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Mixed emotions for NYE in Cologne

Dana Regev
January 1, 2017

A year after the attack that shocked Cologne, more than 300 policemen were deployed to the central station area alone. Fences were erected around its famous cathedral and concrete barriers were placed in advance.

Deutschland Köln - Domplatte zur Silvesternacht
Image: DW/D. Regev

Police were expecting roughly half a million visitors to Cologne on New Year's Eve, thousands of them to the already-crowded central station area.

Police spokesman Dirk Weber told DW that they have put "at least 20 concrete blocks in key points such as bridges and gathering spots," as well as heavy vehicles "to block some junctions, mainly to prevent similar attacks to the one that took place in Berlin earlier this month."

But despite the tense atmosphere, not everyone felt threatened. "You have to go out and enjoy yourself. There is no other way," says 20-year-old Lissy, who came to Cologne from the nearby town of Gummersbach and is hosting a friend from the Netherlands.

"An attack could happen anywhere, all the time. It doesn't matter where you are or what you do," she says. "So the best thing to do is not be afraid."

The two were planning to go out and celebrate, and said they were not scared and would not change their plans in light of last year's assaults, which took place just meters away from where they were standing.

This year, with a police intervention unit and a helicopter on standby, authorities were confident about their response readiness. They have also installed high-quality security cameras in front of the central station, a move both Lissy and her friend Isis support.

"I think it makes people feel safer, so yes, it's a good decision," says Isis. But Lissy is more critical: "It helps a lot, but I think police should be present too - more than they were last time. I think they just didn't know what to do," she says.

"Cameras are good, but they can't come instead of functioning police forces."

Deutschland Köln - Domplatte zur Silvesternacht
Police made a number of arrests of people not carrying valid identificationImage: DW/D. Regev

Germany's relative lack of video surveillance has made it back to the headlines after the Berlin Christmas market attack, in which suspect Anis Amri allegedly drove a hijacked truck into a celebrating crowd in the capital.

Germans' fear of surveillance goes back to the days of secret service police in former East Germany, but today "it will make people feel better," said 32-year-old Mathias, who traveled from southern Germany to celebrate in Cologne.

"It's not like it will be used for spying," he said, "but rather to keep people safe. I already feel safer on trains, because I believe the existence of cameras alone makes people consider their behavior, so it's not only to locate criminals after the act, it can also be used to deter them."

'Cologne is my city'

As the night progressed, more and more people flocked to the area surrounding the historic cathedral, watching the light installation that illuminated building nearby, listening to the choir that sang familiar songs and waiting eagerly for the big moment when 2017 finally arrives.

Deutschland Köln - Domplatte zur Silvesternacht
Hundreds gather to watch the light installation outside the city's cathedralImage: DW/D. Regev

But despite the festive atmosphere Cologne is so famous for, the burden of last year's events did not fade away entirely.

Fireworks - a long and established tradition in Germany - were banned in the immediate area around the cathedral, and towards midnight police started to carry out documents checks on every person exiting the station.

Police said they had "screened hundreds of North Africans at the main train station," claiming that "we do this because we want to prevent last year's tactic from happening again," a police spokesperson told DW. "Big groups of men surrounding few or individual women," he explained.

Throughout the night at least six people were arrested, some for not having appropriate IDs and others for violent acts.

"We decided this year that whoever is not carrying appropriate documents is arrested and then taken to further questioning," the spokesperson added. "Every person who carries the adequate papers is free to go immediately."

But even the increased security, the barricades and the ban on fireworks could not ruin one family's satisfaction.

As people were starting to leave the area and the installation lights were switched off, 65-year-old Georg was holding his two-year-old grandson. "Did you like the lights?" he asked the yawning toddler, who nodded.

"We will definitely be back here next year," Georg said. "My entire family is from here," he told DW proudly. "I can't see myself anywhere else, and I'm happy I came here."