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Germany

How the Cologne protests looked from the outside

Tourists who were visiting Cologne in the past few days may have thought they arrived in a very intense, violent and divided city. But could it be that both protesting sides are more similar than they want to believe?

The atmosphere in the streets of Cologne has been rather tense in past few days. One could get the impression that this is a city dominated by police and torn up by

clashes between its own citizens

- now an almost daily occurrence.

But the people of Cologne know better. They know that they live in a liberal, open-minded place, and many of them have testified that the recent demonstrations flooding their hometown are quite an unusual sight.

As of now,

nearly 400 women have reported

being victims of various crimes on New Year's Eve at the city's central train station. The normally peaceful town is now at the center of international media coverage.

The attacks were perpetrated by large groups of what victims say were Arab-looking men. According to the police, most of those whose IDs were checked and who are now under investigation, are either asylum seekers, or living in Germany illegally. This fact has severely fanned the flames of the already sensitive debate about Germany's policy regarding refugees,

taking it to the next level

out onto the street.

More than 2,000 members of the anti-refugee PEGIDA movement protested Saturday outside Cologne central station against Germany's immigration policies, as counter-demonstrators tried to outdo them, shouting, "We don't want Nazis here."

Hard to imagine, but for some this actually means good news. "I'm not saying such attacks are in any way a normality; I'm just saying that I'm surprised the government here

takes it so seriously,"

says Chiara Gabrielli, an Italian student living in Germany.

"Of course there was a cover up," she says, "there is no doubt about that. But where I come from, you simply cannot tell police that you were touched by a stranger or harassed by men. They will laugh in your face, telling you that there is nothing they can do about it."

Watch video 01:28

Cologne: Police put stop to Pegida demo

In Germany, she says, the police, the government and the public in general treat this issue

carefully and solemnly,

even if only to promote political agendas.

An Israeli woman, who lives in Cologne but wishes to remain anonymous, agrees. "I cannot even count the times I have been harassed at such events back in Israel," she recalls.

"It's as if you are expected to prepare yourself for such things as a woman in public. So I'm quite shocked by what happened, but in a way the mere fact that it created such a stir is already comforting."

A British journalist at the scene looked surprised about the outrageous number of assailants, trying to figure out from eyewitnesses whether the figures are indeed accurate.

"This is the funny thing. People here are so amazed by the fact this could happen that they cannot even imagine how normal this actually is in other places," Gabrielli adds. In fact, in some Arab countries, this form of mass sexual harassment has even been given a name: "taharrush gamea."

"It's so sad, and it shouldn't be like that, but this is the reality. About 1,000 men? I can totally believe that. And I wish someone had gone out to the streets for women in my country too."

'Are we Nazis?'

At first sight, it seems like the anti-PEGIDA protesters wish to differentiate themselves as much as possible from the people they call "the new Nazis of Germany." But for some passersby, as well as for foreign journalists, this distinction was not that clear.

And indeed, many claims made by both sides were spectacularly similar. "Not all foreigners are criminals. You are a foreigner too here - are you a criminal?" a PEGIDA protester asked.

Does this sound like a Nazi statement to you? A protester holds a sign saying criminal foreigners out

"Does this sound like a Nazi statement to you?" A protester holds a sign saying "criminal foreigners out"

"It's a well-known fact that Germany needs more young, talented people, but you can't come to a country, use its social services, ask for a refuge and then violate its laws. I mean, really, does this sound like a Nazi statement to you?"

On the anti-PEGIDA side, as well as among other demonstrators who did not want to associate themselves with either one of the groups, similar claims were made.

"Of course we condemn any

rape and sexual harassment

of any kind," a protester who stood afar from the two main groups told DW. "That's what we are here for.

"The only thing we say is that we are against it regardless of who is committing the crime, unlike the PEGIDA people who wake up only when it comes to foreigners," she argued.

'We are the true victims'

Many women's rights activists have voiced the same concern, emphasizing that their anger is about the fact that

the focus has shifted

from the violence women are facing on a daily basis to a political debate happening over their heads.

"PEGIDA is not really on our side. They are on whichever side that hates foreigners. If German men were to attack Syrian women, they wouldn't go out on the streets for that - that's for sure," Anna, an anti-PEGIDA protester, has stressed.

After police used water cannons to end the PEGIDA attacks Saturday, it seemed as if the atmosphere in the streets was calming down. However, going back inside the Cologne train station revealed an entirely different reality, with people from both groups still fighting, and police officers every couple of meters, watching that order is kept.

Every few minutes some of these officers were chasing a PEGIDA protester, taking him into custody for acting violently, to the sound of anti-PEGIDA protesters who chanted, "Auf Wiedersehen" - "Goodbye!"

In the near future, it seems, Cologne will likely continue to face increased tensions in the streets, as well as in the hearts and minds of its people. But to foreign eyes, it might seem as if its citizens are not pursuing entirely different solutions.

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