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Germany

Late support for neo-Nazi bomb attack victims

When the current trial of the NSU terrorist gang starts looking at the bomb attack in Cologne, old wounds will be reopened for many of those affected. A new counselling center has been set up to help them.

At 4 p.m. on June 9 2004, an explosion shattered a street in the Mülheim district of Cologne. Most of the people who lived and worked on the street, Keupstrasse, were immigrants from Turkey. At least 22 of them were injured, some of them seriously, by a nail-bomb left on a bicycle in front of a hairdresser's shop.

Germany's interior minister at that time, Otto Schily, was quick to rule out a terrorist motive for the attack. One day after the attack, he said that the investigation pointed to a criminal background. That turned out to have been a serious mistake: Now it seems clear that the attack on Keupstrasse was carried out by the far-right terror group, the National Socialist Underground (NSU).

A woman passes by some shops with Turkish names Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa

Most of the residents and businesses in Keupstrasse are of Turkish origin

Many of those caught up in the attack nine years ago are still suffering from traumatic stress. According to the mayor of Cologne, Jürgen Roters. "The fact that the victims were initially themselves accused of the crime by the investigators was an additional injury," he said.

In July this year, the city of Cologne set up a counseling center together with two other organizations, including Diakonie, the Lutheran church's welfare services provider, offering victims free support with social, legal or psychological problems.

Diakonie social worker Martina Hille, who works at the center, says that the start of the NSU trial in May had broken open old wounds. "That's been hard for people to take," she told DW, "especially since some of them will have to give evidence as witnesses or as joint plaintiffs."

The Munich court hearing the case plans to consider the events in Keupstrasse this autumn, increasing the psychological pressure. Hille says those affected suffer from extreme sleep disruption, panic attacks, depression and psychosomatic problems.

Seven victims come forward

Martina Hille in front of shelves with files Photo: Anja Krüger

Martina Hille is trying to find those affected by the bomb

Hille's office is far away from Keupstrasse, in a Diakonie building in the south of Cologne, but she's prepared to visit people at home if requested. She's been working for more than ten years with refugees and has plenty of experience with people suffering from psychological trauma. She's written to the victims she knows about and has tried to reach others with publicity and networking. "So far, seven people have come forward," she says.

Those who have done so are having a hard time dealing with the psychological pressure and are having to cope with bureaucratic hurdles before they can receive compensation. They need a place for therapy - or want ongoing therapy to continue. Hille helps them to find a place, contacts the authorities, refers people to specialists.

One of her clients was so badly damaged by the attack that he can no longer carry out his occupation. The state employment office refused to grant him retraining, even though the staff there knows why he can't carry on in his old occupation. Hille is trying to find a solution for that.

Wanted posters in the window of a Turkish baker in Keupstrasse Photo: Anja Krüger

Police put up the usual 'wanted' posters, but they were looking for the wrong people

But the victims' assistance center has also met with criticism. "It's not a lot of use," says Ali Demir, former chair of the Keupstrasse Interest Group, which brings together the street's residents and business owners. He's a tax advisor and used to have an office close to where the bomb went off; he was there when it happened.

In the weeks and months which followed, he helped other business people there to limit financial losses. Revenues fell sharply. Many businesses could not pay rent or their employees.

"It's too late to do anything about the economic effects," he told DW. Business people have had to get back on their feet through their own efforts - and not just economically.

Ali Demir Photo: Anja Krüger

Ali Demir doesn't want to be reminded of the bomb every day when he goes to work, so he moved

Demir believes that those with psychological problems will have found their own means of assistance. "They've put the problem behind them," he says, and anyway, many of the neighbors moved away after the attack.

That's what Demir himself has done. His office is now a few streets away. He didn't want to be reminded of the explosion every day.

Victims want the truth

Ali Demir isn't taking part in the trial in Munich, but for others, it's a chance to work over the events for themselves - not just the bombing, but also the subsequent accusations by investigators that they were responsible.

Lawyer Mustafa Kaplan is convinced that this is a major motive. He's representing a Keupstrasse businessman who is appearing as a joint plaintiff. The man suffered serious economic losses as a result of the bombing, mainly because customers stopped coming. But, says Kaplan, that's not the main reason why his client has gone to court.

"In the first place, it's about finding out the truth, and not about whether one will get a couple of thousand or a couple of hundred euros from the state - that's really not so important," he told DW.

Mustafa Kaplan Photo: Anja Krüger

Mustafa Kaplan says people still need support, and he welcomes the new center

Kaplan's client hasn't been in touch with Martina Hille - he can help himself. But Kaplan believes the counseling center is an important initiative.

"Of course it's a good provision," he says. "There are many people who need someone to take them by the hand, and go with them to offices and show them that you can do this or do that." Many of those affected are helpless, he added, and don't know where they can get help.

Unlike Demir, Kaplan thinks the center is worth having, even if it has only been set up so long after the attack. "Better late than never," he says.

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