Right-wing terrorist attack in Hanau: a 27-metre-long wall of graffiti in Frankfurt/Main commemorates the victims of the Hanau attack on 19 February 2020.
Podcast on the Hanau terrorist attack one year on

"From 1990 to 2020 Germany's far right killed about 200 people"

On 19 February 2020, a right-wing terrorist murdered nine people in the German city of Hanau: Gokhan Gultekin, Sedat Gurbuz, Said Nesar Hashemi, Mercedes Kierpacz, Hamza Kurtovic, Vili Viorel Paun, Fatih Saracoglu, Ferhat Unvar und Kaloyan Velkov. Journalists Sham Jaff and Aline Jabarine talk to Schayan Riaz about the ongoing search for answers

It’s almost one year since the Hanau terror attack. Are podcasts a suitable format for processing such a traumatic event?

Alena Jabarine: The good thing about this format is that it allows for a lot of room and flexibility when approaching a topic in-depth. Working with small microphones instead of cameras, it is also possible to create a more intimate atmosphere. We decided to work on two levels. The first level was reportage: at the end of 2020, we travelled to Hanau and spoke to relatives and friends of the victims to find out what questions still remained unanswered and what worried them the most.

The second level built on the first: we took the elements of our reportage and tried to put them into context with the help of experts. Instead of merely focusing on the attack, we were seeking answers. In what climate could such an attack happen? And what does that say about our society as a whole?

What open questions formed the basis for the project?

Sham Jaff: There were lots. With regard to certain aspects of the police investigation, it is still early days. Could the attack have been prevented? That’s a question we asked our interviewees repeatedly. But one of our aims was to cement 19 February 2020 as a clear historical event in Germany's collective consciousness. When speaking to different people in Hanau, but also with our own friends and family members, we realised out that right-wing terror doesn’t hold the same kind of relevance for everyone. And our hope is that the podcast changes this. Because Hanau affects us all – not only those who are directly affected by racism. Right-wing extremism and racism in Germany is very dangerous. It kills. Again and again.

The victims of the racially motivated terrorist attack of 19 February 2020 are commemorated under the Brothers Grimm monument on Hanau's market square. At the time, 43-year-old German Tobias R. shot nine people at several locations in the city. Afterwards, he allegedly also killed his mother before killing himself (photo: picture alliance/dpa/Christine Schultze)
Right-wing terrorist attack in Hanau: the victims of the racially motivated terrorist attack of 19 February 2020 are commemorated under the Brothers Grimm monument on Hanau's market square. At the time, 43-year-old German Tobias R. shot nine people at several locations in the city. Afterwards, he allegedly also killed his mother before killing himself. Before that, the right-wing terrorist had published pamphlets and videos with conspiracy theories and racist views on the Internet

The grieving relatives are still owed many answers. How did you prepare for interviews with them, especially when there is still so much pain? How did you ensure what you reported was in the interest of those affected?

Jabarine: Their loss is still very fresh. When we interviewed them, not even a year had passed since the attack. They were obviously still in shock. We travelled to Hanau, using the "Initiative 19. Februar" as a contact point for all the relatives and their supporters. That way, we slowly managed to gain their trust and opportunities for conversations began to emerge.

We didn’t plan anything. In fact, everything was rather spontaneous, because we also wanted to take into account how the family members were feeling at the time, and whether they even had the strength for an interview. What helped us most was that they welcomed the attack getting more public attention.

What was the most challenging aspect?

Jaff: The hardest thing was keeping abreast of current events. We began the reportage for this podcast at the end of 2020. Ever since, however, new things have gradually been coming to light – developments which we of course wanted to include in the podcast.

Jabarine: It wasn’t always easy to decide what topics we should focus, either, because right-wing terrorism is a very complex topic, especially when you are looking to frame it within a broader societal context. As a result, we were sometimes only able to touch upon a topic briefly. It would have been impossible to answer every single question that was thrown up during the reporting process.

One aspect you do mention is that the police reacted too slowly, or couldn’t be reached initially. And in the podcast someone talks about "police-promoted racism". How have the police and politicians in Hanau reacted to such accusations?

Jaff: In the months right after the attack, there was nothing. But since the end of 2020, with relatives filing official complaints and the attendant increase in public pressure, the police and politicians have begun to speak out. Yet here’s the thing: the pressure was needed to get the ball rolling. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if the family members had not pursued the matter.

At one of the crime scenes, for instance, there was an emergency exit. The victims could have used it to flee. But we have since found out that the exit was locked. And there are rumours that the police allegedly asked for the door to be locked permanently, so that no one could flee in the event of the police needing to check the premises. This is just one example of the frank clarification being demanded of the authorities by family members.

 

"I can never be part of German society"

In the trailer we hear a young man talking about a "societal division", something he has accepted. What does he mean by that?

Jabarine: That’s an excerpt from an interview with Jaweid Gholam, a young man from Hanau who was good friends with Ferhat Unvar, Hamza Kurtovic, as well as being personally acquainted with several other of the victims. Before the attack, he was actually with Ferhat. We visited him in Hanau and he showed us his district of Kesselstadt, the location of the second crime scene. We wanted to find out how his life and the lives of other young people in Hanau have changed since the attack.

Jaweid was and still is very much affected by it, he hasn’t fully processed it. He tells us how 19 February 2020 was the day he finally understood that he can never be a part of German society, despite having been born in Germany. He realised how much casual racism he had endured but ignored throughout his life. It was a tragic realisation, and of course not all young people we spoke to felt that way. But it was important for us to include his statement.

Was there a quote or a moment that particularly stuck in your mind during the research?

Jabarine: There were some incredibly powerful moments, especially during the interviews. The strength of the relatives: how they pulled themselves together, hiding their grief, because they wanted to find the answers and clear the case. And there is an image I can’t forget: the fresh graves of Ferhat, Hamza and Said Nesar, the three friends killed in the attack, buried next to each other in Hanau, and their years of birth on their grave stones: 1996, 1997, 1998. The next morning we conducted a survey on the market square, where we met a number of people, aside from an NPD member, for whom Hanau was nothing more than a tragic isolated incident.

Journalist Sham Jaff (photo: Yasmine Asha)
For lasting awareness and education: "It would be enduring and honest if we succeeded in looking at Hanau in a broader context, stubbornly insisting that Hanau remains on the agenda. It would also be honest to tackle right-wing extremism and racism everywhere – in schools, on the streets, not forgetting our political system and the security services," says journalist Sham Jaff

Right-wing extremism is nothing new

The news is full of the "rise of the Far Right". Is that a fair assessment, considering the attack in Hanau was just the latest in a long line of right-wing terror attacks in Germany, stretching back over thirty years at least?

Jaff: Of course it isn’t fair. Many people in Germany don’t realise that right-wing extremism has become a feature of recent decades. It’s not a new phenomenon: Solingen, Molln, Rostock-Lichtenhagen, the NSU murder series, Munich, Halle, the so-called "Gruppe S". These are just a few examples. From 1990 to 2020 Germany's far right killed about 200 people – and these are "only" the cases in which the political motivation of the perpetrators is known with certainty.

The real threat posed by the far right in Germany, especially within the police, is a debate that is long overdue. Right-wing extremism didn’t begin with Hanau and it won’t end with Hanau. We also talk about the perpetrator and his past, especially the fact that he was already known to the authorities. Why was he not classified as a right-wing extremist? There were more than enough reasons to take a closer look at him. But nothing ever happened. This is also a major focus of our podcast.

How have you found the media coverage of the Hanau attack in the twelve months since it happened?

Jaff: On the one hand, what was positive was that most of the media were relatively quick to talk about a racially motivated, right-wing terrorist attack. On the other, some German media outlets speculated on the night of the crime whether the so-called slot machine mafia or "the Russians" had maybe had something to do with it.

Premature and generalising statements of this kind are dangerous. Then there was the assumption, in Germany and elsewhere, that the attack only occurred in two shisha bars. That wasn’t accurate either. And that’s also something we discuss in our podcast. What's more, the media made a point of quoting Turkey's President Erdogan, who initially hijacked the narrative. He claimed that most of the victims were of Turkish origin, which they weren't. As a Kurdish woman that annoyed me a lot.

Apart from your podcast and the many reports, portraits and interviews that are bound to be released to mark the anniversary: how should the German people remember Hanau without it being a mere performative act? What would you like to see from society?

Journalist Alena Jabarine (photo: Elena Zaucke)
"It is vital to realise that BIPoCs in Germany will only begin to feel safe when we start questioning the racism in our society – every small step of the way. Can attacks like the one in Hanau be prevented? Probably not, but we want to reach a stage where we can say that we pulled out all the stops to prevent it," says Jabarine

Jaff: That’s a difficult question. Right-wing extremism and racism are a threat to the whole of society in Germany. Structural racism affects all areas of everyday life – and it starts at a young age. As a Kurdish refugee I experienced a lot of that myself. It would be enduring and honest if we succeeded in looking at Hanau in a broader context, stubbornly insisting that Hanau remains on the agenda. It would also be honest to tackle right-wing extremism and racism everywhere – in schools, on the streets, not forgetting our political system and the security services.

Jabarine: Of course it is important to resolve individual attacks until there are no more unanswered questions. But it is far more important to understand the climate in which they were able to occur in the first place. How people with such racist views of the world can live, learn and work in Germany without attracting attention. And why, when it comes to terrorism, we unfortunately still too rarely look to the right.

It is vital to realise that BIPoCs in Germany will only begin to feel safe when we start questioning the racism in our society – every small step of the way. Can attacks like the one in Hanau be prevented? Probably not, but we want to reach a stage where we can say that we pulled out all the stops to prevent it.

Schayan Riaz

© Qantara.de 2021

"190220 – One Year nach Hanau" is produced by Spotify Studios and ACB Stories. Editors: Viola Funk, Alena Jabarine, Sham Jaff, Seyda Kurt. Production: Isabel Woop and Jan-Philipp Wilhelm (ACB Stories).

More on this topic