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Tense evening after clashes in Hamburg

Mark Hallam, Bergedorf October 2, 2015

After fighting at a disused DIY store in Hamburg, now home to hundreds, Afghan residents were scared to go back inside. They packed up and prepared to sleep outside, until a solution was found. Mark Hallam reports.

Deutschland Gewalt in Flüchtlingsunterkunft Hamburg-Bergedorf
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt

The giant, abandoned Max Bahr hardware store is seen as a temporary home for up to 850 refugees. But on Thursday evening, the night after fighting between Syrians and Afghans forced a major police mobilization, around 50 of those people were camped outside the protective fence with belongings piled high.

"But why are they sitting out here? Is there no more room inside or something?" a teenage passer-by asked her friend after picking through the throng.

Space is at something of premium inside, explained Ali Azizi, but the facility's not full. Quite the contrary: in a bid to calm tensions after the fight, authorities relocated around 100 young Afghan men to a different Hamburg site. This left remaining Afghans like Ali feeling even more outnumbered, with Syrians already the most numerous group at the center in Bergedorf.

"We are so thankful, so grateful to Germany," he said. "But we came to escape violence and now here there's violence. I can't protect my family." Ali came to Germany with his wife, an 8-year-old son, Merag and a young baby. He said he spent most of Wednesday's clashes seeking to shield them as people threw projectiles.

Deutschland Gewalt in Flüchtlingsunterkunft Hamburg-Bergedorf
Police were out in force on Wednesday eveningImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Reinhardt

Challenging fortnight

People on both sides agree that the fighting broke out by the shower units - a row of about nine portable facilities in the store's car park. They can be recognized by all the washed clothes hanging outside, drying. Neither side, however, seems to think access to the facilities really caused the unrest. "There are enough, there are enough," Ali said of the showers. "I think they look to make trouble."

A Syrian - "call me Sam, that's what I go by here" - was also vague on the reasons behind the fight, hinting that he wouldn't speak in detail while his friends were in police custody. "It's because of so many things," Sam said. Other clashes in German centers have been attributed to queuing for food, religious insults and petty theft - but all the explanations revolve around a more fundamental issue: hundreds living together under one roof.

Even by the difficult standards of refugee accommodation, the Bergedorf facility has had a troubled beginning. When it opened almost two weeks ago, new residents complained that it was still too dirty and unfit for its intended purpose - eventually going on hunger strike. "I told them they have to stay outside if they want improvements inside," Sam said.

Besides the building, another shortfall is immediately visible: the young men from private security firm Securitas watching over the facility struggle to communicate except in German or English. The job's a far cry from nightclub bouncing or watching an empty store or mall overnight.

Paul, a local volunteer, tells me that the security detail were under orders not to step in if trouble flared. They were to wait for the police instead. "Now they know they can act if they must," he said.

'What do you need?'

Paul has both a gray beard that reaches for his navel and a waxed moustache that obediently tickles his nose. While he appears to be a regular volunteer, several other local residents visited the site for the first time on Thursday. An Afghan taxi driver who's lived in Germany for 25 years was operating as a translator for his compatriots. Another local man - "my wife saw the pictures on the news" - stopped by with two old winter coats, giving them to one of the families waiting on the side of the road, near the metal fence.

Karen, a doctor, rode up on her bicycle much later, at around 10 p.m., posing the simplest of questions to two young boys: "What do you need?" The boys' English was rudimentary, but together we learned that they're from Kabul and Herat, and that the taller of the two - who seemed bolder - is 13.

"And how did you get here?" Karen's question elicited a list of countries starting with "Iran" and ending in "Ostrich" - a charming attempt at converting the German word Österreich (Austria) into English. Neither boy knows the English word "train," but after some miming, the question's import became clear to them: "No, no! We walk!" Karen left, with a promise to return the next day with her spare bicycle.

Flüchtlingslager Hamburg Max Bahr Hamburg Bergedorf
Police weren't needed on Thursday, and everyone slept inside in the endImage: DW/M. Hallam

'We have a solution'

As the October cold set in, Paul emerged from inside the building with a triumphant smile: "We had a problem, now we have a solution," he said. "We have made an exception, now they have a wall." Before long, he helped Ali and the others load their stuff back onto oversized shopping carts and wheel it back inside.

In a bid to keep the peace, Thursday's solution was to separate groups broadly by nationality, religion or ethnicity, and to cordon the areas off.

Around 30,000 asylum applicants are currently living in Hamburg, a northern port city with a long tradition of internationalism, and roughly 600 more arrive each day.

The city government has even passed an emergency law, which it says it hopes never to use, allowing it to appropriate disused property and to put it to use as shelters. The desire to help remains, and solutions continue to be found, but they seem ever more ad hoc and panicked.