Bautzen returns to calm, for now | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 17.09.2016
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Bautzen returns to calm, for now

Confrontations between refugees and extremists in Bautzen have made international headlines this week. So what is going on in the east German town? And how do locals feel about the unrest? Kay-Alexander Scholz reports.

"Bautzen is my favorite town," says Menekse, a Kurd, in the town's central Kornmarkt square. This is also where violent clashes between refugees, police and right-wing protesters have erupted in recent days.

Menekse greets her friends, Sabrina and Armin, and her daughter, before explaining that she's been living happily in Bautzen for years. But she says she sometimes worries about the newly arrived refugees - that they're too volatile. But that's probably a matter of mentality, she adds.

Armin says he travels through the square almost every day to go shopping. He says he's seen young refugees quarrel amongst themselves - that's nothing unusual. But he'd never before seen violent assaults.

Menekse, Sabrina and Armin on Bautzen's Kornmarkt square

Menekse, Sabrina and Armin on Bautzen's Kornmarkt square

Four elderly ladies sitting on a nearby bench agree. They often come to the square in the afternoons to watch the hustle and bustle. They've never felt threatened, they say.

Mixed picture

Nevertheless, this square in Bautzen's old town has seen some serious rioting in the past few days. In most cases, the violence broke out after dark, when many locals were probably already at home. Menekse's friend Sabrina, who is carrying an infant in her arms, explains that the city had organized a series of democracy-focused events for the month of September as part of an effort to foster dialogue between local residents, businesses, the council, and refugees.

In the square, the organizers have set up a stand promoting the "Weeks of Democracy." A banner displays the words #Hirnen and #Herzauf (in English #Minds and #Openhearts).

A banner promoting Bautzen's Weeks of Democracy reads: 'Together instead of against each other'

A banner promoting Bautzen's 'Weeks of Democracy' reads: 'Together instead of against each other'

Sabrina says there's been an upsurge of aggression from ultra-right groups in the town since the initiative began. It's this hostility that frightens her, she adds, not the refugees. For years, Bautzen has been a center of right-wing extremism. The neo-Nazi NPD party has a presence in the streets here, as well as in the wider region, she says.

Not just 'peace, joy and pancakes'

Around 40,000 people live in Bautzen - 200 of them refugees. The city is located in eastern Saxony near Dresden, the birthplace of the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement.

Bautzen's old town boasts a number of imposing historical buildings, and is bordered by a precinct of beautiful villas. The city was once extremely wealthy, and rebuilding efforts over the years have just about restored it to its original splendor. Like in many other towns in Saxony, there are lots of children - the state has the highest birth rate in Germany. Many people from other European Union countries, mainly Poles, Czechs, Russians and Romanians, have also settled here.

For cities like Bautzen, tourism plays a significant role in the local economy. That's one reason why the recent violence and the damage it's doing to the town's image are a big concern. No matter who you talk to, everyone here tries to put what's happening in their city into perspective, and confront the problems concealed behind a seemingly peaceful façade. It's not all "peace, joy and pancakes," as the German saying goes.

A hotel neighboring the square has made dozens of complaints to authorities about the disturbances in the past few weeks. Other hotels have had bookings canceled. No matter how hard inhabitants try to fight against it, Bautzen is in the headlines.

Buildings in Bautzen's Hauptmarkt

Bautzen, once a wealthy city, is home to some impressive historic buildings

Return to calm

With the help of state resources, Bautzen's police force and mayor are trying to reassert some semblance of order in the town. It's only early afternoon, and already there are around a hundred officers in riot gear patrolling the main square. They approach groups of young people who are standing around and take down their particulars. They've established a control zone. Individuals who are clearly refugees seem to be taken aside, others are not. And there are those who are said to have been sent to other accommodation outside the city. Authorities have also imposed a 7 p.m. curfew for underage asylum seekers. De-escalation is the order of the day.

A right-wing rally planned for Friday was canceled at the last minute. Bautzen Mayor Alexander Ahrens said on social media that the organizers had invited him to meet with them, possibly as a kind of peace offering.

The main beneficiaries of such demonstrations are the right-wing populists. On Thursday night, more than 300 of them gathered on the main square, chanting "Wir sind das Volk" (We are the people) and "Merkel muss weg" (Merkel has to go). The local branch of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, just two houses down the road from the office of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was closed on Friday, but there was a press release stuck up on the window. For weeks, tensions between locals and asylum seekers have been escalating in Bautzen's Kornmarkt, it reads. But even the woman from the Arab bookshop further down the street says she noticed no such thing.

Whether Bautzen will succeed in returning to calm, as citizens here would like, remains to be seen. In the meantime, police are on alert, bracing for potential clashes at an anti-migrant demonstration planned for Sunday.

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