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Cologne's residents speak up

Dana RegevFebruary 5, 2016

After a month of concerns following New Year's Eve attacks in Cologne, the Carnival celebrations kicked off with Weiberfastnacht, or 'Women's Carnival.' But is it doomed to be overshadowed by the NYE assaults?

Deutschland Karneval Weiberfastnacht Köln
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H.Galuschka

Although Weiberfastnacht is a traditional day in which women 'take over' the public sphere and men should 'be careful' as their ties might be cut off, this time around it wasn't men who were worried.

Men with cut ties - a symbol of their 'stolen' status - were still seen on the streets as always, and celebrations seemed quite usual to the naked eye, but some women felt like they were the ones who should be concerned.

"I can tell you that I celebrated exactly the same as every year, but something felt different at the beginning," says Julia Schultz, a 30-year-old consultant who was born in Cologne and has lived there her entire life.

"You have to catch a place at a bar really early, like at 9 in the morning, otherwise the places are all full," she explains. "So inside the bar I was with friends and felt protected. But before the celebrations started and while preparing my costume at home I constantly thought 'what if it was me back then at New Year's Eve? I could have been attacked, too.'"

Many women testify that this feeling of uncertainty doesn't let you go, even if parades, parties and other Carnival festivities are held as planned.

"It's not only the personal fear you carry, it's mainly the public debate about it," said 28-year-old Eva, who works at a store in the Cologne central station, where the New Year's Eve sexual harassment attacks took place.

"I had a great time, as I do every year, but it feels as if you can't forget about this incident because the media reminds you of these attacks all the time. And if not the media, it's the huge number of police officers I see every day outside the store."

Tense cheerfulness

More than 2,000 police officers were spread across the city of Cologne - some of them were brought as backup manpower from the German state of Lower Saxony and from Berlin.

Cologne's police reported on their official Facebook page that the celebrations went rather smoothly, adding that they are currently taking care of more than 200 complaints from yesterday's celebrations, mainly of personal injuries, pick-pocketing and property damage.

Deutschland Karneval in Köln Frauen Security Point am Dom
Women pose in front of a so-called 'women's security point' in front of Cologne's CathedralImage: Reuters/W. Rattay

However, 18 of the complaints involved cases of sexual assault, varying from harassment to rape. More than 180 people were taken to custody.

As the festivities are due to last five more days, many celebrants - especially women - are still on the lookout. In some towns across the state of North Rhine-Westphalia - in which Cologne is located - celebrations were canceled, parades were postponed and a generally tense atmosphere was accompanying the usually cheerful days.

"I can't stop my daughters from doing anything, but to be honest, I'm more worried than usual," Peter, a father of two teenage girls from Düsseldorf, told DW.

"I know that everything can happen to you always and everywhere, but it's also hard to control these fears. As a father, I feel like I don't want to risk my own children, even if later I'll be called a racist or prejudiced. Their safety simply comes first."

"It's a form of protest"

The New Year's assaults sparked a nationwide uproar, resulting in the removal of Cologne's police chief and leading to a heated debate about the integration of asylum seekers.

Most of the attackers accused in 446 allegations of sexual assault and three instances of rape in Cologne had been described as being of Arab or North African origin.

Criminal proceedings have begun against 50 individuals, of whom 11 are in custody, the Cologne prosecutor Ulrich Bremer said in a statement. Most of the suspects are from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, he added.

"No one wants to be racist, but you also can't ignore the reality," says Schulz.

"Something major has happened here in my hometown, and it's OK to be aware of it. There's no need to deny."

A young woman celebrating with her costume on has told French news agency AFP she had gone out on Thursday so that "those who attacked women don't feel that they won." For her, she says, "it's a form of protest to be here."

Peter, however, is skeptical. "I understand that people don't want to feel defeated by fear. But I prefer fear over danger, as cliché as it may sound."