2016 Berlin Christmas Market Attack Terror Survivors Feel Abandoned by German Authorities

One year after the terror attack on the Christmas market in Berlin, the relatives of the victims feel like the German authorities have treated them callously or neglected them. Some of their anger is also directed at German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Werner Schuering / DER SPIEGEL

By Britta Stuff and


It's all supposed to come to an end on Dec. 19, the day they meet on Breitscheidplatz square, next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. They will travel to the city from Israel, from the United States and from closer by in the German state of Brandenburg and. They will kneel at the gouge in the ground that continues through the stairs of the church. The names of the 12 deceased have been placed on the steps. Surviving family members will sink a few ounces of liquid gold into the ground in order to complete the memorial commissioned by the city government, finally closing a wound.

If only things were that easy.

A year has passed since the terrorist attack on the Christmas market at Berlin's Breitscheidplatz and the memorial ceremony has been scheduled to mark the end of a year of mourning. But the weight of that attack and what has come since cannot simply be neatly relegated to the past. Twelve people died on the night of the crime and close to a hundred people were injured and some of the victims are still in clinics today. And few have been able to overcome their loss -- either to their personal health or the loss of a family member. Most wounds are far from being healed.

But when you meet with the victims' relatives, many are quick to report about something very different that happened after the attack. They speak of their disappointment, of a government that failed in their eyes. They decry a state that failed to prevent a terrorist from perpetrating an attack right in the middle of Berlin. And then abandoned them. They say it's a wound that will never be healed.

Their stories are horrific.

Family members spent days wandering around Berlin before they obtained any certainty that their children, parents or siblings were living or not. They say that nobody answered hotlines, that lists of victims were managed chaotically, that the authorities were overwhelmed and that officials were insensitive.

They say that there was no central point of contact they could turn to. Nor was there anyone who could help victims and surviving family members apply for compensation or hardship assistance.

Even as newspapers published photos and reports on the perpetrator, there were few stories about the victims. They seemed to have been forgotten.

There was no official state event to commemorate the dead like there had been in France. In Italy, the country's president was present when the body of an Italian national killed in the terrorist attack arrived in the country, while in Poland, the country's president also kneeled in front of the coffin of the Polish truck driver who had been killed in the Berlin terrorist strike. In Germany, though, the chancellor didn't even send a letter of condolence. Instead of visits or recognition, surviving family members were quick to receive bills for forensics examinations -- 51 euros (60 dollars) to be paid within 30 days. Otherwise, they would be turned over to debt collectors.

Month after month, surviving family members learned of ever-greater failures and cover-up efforts on the part of the investigating authorities. They also learned that the perpetrator had around a dozen assumed identities, that he had been a drug dealer, that he had committed fraud and that he had been able to prepare a terrorist attack under the officials' noses. And that afterward, law enforcement officials apparently doctored the files to cover up their failures in the run-up to the attack.

Over time, disappointment turned into anger.

On the eve of the one-year anniversary, DER SPIEGEL interviewed survivors and witnesses of the Breitscheidplatz terrorist attack. Magazine reporters also reviewed thousands of pages of internal documents and interviewed victim liaisons from the German federal government and from the city-state of Berlin.

The image that emerges is a shameful one: On Dec. 19, 2016, Islamic State terror reached Germany. But it struck a country incapable of mourning the victims or taking care of their survivors. Even though the risk of terrorism had been increasing for years, officials seemed astoundingly unprepared for the attack when it finally arrived.

The anger of those affected by the attack is apparent in an open letter from the surviving family members of all 12 of the victims sent to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In it, they write that the chancellor did not rise to the level of her office in dealing with the attacks. "It is our firm expectation of you, Madame Chancellor, that the German government help our families comprehensively and unbureaucratically." The attack on Breitscheidplatz, they write, "is also the tragic consequence of political inactivity on the part of your government."

Death

It was 6:53 p.m. on Dec. 19 when Lukasz Urban, 37, slipped a DVD into his laptop in the sleeping cabin of the semi-truck he had been driving. He had wanted to leave Berlin much earlier, but ThyssenKrupp told him they were unable to unload the steel beams his truck was carrying. He would have to spend the night in his truck in the Berlin industrial park.

That afternoon, Urban had called his wife and chatted about Christmas. He had also picked up a beer at a supermarket and eaten a doner kebab. Now it was time to watch the romantic comedy "Don Jon" before going to bed, but suddenly someone was standing at the window. As Urban leaned forward and drew open the curtain, perpetrator Anis Amri shot him in the head. Then Amri started up the truck.

Four kilometers to the south, people were crowded between the stands at the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz, with only five days left to go until Christmas Eve. Visitors ate and drank, met up with co-workers, bought Christmas decorations, nutcrackers and candles.

At 8:02 p.m., the terrorist drove the truck past the intersection around the corner at the Bahnhof Zoo train station and then into Breitscheidplatz, where he grazed the side of a waffle stand, ran people over as they stood at tables in front of a mulled wine stand and then plowed through the tent in front of a sausage stand. He then turned the truck to the left in front of the memorial church, running over a beverage stand, breaking through a fence and running over more people in the street. The truck came to a stop after 80 meters.

On Dec. 19, the following people died in the attack:

Dorit Krebs, 53, who had just started working at a nearby bank.

Sebastian Berlin, 32, an industrial mechanic at transmission-maker ZF in the city of Brandenburg an der Havel, who had come to celebrate a test he had just passed.

Angelika Klösters, a 65-year-old from the city of Neuss near Düsseldorf who had been given a trip to Berlin as a gift from her son.

Dalia Elyakim, a 66-year-old tourist from Israel who had wanted to drink a mulled wine with her husband after dinner.

Anna Bagratuni, 44, and her husband Georgiy, 44, of Kiev, both employees of a Berlin software company.

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Peter Völker, 73, who had who had come to meet with his partner from the United States and a professor of religious music in front of the church.

Fabrizia Di Lorenzo, 31, and Nada Cizmar, 34, an Italian woman and a Czech woman, who had been celebrating the holidays with a group of colleagues from the logistics firm 4flow.

Klaus Jacob, 65, who had gone to the Christmas market because he and his girlfriend had been unable to get tickets to the theater.

Christoph Herrlich, 40, a lawyer and start-up founder, who just managed to push a girlfriend out of the way of the onrushing truck, saving her as his own life was taken.

Emptiness

Rami Elyakim was still in a coma when his wife was buried. He had to undergo several hours of surgery to his shoulder, hips and both legs. Shortly before the new year, he awoke from his coma and asked his children, "Where's Dalia?" He had lost all memory of events from the evening except for gazing at the church's tower, which had been heavily damaged in World War II and kept in that state as a memorial to the violence.

Close to a year after the attack, Elyakim was standing on the outskirts of the town of Herzlia near Tel Aviv at his wife's grave. The couple had been married for 40 years, and there had only been a few days during that time that they had not spent together. He says he worked hard his entire life building refrigerators for restaurants. Now he spends most of his time at home on the sofa. "I had a good life," he says, "but now I have nothing."

Elyakim comes from a country where the threat of terrorism exists every day. Everyone in Israel is at risk of being affected by violence and people are prepared for it. But the thought that he might encounter terrorism in Germany had never crossed his mind. He considered the country to be one of the safest in the world. But now, the Elyakims find themselves wondering exactly what steps the German authorities are taking to protect people.

The family is in touch with relatives of other victims through a WhatsApp group where they share links to stories about the failures of investigators. They don't understand everything in the stories from Germany, but they find what they do understand to be incomprehensible. An Islamist who had been free to wander around with 14 assumed identities? "Something like that wouldn't even be possible in Israel," Elyakim says. "They would have put him jail or, at the very least, monitored his every step." He refuses to utter the perpetrator's name.

Elyakim says he thinks Germany needs to become more like Israel when it comes to defending itself against terrorism. He says the security agencies should be strengthened, that bollards should be placed on street corners and that people entering Germany should be screened more carefully. And that the government needs to take more responsibility for the victims.

He says that a representative of the German government promised him at his hospital bed that he would be taken care of. But so far, he and his children have received very little support -- at least not enough to live in dignity, he believes.

Elyakim has since been recognized by the Israeli government as a victim of terrorism. The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, even changed the law on his behalf. Previously, assistance had only been given to victims of terrorist attacks abroad if Israelis or Jews had been targeted. Elyakim says he's very grateful to the Israeli government for its help, but that he also believes it is the Germans who should be assisting him.

Anger

There's a thick binder on the table at the home of Sigrid and Hans-Georg Rheinsberg, and two others are lying on the floor. The binders contain all the newspaper clippings they have collected since the death of their daughter, Dorit Krebs.

Their anger grows with each new sheet of paper they read.

"Someone should have been there for us from the beginning -- for all of us," says Sigrid. Her husband adds, "Nothing came -- no letter, nothing."

Sigrid says that the "government also shares responsibility. It wasn't the perpetrator, but it did share responsibility."

She adds that Merkel had taken refugees in under her arm but, when it came to the victims of the terrorist attack, she did nothing.

"That's perhaps a bit strong. But Ms. Merkel treated us badly."

"Totally ignored us," her husband says.

The Rheinsbergs live in the Havelland region, west of the German capital. But their granddaughter, who moved into the home of her deceased mother near Berlin, is more open about the family's outrage. She requested that her name not be revealed.

She says that her experiences in the days immediately following the attack still upset her today. She first found out the next morning that her mother had been at the Christmas market. When she called the police hotline, she was told that she shouldn't worry, that her mother had only been injured and was in the hospital. When she arrived at the hospital in question, the daughter was told that no patient with that name had been admitted.

She then attempted to get more information at a police station, where she also filed a missing persons report. She drove from hospital to hospital, asking if her mother might be there, but she didn't get any concrete information. At the hotline, she says the person sounded annoyed: You're calling about Ms. Krebs again?

Then, the Berlin Office of Criminal Investigation got in touch with her, requesting that she bring in an item for DNA comparison. She brought along a toothbrush. She didn't have any certainty until three days after the terrorist attack. When she later inquired about her mother's personal belongings, a blood-smeared bag was simply pressed into her hands.

"Everything just kept getting pushed back and forth, and nobody knew what the other was doing, and in many places, there was simply a lack of humaneness," she says.

Berlin police have addressed the mistakes made after the attack in an internal report. It states that the care provided to the victims and their families had been "insufficient." It also states that people tried contacting many places to find out about their loved ones but were provided with "no information whatsoever." Due to incompatibilities between IT systems, hospitals had to fax the names of the injured to the police, where officials in turn entered the data by hand into their system.

Bothered by the way she had been treated, Dorit Krebs' daughter wrote an email to German Federal Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière one month after the attack. She wrote that the state had failed and that the families had been poorly treated by the government. De Maizière answered in February and promised improvement.

Hope

On Feb. 20, 2017, Kurt Beck's mobile phone rang. Beck had been participating in a conference about Africa in Kenya as the chairman of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, an organization strongly aligned with the center-left Social Democratic Party, which Beck once led. The call came from German Justice Minister Heiko Maas, who asked Beck if he could imagine becoming the government's special commissioner for the victims and families left behind by the deaths in the Breitscheidplatz attack. "I'll have to think it over a bit," Beck said. He called back an hour later and agreed.

Beck is 68 years old and he has already had a number of roles in his life: head of the SPD party, a state governor, but in the months after that call he also learned a lot of new things -- including about himself. In March, three months after the attack, he wrote to the victims' families and also to everyone who had been injured in the attack. He also met with almost all of them.

Beck is sitting in a sparse office inside the Justice Ministry; darkness has already fallen outside. Beck tries to be particularly matter-of-fact when discussing his role, saying he faced a "package of tasks" when he began and referring to deaths as casualties." He says he knew the position would be emotionally taxing and that some of the meetings he had had distressed him to the point that he had to walk around his home twice at night before he could even manage to sit down. On many nights, he still had trouble sleeping.

There are many surviving family members who describe their meetings with Beck as having been positive -- finally, they say, a representative of the government had done something. In February, then-German President Joachim Gauck had invited victims' families to his office to lend them an ear and they were also pleased by that. But the families involved say they were aware there wasn't much he could do for them.

Beck helped them by applying pressure on the authorities and ensuring that their various requests were processed quickly or by helping them to find the right person to talk to. For one young woman who had lost both of her parents in the attack, he helped find a donor who could jump in and help her with the costs of her university studies.

But surviving family members and victims also say that Beck started his job too late and that months had already passed by the time he contacted them. They say that the lost time lost could no longer be made up. Some of this resentment will remain, and Beck is fully aware of this. The report he plans to release as the government's commissioner for victims on the anniversary of the attack will include a number of government failures -- things that, in his view, need to be changed in the future in order to improve the way victims of terrorist attacks are treated. He also conducted research abroad in other countries that have been the targets of terrorist attacks, including Spain, France and Belgium, to see what lessons could be applied to Germany.

One of the things Beck is calling for is the creation of a prominent commissioner for victims at the government level who would step in after terrorist attacks and other "events that inflict great damage," with a permanent office located inside the Justice Ministry. He also wants to set up an online portal that would inform families about where they can find information and where and how they can apply for assistance. And he is calling for ways of identifying the dead that will be less burdensome to families. In his report, Beck writes that such measures would make a lot of things easier for families.

The only problem is that this will all come too late for the families whose loved ones were lost or injured in the Breitscheidplatz terrorist attack.

Worry

Dec. 19, 2016, left behind a riddle for Hartmut Hüsges. When the semi-truck came to a stop that night, Hüsges and his husband Sascha remained unscathed. Hüsgen's husband said at the time, "Look after the dog and I will see if there is any way I can help." He returned a short time later ashen-faced. Something, perhaps a piece of a Christmas market stand, must have fallen on his head. The doctors at a local hospital diagnosed him with serious brain hemorrhaging. Sascha was put into an induced coma and underwent surgery.

He has spent nearly a year in hospitals and rehabilitation clinics since then and hasn't returned home. Nor has he been able to speak a word since that day and he has also been unable to move on his own. Hüsges has no idea what is going on inside his partner's head because Sascha is only able to blink his eyes and move his left hand a bit. The rest of his body is paralyzed.

"His life has been wrecked," says Hüsges.

Hüsges is 61 years old and works as a senior official in the German Finance Ministry, where he is responsible for the country's annual tax forecast. He's not the kind of person who protests over things just to make himself feel a little better. Once he went to a meeting with other victims, but he never went again because the evening had been too emotional for him. He's not fond of crying.

Hüsges says he quickly came to understand it was unlikely his husband would ever return to his old self and that he would likely require care for the rest of his life. Hüsges has already begun preparing for the future.

He purchased a home, which he plans to move into with his husband at some point. It's a rambler, which is important because Sascha will no longer be able to climb any stairs, and it is now being remodeled to make it handicap-accessible. Hüsges also bought a car that has been equipped for wheelchair transport and he plans to hire nurses to provide care for his husband.

Hüsges estimates this will all cost around 750,000 euros - most of which will never be reimbursed.

Many of the victims' families have stories to tell pertaining to money. There are different sources of funding available to victims in Germany, but the families say that weeks passed before they had a good overview of them. The German parliament's research service was tasked with drafting an overview in the spring and the ensuing document it produced had over 27 pages.

After the attack, it was even unclear initially who was responsible for compensation -- the government, under its victims' compensation law, or a fund maintained by private car insurance companies. The law says that the state is not responsible for damages "caused by an attacker through the use of a motor vehicle." It was only through a hectically arranged order that both funds could be accessed -- a decision that was helpful to the victims and their families, but also extremely complicated given that one fund is managed by the state of Berlin and the other by the German Insurance Association. There are also so-called hardship payments for the victims of criminal terrorist acts administered by the Federal Office of Justice in Bonn. A different application has to be completed for each different fund.

Many of those affected described the quest for reimbursement as a degrading process in which they felt a bit like beggars -- at least initially. Sometimes they had to wait weeks for an answer, cover the costs themselves, borrow money or take out a loan.

So far, around 2 million euros has been paid out to 132 victims and surviving family members, an average of 15,000 euros per person. These sums will likely increase significantly in the coming months. Eighteen of the surviving victims were recently granted social security payments. Nonetheless, it's still worth drawing a comparison: The government has promised 40 million euros to cover damages caused by the riots surrounding the G-20 summit in Hamburg.

Hüsges, the official from the Finance Ministry, isn't officially counted as a victim because he remained uninjured. He says that for him it's not about money. He claims he doesn't, as is normal in the United States, want to receive millions of dollars in damages. "There can be no compensation for Sascha's life anyway," he says. "One-hundred million can't make a difference there." Hüsges only wants to have the costs reimbursed that he wouldn't have accrued had it not been for the terrorist attack.

He looked up the pertinent sections of the federal budget. The pot of money dedicated to such damages, he says, has been pathetically endowed. "The federal department that is responsible could have stocked it up from one day to the next," Hüsges argues.

Kurt Beck will also recommend in his report that compensation for terror victims should be increased considerably. He believes the 10,000 euros generally paid to surviving relatives is too low, and that payments to those who are injured could also be higher. But he can only make a recommendation-- the actual decision must be made by politicians.

Hüsges says he had always looked forward to his future, but now it's something he views with concern. He continues to carry the burden of two lives. He still wears his wedding ring on the ring finger on his left hand, and that of his husband on his right one.

Gratitude

When one asks the people affected by the Breitscheidplatz attack if they experienced anything positive amid their suffering, if there are quiet heroes, they name people that nobody knows. Clerks in government offices who truly make an effort. People who helped them, police officers, paramedics, employees of the Weisser Ring, an organization that assists crime victims, and first responders. They often mention Pelsin Bars.

The doctor from Turkey was on Breitscheidplatz with friends the evening of the attack when she suddenly saw people running toward her. Bars rushed in the other direction -- toward the injured. She is only 28 years old, but in eastern Turkey she had already had to treat the victims of a bomb attack. She says that might have been why she didn't panic, and instead calmly and carefully cared for the injured -- first the serious cases, then the less serious ones. She did this for two hours, perhaps three. "For me, people like her are the hidden heroes of this day," says one of the people affected by the attack.

Bars said she had only been doing her job. A few days ago, she received her German license to practice medicine. She can now also work as a doctor here, and her first choice is Berlin.

Future

On a Monday in November, everything looks like it always did -- the stalls, the tower of the Memorial Church that was destroyed in the war, the lights. Breitscheidplatz is surrounded by traffic like an island is by the sea. Of course, not everything looks as it always did, and, after a few seconds, one notices the concrete bollards, the police officers and the camera teams asking the people drinking mulled wine why they are there and if they are afraid. It's the first day since the reopening this year of the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz.

René Köchel says he set out in totally normal fashion that morning, expecting only to need a bit more time than usual. For over 20 years, Köchel has worked at Christmas markets across Germany. On Dec. 19 of last year, he was standing in front of a stall that was completely destroyed by the attacker's truck. His right foot was shattered, his left leg broken, he had bruises on his entire body and a traumatic brain injury.

Since then, he has had difficulty walking. For one year, he couldn't work. The construction of the stalls on Breitscheidplatz this year were his first job.

Köchel says he's the kind of person who doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about things that can't be changed. He says he is simply who he is, and that he needs to look forward.

Only one thing occupies him.

He recalls seeing Angela Merkel standing, in 2015, after the attack in Paris, among statesmen. In Germany, she was only seen mourning once after the attack: during a remembrance service in the Memorial Church, barely 22 hours after the terrorist struck. At that point, though, Köchel says, he and most of the victims were still in the hospital. Many victims were fighting for their lives, and many people didn't know yet if their relatives were among the dead. The memorial service, some of the people affected say, wasn't for the victims.

For one year, they have been waiting for Merkel to express her sympathy personally. The relatives of the 12 victims write in their letter that that "is, of course, self-evident."

It appears that message has been registered by the government. In response to a query, a government spokesman said that the chancellor "wishes that the people affected not be left alone in their situation and to express her sympathy." Merkel then visited the Christmas market earlier this week and she also plans to attend the opening of a memorial dedicated to the memory of the victims of the attack on Breitscheidplatz on Dec. 19. And, last week, relatives of the victims received a letter from the Chancellery for the first time. Merkel is to meet with the survivors and surviving relatives the day before the memorial opening. In the invitation, Merkel says she wants to speak about "how they and their family are now doing today."

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