their choice. But speak to the women victims of Cologne and it is clear that the hour is coming when Germans will no longer have the luxury of looking away.