German authorities have offered victim support to the families of businessmen killed by the Zwickau neo-Nazi terror cell. Berlin's former commissioner for foreigners, Barbara John, has been appointed ombudswoman.
Christian Democrat politician Barbara John served as the Berlin Senate's commissioner for migration and integration for more than 20 years. Although John retired from that post in 2003, she remained active in the community, supporting initiatives aimed at improving the language skills of migrant school children, for example.
These efforts have seen the 74-year-old receive the Federal Cross of Merit, as well as a collection of other awards, including the Moses Mendelssohn Award "for the promotion of tolerance of dissenting beliefs and between nations, races and religions."
Earlier this year, John opened a new chapter in her life and started a new job as ombudswoman for the victims of neo-Nazi violence committed by the Zwickau terror cell.
John is making up for initial failures by investigators
Trail of terror
Members of the right-wing terror cell based in Germany's east allegedly murdered 10 migrant shop owners across the country between 2000 and 2007.
They are also believed to have detonated a nail bomb in a Turkish neighbourhood in Cologne in 2004, seriously wounding more than 20 people.
Police only connected the crimes and their xenophobic motives in late 2011. John said the victims' families were relieved that the public was now aware the attacks were motivated by racism, not links to organized crime or Turkish terrorist groups, as some investigators had suspected.
"It's something they can lean on. But it's also something they'll need time to get used to," John said. "In the past they only really had help from police officers, who, at the same time, delved deep into the families' affairs as part of their investigations."
Investigators canvassing the victims' family lives and business dealings directly after the murders put a great deal of stress on the small social networks they had built since arriving in Germany.
"Those wounds are starting to heal now. It's really important that these families feel they belong," John said.
The investigators' failure to connect the dots put the victims' families through hell, she added.
The Zwickau terror cell selected male victims with migrant backgrounds
"First your husband or father or brother is murdered. Then the police or sometimes even anti-terror investigators come and start digging around the family history, looking for leads. Sometimes they accuse other family members of being involved."
Putting things right
John's task now is to put things right with roughly 60 people whose lives were turned upside down by the neo-Nazi gang.
"First there are the 22 people who were seriously injured in the 2004 bomb attack in Cologne - and their families. Then there are the families of the 10 other murder victims. Nine of them were migrants: eight Turks and one Greek. One was a young German policewoman."
Her first task is to determine what the victims and their families need on an individual basis.
"In some case it's easy to see - more psychological counseling, more material assistance through victims' pensions and the like," John said.
"Others don't have permanent residence permits and need help dealing with the authorities, she added. Some of the Turkish migrants, for example, would like help applying for German citizenship."
John said she is confident her years of experience as Berlin's commissioner for migration and integration will help her resolve these hardship cases quickly.
"I still have contacts at the ministries that I could ask for assistance. I'm pretty much on top of the new immigration laws and requirements for residency and naturalization."
More than 20 people were injured by a nail-bomb in Cologne in 2004
Barbara John said Germany can't allow the victims of the neo-Nazi murders to be forgotten.
"We need memorial plaques for these people, either at a central location or at the scene of each crime," she said.
She added an independent commission should be established to explain why police investigating the 10 murders "didn't find or follow a single lead pointing to the far-right scene."
John said a parliamentary inquiry would likely be too politicized, and that only an independent board would be able to determine the facts and make recommendations for the future - especially regarding police procedures.
"We need much better training for our police officers to make them more sensitive to the impact their investigations can have on those living in immigrant communities," she said.
Author: Sabine Ripperger / sje
Editor: Gabriel Borrud