More than 600 criminal complaints have been filed in Germany following a New Year’s Eve sexual assault spree that left the nation reeling.
In Cologne, women reported mass sexual assaults and muggings — and in a few instances of rape — in a crowd of around 1000 revelers outside the central train station on the holiday night.
The attacks were initially downplayed by Cologne’s police force, and the apparent involvement of newly arrived asylum-seekers denied, a decision that has cost the city’s police chief his post.
And while it has since emerged that these attacks were not limited to Cologne (reports now say that other German cities, and even foreign cities such as Zurich and Helinski were also targeted), this western German city has become the focus of a complicated debate with anger on all sides.
So what has actually happened?
Among a crowd of over 1000 people on New Year’s Eve, hundreds of women were sexually assaulted, mugged and in some instances raped.
Newsagent Nasan Nandinian, 63, told The Guardian that women were coming into his shop, seeking refuge from the crowd.
“They came from the station, and said it was absolutely horrible – crowds so deep you could hardly move, and men who were intensely aggressive towards them. They were shaking. Some were crying. I let them stay here and use the toilet,” he said.
“I’ve seen it all – the raucous carnivals that are a mainstay of Cologne life, the Christopher Street Day parades, and 18 New Years. But I tell you, I’ve never experienced anything like that night. It was very unpleasant and not at all joyful.”
The scale of the attacks, and the fact that they were not contained to just Cologne, has led to the conclusion that it could have been a co-ordinated plan.
Watch a BBC News report on the attacks:
As the evidence began to point in that direction, Cologne’s police chief came under fire for the inadequate response.
He was forced from his post on Friday, January 8, after a damning report into the attacks found its way to the German press.
“The officers on the ground couldn’t gain control of all of the events, attacks and crimes – there were simply too many at the same time for that to be possible,” the report said.
“On the square outside were several thousand mostly male people of a migrant background who were firing all kinds of fireworks and throwing bottles into the crowd at random.
“Even the appearance of police officers on the scene… didn’t hold the masses back from their actions.”
The city’s mayor caused outrage when she suggested that women should keep strangers at arm’s length to guard against attacks.
“There’s always the possibility of keeping a certain distance of more than an arm’s length — that is to say to make sure yourself you don’t look to be too close to people who are not known to you, and to whom you don’t have a trusting relationship,” Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker said.
The comments have been broadly mocked and attacked as victim blaming. Not to mention completely impractical, given the situation in question was a 1000-strong crowd directly outside a major transport hub.
Police have now questioned 31 suspects oer the matter and their identities have added to the fraught atmosphere.
Of them, 18 are asylu- seekers and the ethnic mix of the total group has caused tensions to rise.
The Associated Press reported that nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, two Germans and one person each from Iraq, Serbia and the United States were among those questioned.
There has been one arrest — a 19-year-old Moroccan man.
In 2015, Germany took in over a million asylum-seekers and in the wake of these attacks, tensions are rising over the open-door policy.
On the weekend, three separate protests took place in Cologne, with vastly different goals.
First was a women’s rights protest, calling for more respect for women across the German society and changes in the way police handle sexual assault and violence against women.
Then there was a rally of the far-right anti-immigration, anti-Islam PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) group, which clashed with left-wing protesters who had gathered to protest the PEGDIA protest.
PEGDIA is calling for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s resignation.
Police used water canons to try and control the crowd and prevent serious clashes and four people were arrested.
The scenes in Cologne over the weekend highlighted the tensions in Germany, and across Europe over the influx of refugees into the region.
Even Merkel, who has encouraged Germans to welcome asylum-seekers, has begun to change her rhetoric on the open-border policy.
She says asylum-seekers convicted of a crime will be deported.
As authorities work to restore trust in the system, it is clear there is a long way to go.