Filip Goman: Serpil, nobody understands what we're doing here.
Serpil Unvar: Yeah, not even our people at home understand.
Filip Goman: Why do we come here every day?
Filip Goman points to the pictures on the white wall across the room. The picture of his daughter Mercedes. The picture of Serpil Unvar's son Ferhat. The pictures of the seven other young people who he didn't know before Feb. 19, 2020. In this room, they are all next to one another, laminated in plastic and framed by a gray curtain:
The room is 140 square meters (1,500 square feet) of commercial space on Krämerstrasse, a street in the German city of of Hanau in the state of Hesse. It used to be a sex shop, but today, a sign reading #saytheirnames hangs over the display window in illuminated blue lettering.
Everyday, people meet here who previously didn't know each other, even though most of them had been living in the same neighborhood for decades. They have been brought together by a man they alternately refer to as "Tobias," "the dog," or "the bastard." The reference is to the racist who used to be their neighbor – and who shot and killed their children on the night of Feb. 19, 2020, at six different sites, all within just a few minutes. He then returned to his home, where he shot his mother and then himself.
Because he is dead, there won't be a trial. But the questions to which a trial may have provided answers exist all the same.
The people who come here are not investigators, they're not lawyers or judges. They were bus drivers, carpenters and carpet sellers; they are parents, siblings and friends. They are witnesses, neighbors and survivors.
Together, they are looking for answers which – even a year after the biggest right-wing extremist attack in Germany's postwar history – nobody can provide.
Not the police in southeastern Hesse, not the public prosecutors in Hanau, not the Federal Public Prosecutor General. Not the chancellor or the German president. Not the governor of the state of Hesse and certainly not the state's interior minister.
Because they feel they have been left in the lurch by the powers that be, they have begun their own trial of sorts in the shop on Krämerstrasse in Hanau. They sit on pink velvet easy chairs, with tea in the samovar, the sound of boiling water having become the background noise of the February 19th Initiative. Inside this shopfront – rented by leftist activists just a few weeks after the attack without really knowing what they would use it for – is where they have been trying to come to terms with a crime in which a right-wing extremist terrorist killed as many people in a single night as the neo-Nazi terror cell National Socialist Underground (NSU) killed in six years.
They are wondering why emergency calls weren't answered that night. Why the emergency exit was blocked at one of the crime scenes. Why autopsies were performed on their children without their permission. They don't understand why a mentally ill person was allowed to possess a weapon in Germany. Whether there were accessories to the crime. Whether this crime could have been prevented, the investigation of which was taken over by the Federal Public Prosecutor General because it had the "potential of endangering the domestic security of the Federal Republic of Germany." A crime that was categorized as an attack that could damage Germany's international reputation because it again targeted people who had roots abroad.
In this room where they are looking for answer to such questions, they invite witnesses, reconstruct the events of that night, examine the police records of the emergency calls that were made. They look through investigation files, analyze the perpetrator's psychiatric report, read the police evaluation of his computer, identify new witnesses and examine the autopsy reports of their children.
DER SPIEGEL spent several months with the families of Hanau. This story partly retraces the discussions they had with each other each and every day and gives them the space to talk about what they experienced in their own voices. It is a record of their anger, their desperation, their mourning. It is the record of an estrangement from a country that, before Feb. 19, 2020, they called home.
The Night of the Shooting
Kim Schröder: A few minutes before, Ferhat and Mercedes had just told me I was going to have a boy. I was pregnant and constantly had a craving for sour gummy snakes. I briefly stepped outside the kiosk, came back inside and said, someone's shooting. Yeah, kids with firecrackers, Ferhat said. Then the bastard came inside.
The shooting started at 9:55 p.m. The gunman killed people at six different sites – in three bars, on the side of a road, in the parking lot of a discount supermarket and in a kiosk.
It is possible to create a detailed timeline of that night's events, but sitting in the room on Krämerstrasse, the accounts produce a series of random images, a nightmare with no beginning and no end.
Kim Schröder: I ducked behind the counter. When he started shooting in the Arena Bar next door, I jumped out of the store window and stopped three cars. I said there is a gunman, my friends are bleeding to death, I'm pregnant. They all just drove away.
In the video footage from the security camera at Kiosk 24/7 on Kurt Schumacher Square – Crime Scene 5 in the investigation files – the perpetrator is visible as he walks in. He fires five shots in six seconds. Two bullets hit Gökhan Gültekin in the heart and in the head. He was 37 years old. Two bullets hit Mercedes Kierpacz, one piercing her lungs, liver and heart, the other severing her carotid artery. She was 35. One bullet struck Ferhat Unvar on this evening, tearing through his liver, a kidney and his spine. He was 23 years old.
Kim Schröder is a frequent visitor to the "Ini," as they call this space. She charges her phone here, uses the WiFi and warms up milk for Dario. She is 25 years old. On the night of the shooting, she was four months pregnant with Dario.
On this day in November, she is sitting in a velvet easy chair across from Armin Kurtović. He has a lot of questions about the night on which his son died. And Kim is one of the witnesses that tell him over and over again about that night. On this afternoon, Kurtović takes her son Dario in his arms, turns to his wife Dijana, and says: "If our children have a child, they should name it Hamza!"
Hamza Kurtović was the son of Armin and Dijana Kurtović. That night, he was with his friends in Arena Bar, Crime Scene 6.
In video footage from Arena Bar, you can see the barkeeper and an older guest at the bar. In the room, you can see the friends Hamza, Momo, Piter and the two Hashemi brothers, Etris and Nesar.
Etris Hashemi: In front of the Arena Bar, I saw the ring Nesar was wearing and I said: What kind of ugly ring is that? He was wearing it for the first time that evening. We laughed. Nesar loved Versace.
Etris Hashemi is the older brother of Nesar Hashemi, who was 21. The brothers had been in Frankfurt that day, where Nesar had the number 63454 tattooed on the inside of both of his biceps. Their father, Mir Salam Hashemi, is a shift leader at the tire producer Dunlop. He came to Germany from Kabul in the 1980s before bringing his wife to join him. They had five children and hoped their lives would be easier in Kesselstadt, postal code 63454.
Kesselstadt is a part of Hanau with high-rise housing projects and a castle called Schloss Philippsruhe. Immigrants make up a significant share of the population and there are many families with a lot of children. There is a youth center available to them, called JUZ, but once it closes its doors at 10 p.m., the youth have nowhere else to go to hang out. The Arena Bar is a "filthy hole," as they say themselves. It's a bar that's not really a bar. Football is constantly playing on the big-screen televisions and there are gaming machines in the corner. It's a place to hang out when it's cold outside.
Piter Minnemann: I was coming from boxing practice. The guys had ordered pizza and I also grabbed one. I walked into the Arena Bar and immediately started hearing the gunfire from the kiosk next door.
The gunman can be seen in the surveillance footage. He fires off 16 shots in 13 seconds. The friends Hamza, Momo, Piter and the two Hashemi brothers Etris and Nesar hide behind a pillar toward the back of the bar, while some make it to safety behind the counter, lying on top of each other. The gunman, though, fires over the counter and all of them are hit except for Piter Minnemann.
Etris Hashemi: I held Momo's wound closed and he did the same for my neck. Then Piter pulled Momo out and said we had to get out of here before he comes back. I can't just lie here and die, I thought to myself.
Etris Hashemi ran into the kiosk next door, where he saw Gökhan, Mercedes and Ferhat lying on the floor. Etris Hashemi knew Ferhat Unvar, having sat at the same table with him in elementary school. The friends Hamza and Nesar went to kindergarten together, and on this evening, they remained behind on the floor of the Arena Bar.
Hamza Kurtović was hit by two bullets, one in the upper arm and another in the back of his head, but his heart was still beating. He was declared dead at 12:35 a.m. in a Frankfurt hospital. Two bullets pierced the back of Nesar Hashemi, hitting his heart, aorta, stomach and liver. He died at the scene.
In the parking lot outside, Etris Hashemi leaned on a silver Mercedes, holding his wound closed. He could no longer feel his tongue. He had a bullet in his jaw and another bullet had passed through his shoulder. Vili-Viorel Păun, 22, was sitting in the driver's seat. The gunman had shot him in the forehead, the breast and the shoulder. The police report from that night notes that he was still breathing when the first officers arrived at the scene. He had come to Hanau from Romania three years before, the only son of warehouse workers Iulia and Niculescu Păun. The image of his silver Mercedes CLS 321, covered with a golden foil to conceal the interior and the driver's door hanging open, circled the globe.
Vili-Viorel Păun was a delivery driver for Amazon and had brought the car with him from Romania. He lived with his parents in the city center, just a few minutes from Heumarkt, the square where the first shots were fired on this night. That is where Kaloyan Velkov, 33, was shot. He was standing behind the counter in a bar called La Votre, Crime Scene 1. That same evening, he had sent a winter jacket to his son back in Bulgaria. He was struck by four bullets.
The exterminator Fatih Saraçoğlu, 34, was shot to death with four bullets as he was standing on the side of the road smoking a cigarette, Crime Scene 2. He had just been meeting with colleagues to discuss expanding his company nationwide. Just a few minutes before he was shot, he wrote a WhatsApp message to his girlfriend: "I'll be right there, my life."
Sedat Gürbüz was also killed, the operator of Midnight, a shisha bar, Crime Scene 3. He was only there because he wanted to bid farewell to his former employees in person, since he had just sold the bar a few days earlier. He was 29 years old. He was shot in the head.
Surveillance footage recorded a short time later shows the gunman shooting at the car of Vili-Viorel Păun, who threw his car into reverse and started following the attacker. Păun followed him for 2.4 kilometers, all the way to Kesselstadt – to the discounter parking lot, a Lidl, Crime Scene 4.
The gunman fired off at least 47 shots that night, with investigators describing his motive as: "Treacherous murder out of base motive" and stating that he was specifically targeting victims with foreign roots.
Çetin Gültekin: If they had answered Vili's call, then wouldn't we have three victims instead of nine?
Niculescu Păun, Vili's father, often sits in one of the black leather easy chairs and talks about Vili, his only son. He spoke five languages and wanted to become a food technologist. The father says he closed the window in his room on that Feb. 20 and thought: Maybe Vili is with a woman? Later, he headed to work in the warehouse, packing whiskey onto pallets. He only learned that his son was dead that afternoon. Nicolescu Păun had been a taxi driver in Romania. He lived in a village near Bucharest and says he came to Hanau for Vili.
Months after the murder, the investigators gave him Vili's mobile phone back. When Păun unlocked the phone and scrolled through the list of calls, he discovered that his son had called the emergency number 110 three times that night. Since he found that out, he has repeatedly held up the screenshots at the Initiative.
In late November, the family received the investigation files, in which it is noted that the calls from Vili could not be found in the emergency call records. On this morning, voices are raised at the breakfast table at the Initiative. Çetin Gültekin, Gökhan's brother, holds up a file memo and slams it down on the table.
The memo notes that because of the volume of calls that night, the Hanau police were unable to answer all of them. The calls, it said, piled up in the control room at Hanau Police Station 01 and were processed at just two workstations. There were, the report continues, technical problems with recording the calls.
According to the list of emergency calls, the first call reached the station at 9:56 p.m., about a minute after the gunman shot Kaloyan Velkov at the first crime scene, with the second call coming in at almost exactly the same time. The police received a third call as the gunman was shooting at the final crime scene, the Arena Bar. The emergency calls were not transferred and the calls from Vili-Viorel Păun were not received. According to the files, the police received no calls at all for more than an hour on that night.
Serpil Unvar: Nobody supposedly called for an entire hour?
Çetin Gültekin: They should at least not send it to us and treat us like idiots.
Nicolescu Păun: Maybe they were out taking a cigarette break?
In January 2021, almost a year after the shooting spree, the police headquarters in southeastern Hesse admitted in response to a query from DER SPIEGEL that the officers at the police station had been overwhelmed and said that a "transfer concept was planned" and it should begin sending emergency calls on to Frankfurt at some point this year.
Ever since the people in the Initiative learned that the emergency calls from Vili-Viorel Păun went nowhere, they have begun wondering if perhaps six additional murders could have been prevented. They wonder if Vili himself might still be alive if the officers had answered his calls and told him to stop following the gunman.
They don't know.
They only know that Hesse Interior Minister Peter Beuth, during their meeting with him last May at state parliament, praised the job done by the police that night and told them nothing of the failures that were documented in the files.
On this morning, they are furious. They don't understand why they have to reconstruct events from that night when people in positions of authority have known about them for months.
Their anger is no longer directed just at the perpetrator.
Excerpts from a WhatsApp exchange between Armin Kurtović and his daughter Ajla Kurtović:
Ajla, 10:12 p.m.: There was just a shooting in Hanau. At Heumarkt. Apparently one person was killed.
Armin, 10:19 p.m.: There was something here at Lidl too.
Ajla: Just now?
Ajla: What was it? Maybe they're connected?
Armin: I don't know.
Ajla, 10:24 p.m.: And what happened in Kesselstadt?
Ajla: You just wrote that something happened there?
Armin: Yes, but nothing big. I'm heading into the city. There are helicopters circling.
Ajla: I'm going to bed.
Ajla Kurtović goes offline.
Armin, 10:35 p.m.: I'm walking over to Lidl, someone was apparently killed here too.
Five of the victims' families live in Kesselstadt. Those who couldn't reach their children on their mobile phones walked over to Kurt Schumacher Square.
Çetin Gültekin: When I got to the Lidl parking lot, my mother was lying on the ground screaming. The crime scene was sealed off. She grabbed me by the collar and told me to go in and pull my brother out. I went up to a police officer and said, do me a favor. I'll call my brother. You go into the kiosk and tell me if a phone rings. He came back and said: Yes, a phone rang.
In one crime scene photo, Gökhan Gültekin is lying slumped in a heap behind the counter. He had been in the process of building up a moving company in Hanau and worked as a building superintendent in hospitals. At night, he sometimes worked at the kiosk. People in the neighborhood called him Gogo. Çetin and Gökhan are the children of a man who left southeastern Turkey in the 1960s to work on highway construction sites in Germany. He wanted to save up enough money to buy two oxen and then return to Turkey. When he was working on the highway A45, he lived in a workers' hostel in Hanau. He liked the city and he decided to stay, and brought his wife Hüsna from Turkey to join him. They had two sons and moved with them to Kesselstadt.
Mir Salam Hashemi: On the day of the attack, I went to a rehab session. I told Nesar, give me a kiss, I'm going. He said: I'll drive you to the station, papa. No, you don't need to, I'm taking the bus, I told him. That night, Saida called. Papa, there has been a shooting and the guys aren't answering their phones. I told the doctor, I have to leave. You were dreaming, the doctor replied. I found a taxi and paid 300 euros. The driver let me out in front of the perpetrator's house. All of the roads were blocked off. I told the police officer that I live here. They didn't let me through.
Emiş Gürbüz was waiting in a hotel lobby on Heumarkt. Her first child Sedat lay behind the warning tape in the shisha bar across the way.
Diana Sokoli hit the police officer who brought her the mobile phone of her boyfriend Fatih Saraçoğlu. He was lying dead in an ambulance.
Kaloyan Velkov's Facebook account remained online for hours and his cousin Vaska Zlateva kept writing to him: Tell me, are you okay?
That night, the family members were taken to a police auditorium where they sat down on benches. There were Twix bars and Snickers. And black tea. At dawn, an officer read out the list of names of those who had been killed.
The family members frequently talk about that night in the shop on Krämerstrasse and how they noticed each other for the first time: waiting, crying, and then screaming and flailing about. It was the night that brought them together, a night when nobody wanted to be where they were. After the names were read out, they all had the same questions. They didn't know who had killed their children and why. Where were they now? Many of them again drove by the Lidl parking lot that morning and didn't realize that their children were still lying there.
Hamza Kurtović had only just started his job in a warehouse a few weeks earlier. He told his father: I'm going to stay there until I retire. Armin Kurtović called the company hotline from the police auditorium and said that Hamza had been injured and wouldn't be able to come to work the next day.
Çetin Gültekin: After the autopsy, they sewed my brother up and wrapped him in plastic wrap so he wouldn't come apart. I always thought autopsies were performed in cases when it wasn't clear how someone died. In our religion, it is considered a desecration of the corpse. It's almost like killing a dead person a second time. I soaped up Gökhan and poured water over him, but pink blood kept coming out of the places where he had been stitched up. It was the first time I had ever performed such a washing. It took almost two hours. The imam had told me that no blood could get onto the shroud. We plugged every small hole on his body with cotton.
In the investigation file is an email from Feb. 21, written by a federal prosecutor to the investigating judge at the Federal Court of Justice, with the subject line: "Hearing of the family members of the deceased victims – application for impoundment and autopsy." "The families of Hamza Kurtović, Ferhat Unvar and Gökhan Gültekin were already contacted on Feb. 19, 2020." The sentence is a source of anger at the Initiative. The families were only read the list of names of their dead children on the morning of Feb. 20. Hamza Kurtović was only declared dead in the hospital at 12:35 a.m.
A criminal investigator noted Hamza's mobile phone number, shoe size and address and, in the form pertaining to the body, he wrote: "No known contact person" – despite the fact that Hamza's parents were registered with the police and were waiting in the police auditorium for information about the whereabouts of their son.
They can't get past the fact that they were only allowed to see their children after the autopsies had been performed.
Armin Kurtović: When the coroner started cutting my son apart the next day, they were still telling me on the phone that they didn't know where he was. I read later in the files that they had received permission for the autopsy from the public prosecutor in Hanau, but she no longer had jurisdiction. The Federal Public Prosecutor General had already taken over the case. That is unauthorized assumption of authority. When you address the mistakes with the officials, they say they had never experienced such a thing: The functionaries, the administrator, the police officers, none of them were prepared for it. But what do they think? That we families were prepared for it?
Najiba Hashemi: It was the first time in my life that I had ever seen a corpse, and it belonged to my son. When I washed him, a tear trickled out of Nesar's eye. I wanted to see everything. I wanted everything back. I don't want to close my eyes and forget. We had to wait six days before we got him back.
Filip Goman didn't go to the police auditorium in the night of the shootings. He stayed at the Lidl parking lot. He no longer had any hope. He had no more questions for the police. His sons' friends had seen her. He knew that Mercedes was lying dead on the floor of the kiosk.
Filip Goman: I said to the police officer: I don't want you to say later that the gypsy ruined the crime scene. I'm waiting here. But you have to promise me that I will be allowed to go in to bid farewell to my daughter.
Filip Goman is 57 years old, the son of Polish Roma from Katowice. His grandparents were murdered in a Nazi concentration camp. In the 1960s, he traveled through German cities in his parents' mobile home. He never went to school and later became a carpet salesman. When his wife Sophia became pregnant, he took her to the cinema where they watched "The Count of Monte Cristo." They gave their daughter the name of the beautiful Catalan woman in the film: Mercedes. Goman bought a villa, drove a Rolls Royce and lived on marble floors. They would vacation in Monte Carlo. His sons say: He became a millionaire three times and gambled it all away. Goman married Mercedes to her cousin, and she was 17 when she gave birth to their son Colorado. The marriage didn't last and she moved back into the villa before marrying her second husband. When he was sent to prison, she moved to Kesselstadt and worked in the kiosk. But even when she wasn't working, "Benz" was always there, say her friends. She called it "chilling," says Goman. She drank Jack-and-Cola and turned up the music.
That night, Filip Gorman waited at the Lidl parking lot for 20 hours. After investigators had finished gathering evidence, a police officer led him to Mercedes.
At the Initiative, he often speaks of this moment. His daughter, he says, looked as though she wanted to say: Sorry, I didn't mean to die here. When Goman talks about bidding farewell to his daughter, the others stare off into space. He is the only one who was able to see his child before the autopsy.
Serpil Unvar: Filip was smart. He just waited there. We didn't know that they were inside. I was 100 percent convinced that Ferhat was just injured and in the hospital.
Filip Goman: But Serpil, you were there.
Serpil Unvar: Yes, I was there. I asked all of the police officers and showed them his picture. Nobody who looks like that is here, they said.
Serpil Unvar only received her son's death certificate from the city three weeks after the shooting. There, she read his official time of death for the first time: 3:10 a.m.
Months after the shooting, Unvar is still plagued by the question as to how much Ferhat suffered that night. Is it really the case that nobody helped him for five hours?
Serpil Unvar was born in a Kurdish city in southern Turkey. Her father went to Paris and she joined him later, marrying a man who her brother had chosen for her, the son of a Kurdish road builder from Hanau. She gave birth to four children, but never found happiness with her husband. When they separated, Ferhat became a father to his little brother Mirza. She gave Ferhat Dostoyevsky to read when he was 12. She wanted him to have a conscience, she says.
On his last day, she was in the kitchen talking on the phone. She waved to Ferhat as he left for the youth center to play pool. He arrived at the kiosk six minutes before the shooter.
In surveillance footage, Ferhat Unvar sinks to the floor, grabs for his pants pocket and pulls out his mobile phone – then the recording breaks off for unknown reasons. It starts up again after three minutes, but Ferhat is no longer in the frame. Judging from later photos of the crime scene, he crawled past Gökhan and Mercedes behind the counter. According to the last witnesses who were in the kiosk, Ferhat Unvar said in Turkish: "I'm burning."
The first police to enter the kiosk didn't look behind the counter. Later, a police officer stepped over him on several occasions, trying to block the window with a sun umbrella. He never bent down to Ferhat.
Serpil Unvar had her lawyer write to the Federal Public Prosecutor General and she has repeatedly voiced her doubts in interviews. When Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht visited the families in Hanau last September, Unvar asked if she could help her clear up this question. At the Initiative, she often sits under Ferhat's picture and speaks with him: What are you doing there, Ferhat? And then she again screams at whoever is sitting next to her.
Serpil Unvar: They simply didn't check on him!
Çetin Gültekin: Maybe they just forgot to include the two in the report, Serpil. Maybe he died at 23:10 instead of 3:10, you understand?
Serpil Unvar: No, I don't understand.
She has never taken the sheets off of his bed. You can still see the burned holes from his cigarette in the bathroom, traces of his fists in the door and his name scratched into the chimney.
After the shooting, they got their son's mobile phone back and they set it in his room. Ferhat's fingerprints are still on the display, traced in his blood.
Day to Day
Çetin Gültekin: Is there a tea here for Çeto?
Newroz Duman: Çetin, you also have two hands.
Çetin Gültekin: Nobody thinks of me.
They meet here every day of the week. The door opens at 10 a.m., though most of them show up in the afternoon, when they order döner kebabs or pizza and tell each other that they shouldn't eat so many carbohydrates. Sometimes, it's just before midnight when they lock up again.
They refer to the space as the children's room and refer to each other as family – and they also include others who help without having lost a family member themselves.
One of those people is Hagen Kopp, 60, who took to the streets in the 1970s to protest against war and for the environment. He modestly refers to himself as the custodian. He turns the corona air purifier on and off as needed, arranges video conferences with city officials, meets with lawyers and identifies new witnesses.
Marion Bayer is another, a 42-year-old who used to work at a leftist publishing house and who has become a kind of state secretary at the Initiative, writing letters on behalf of the families to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Chancellor Angela Merkel and to Mayor Kaminsky.
Then there is Newroz Duman, a 31-year-old who came to Hanau with her Kurdish family as a child. Today, she is one of the best-known faces in the leftist scene. From the first day after the attack, she started calling out the names of the dead from the stage.
On this morning, Newroz has brought fresh flowers. Çetin says that nobody loves him. Serpil is talking about the new rocks for her garden. Mirza, eight years old, the little brother of Ferhat Unvar, is playing Brawl Stars on a mobile phone. Armin Kurtović is sitting in the corner scrolling through pictures of water wells that he is having built in Ethiopia on Hamza's behalf.
Goman is speaking on the phone with the secretary of the commissioner appointed to help the victims. He is again talking about the murderer, who months before the shooting reported an ominous secret service to the Federal Public Prosecutor General's office, a complaint in which he referenced his own website – on which he then posted a call 15 days before the shooting to annihilate entire peoples.
Filip Goman: The terrorist spent months revealing himself. Where was the government? Where was the police? Where were the public prosecutors? Or did they just think: Let him shoot down the dagos? Nobody says officially how racist everybody is here. Even if I go to prison because of it, the president of Germany, what's his name? Stahlmayr.
Armin Kurtović: Steinmeier …
Filip Goman: … in such a situation like in Hanau, a person like Stahlmayr has to do something!
Armin Kurtović: … Steinmeier.
Filip Goman: Believe me, we Roma also have big chiefs who have something to say like Stahlmayr.
Armin Kurtović: Filip, Steinmeier!
Filip Gorman: My wife got a sentence of six years and nine months for fraud. What's the name of that football player again? Udo Jürgens?
Armin Kurtović: Uli Hoeness.
Filip Goman: How much did he swindle?
Armin Kurtović: … 20 million.
Filip Goman: And he's out again! Two years, then parole. And my daughter was murdered. Please can you arrange for my wife Roletta Balog to get parole?
Attempts have been made to express condolences to the families. The chancellor came to funeral services in Hanau in March and they were invited to the state capital in Wiesbaden by Governor Volker Bouffier. They visited President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin.
But as is the case following many such attacks, they have still been left with questions that can never be answered. They have the feeling that they haven't been told everything. And that they haven't always been helped quickly enough.
Many of the families still live in Kesselstadt, months after the attack – not far from the crime scene, not far from the house of the gunman. Sophia, the mother of Mercedes, wants to leave.
Sophia Kierpacz: The mayor says the welfare office should help. The welfare office doesn't help us, we're gypsies, they don't give us any apartments. When I find a nice apartment, they ask us, when they see us, how many people are you? I was born in Germany, my children were born here. The Germans always say foreigners, foreigners. What do the foreigners do? I don't get it. Look, a German killed our children, a racist.
On the day after the attack, Edgar Franke, the federal government's commissioner for victims, traveled to Hanau and met with the families and the mayor. He stayed for six days. Families and the injured received immediate aid. Parents, children and partners received 30,000 euros each while siblings got 15,000 euros.
Franke represents a country where aid for victims has been increasing for 20 years, as if bigger and bigger holes have to be filled in a carpet that is falling apart. Around the turn of the millennium, German parliament decided it was time to start indemnifying victims of racist attacks using federal funds. After the attacks on German tourists in Djerba, the payments were expanded to victims of terrorist attacks, and then later to the victims of all extremist attacks – left-wing, right-wing and Islamist. Seven years ago, the German government paid out 199,000 euros. Last year, it was almost 2.5 million.
Sophia Kierpacz: Mr. Franke told me: Yes, Ms. Kierpacz, we helped you. But how did you help us? I wouldn't have given up my child for a billion euros. But how are the children supposed to continue living without a mother? Who should go to work for them? Who should care for them? Who should teach them how to live? I'm a grandmother. Mother is different. What does a grandmother know? Nothing.
Sophia is now taking care of Mercedes' son. He wears a bracelet that his mother bought him when he was born, engraved with his name: Colorado.
He is 17 and frequently comes to the Initiative. He hugs Serpil Unvar, she buys him cologne and tells him he should move in with her.
She says, when I see such big guys, I think of Ferhat. He says: Who thinks about you more than your mother does?
Serpil Unvar: So, Armin, how was your therapy? Did you drive the woman crazy too?
Armin Kurtović: The therapist wanted to do relaxation exercises with me. Tense up, breathe, relax. She told me I need to stop it with the files.
Armin Kurtović is smoking a cigarette in front of the Initiative and talking with his wife Dijana and Serpil Unvar about the locked emergency exit at the Arena Bar. Again. Shortly after the shooting, he heard in the neighborhood that the police had asked the bar owner to keep the door locked to make it easier to check people during raids. Months later, he read in the crime scene report that the door had also been locked on the night of the shooting. Kurtović has been researching it ever since.
Survivors told him that when they heard gunfire coming from the kiosk, they didn't even run to the emergency exit because they knew that it was locked. Instead, they ran into the corner, they said, and waited for the shooter as if "on the slaughterhouse table." Kurtović doesn't understand why months have gone by without Hanau prosecutors launching an investigation for negligent homicide. If raids were so common, he asks, why wasn't the bar just closed down long ago? Did the police want to watch and see who went in and out? What was my son then, he asks? Collateral damage? He spoke with investigators in the search for answers to his questions. He communicated his suspicions to Hesse Interior Minister Beuth. He has never received a reply. On this afternoon, he has again invited witnesses to the Krämerstrasse Initiative – bar regulars and former employees.
Armin Kurtović used to be a bus driver in Frankfurt. But when he leads the discussions with the witnesses, he sounds like a chief investigator who is convinced that if everyone had done their job, Nesar and Hamza would still be alive.
Dijana Kurtović: The therapist says we need to think of ourselves.
Serpil Unvar: Yes, of course. Let's go shopping Dijana. You forget Hamza and I'll forget Ferhat.
Armin Kurtović: I told her I would be ashamed to visit his grave if I was thinking of myself.
"We're going to pay Hamza a short visit."
"I'm going to go visit Ferhat."
"Haydi, hurry up. The cemetery is closing in just a bit."
Such sentences can be heard every day in the storefront on Krämerstrasse. They're as normal as one saying to the other that he has to drop by the bakery.
Serpil Unvar: I have never allowed anyone to give me flowers in my life. I hate flowers. I never even allowed my ex-husband to bring me flowers. And now I bring Ferhat flowers every day.
The three friends Nesar, Hamza and Ferhat are buried next to each other in the Hanau cemetery. When the parents visit them together, they empty the rainwater from the vases and pack away the angels that other visitors leave there. They lay their mobile phones on the grave and play Koran suras from YouTube while running their fingers through the dirt. The city of Hanau gave their children honorary graves – graves that never expire. A memorial plaque is to be set up on the path through the cemetery with the names of all nine of the victims. To make sure people don't someday think there were just three, says Armin Kurtović.
Sedat Gürbüz is buried a half hour by car from Hanau, in the Dietzenbach cemetery. There is no plaque here. His mother Emiş Gürbüz says she lights a candle here on cold days so that Sedat isn't cold in his grave down below. For months, she has been fighting for him to receive the same kind of recognition as the dead children of Hanau. She wrote to Governor Bouffier and asked: "Why isn't my son's grave in Dietzenbach also an honorary grave? Doesn't he also have a right to that?" She wrote the same letter to Steinmeier and one to the Hesse commissioner for victims. She wrote the mayor of her city, who still hasn't visited her to this day.
Salahettin Gürbüz: Maybe, as a father, I should have grabbed my son and left this country. What are we actually begging for? Even if they give him a golden grave, he still isn't coming back.
Emiş Gürbüz has started writing letters to the mayor of the Turkish city where her parents are from. Maybe he can set up a memorial plaque for Sedat?
She says that she has started hating Germany, this country to which her father came 50 years ago to install car parts on an assembly line. This city where she has a garden plot, where she had the same elementary school teacher as her son Sedat. Sedat's jacket is still hanging on a chair in the kitchen and his towel is still in the bathroom, embroidered with his name – a present he received when he was born. She charges his phone every evening. It should never go dead, she says.
Sedat was a lazy student, she says, and loved clothing from Hugo Boss. He used a severance payment from the supermarket chain Rewe to open the shisha bar Midnight on Heumarkt in Hanau. It was open 23 hours a day and Sedat threw parties there, inviting DJs to come over from Frankfurt.
Emiş Gürbüz never visited his bar in Hanau. But now that Sedat is dead, she drives by almost every Sunday. The Initiative is located just a few steps away.
Here, she tells the others that the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) is trying to prevent the honorary grave and the stele, and that one of them proposed "Stolpersteine" instead, those paving stones found in sidewalks across Germany were Jewish victims of the Holocaust once lived. "They want to step on Sedat," she says.
Çetin Gültekin: If Tobias had had a chainsaw, he might have cut off Gökhan's arm or Mercedes' leg. But he never would have been able to kill nine people.
One of the questions that the parents take along with them to their meetings with politicians, with the justice minister, with the head of the weapons agency, is the one about the perpetrator's gun license. But no matter who they ask, they all refer to the ongoing investigation.
But they have learned a lot from their own investigations.
They know that the gunman applied for his first license in 2013, and that he wrote that he needed a gun license to "practice the hobby of sport shooting." And they know that he gave the weapons agency permission to contact the health office. They read in the files that the weapons agency never actually contacted the health office because he had signed an outdated form. Thirteen months earlier, the Hesse Interior Ministry had told the weapons agency to no longer include the health office as part of their background checks.
They know that the man who killed their children had been committed to a psychiatric hospital because he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. That he was brought to the hospital in handcuffs. They know that in the years that followed, he had repeatedly attracted police attention: He was the focus of restraining orders, he smuggled drugs, he was charged with fraudulently obtaining welfare and with negligent arson. But he still received his second gun license. Over the years, he made an appearance in fully 15 law enforcement investigations.
Why, the families are wondering, did nobody check whether a person like that possessed a weapon?
Ferhat jumping into the Main River in the depth of winter. Nesar posing with his car. Hamza at the seaside. Kaloyan dancing on tables. Mercedes standing in the stadium of the Eintracht Frankfurt soccer team.
In the storefront on Krämerstrasse, the dead live on in their parents' mobile phones. Almost all of them have changed their profile pictures, using images of their children on Facebook, Signal and WhatsApp. They are constantly swiping through pictures that they had never seen before Feb. 19 because friends only sent them after the shooting.
Vaska Zlateva: When I talk on the phone with Kaloyan's son in Bulgaria, he holds up his father's driver's license to the camera. Kaloyan was a truck driver. He drove to Iraq, to Syria. He stayed in Hanau because he wanted to save money for his son's eye operation. Alex is eight years old, and when we ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, he says: policeman. He still doesn't know why his father had to die.
On this morning in December, Serpil has brought bread rolls. Newroz is making scrambled eggs and Çetin wants a tea. Again, they are sitting together at the breakfast table.
Çetin Gültekin: I want to make a life-size picture of Gökhan for my mother's room, super big.
Serpil Unvar: Don't do it! When she looks at the picture, she'll be reminded of her child's death. Why are you doing that?
Çetin Gültekin: What should I do? That's what she wants.
Serpil Unvar: No, Çetin.
Çetin Gültekin: Newroz, what do you think. Can we do 105 centimeters?
Newroz Duman: The guy said it has to be at least 120, because they are portraits.
Çetin Gültekin: Then please make one 120 by 120.
Serpil Unvar: Stop it Çetin, put up a picture of Charlie Chaplin. I have a picture of him. Do you want it?
Çetin Gültekin, 46, moved back in with his parents after Febs. 19. His father died of cancer three weeks after the shooting. Gültekin's son is named Mert. He is 26 and lives with his uncle in one room, and Çetin is now sleeping in the bed of his dead brother.
Çetin Gültekin: Sometimes, my mother comes in at dawn and screams: How can you sleep peacefully while your brother lies under the cold earth? When that happens, Mert and I jump out of bed and leave the apartment. We go into the city, sit down somewhere and only come back home at around noon. We lie to her and say: We filled out another application for Gökhan, some form or another, so that my mother thinks: They're taking care of things, doing something for my dead child!
On some days, Hüsna Gültekin comes to the Initiative. She is 72 and uses a walker. She is a kind of village elder at the Initiative. When she comes, everyone holds open the door and brings her tea.
Hüsna Gültekin: Do you dream of your sons?
Najiba Hashemi: No, unfortunately I don't.
Serpil Unvar: Only once.
Hüsna Gültekin: I've hung pictures of him in my room, his face is everywhere. But I still don't dream of him.
At some point, Serpil Unvar says: Why is my child dead? I hate myself. My child was killed, and for months, we've just been sitting here and we keep on living! How can we keep living?
Mir Salam Hashemi: When a bird loses its baby, what does it do? If the baby falls out of the tree or it is stolen by a cat? It screams the whole time and can't do anything else.
Nesar Hashemi received training as a systems mechanic at the company where his father works. He wanted to become an instructor. At Dunlop, they just called him Hashemi Junior. His father still hasn't managed to empty out his locker at work.
Diana Sokoli: I never imagined myself in construction worker clothing and heading out to hunt and kill animals. But that's what Fatih loved to do. It was his work.
Diana Sokoli and Fatih Saraçoğlu grew up in the same neighborhood of Regensburg. They ran into each other by coincidence in Hanau and became a couple. She opened a beauty salon while he started an extermination company. Diana Sokoli now wears his black work gloves every day and kills rats and cockroaches.
On some days, Hamza's mother takes his shoes out of the closet and smells them. Armin Kurtović drives Hamza's Audi. Najiba Hashemi has tied up a used tissue from her son in a clear plastic bag and put it in his wardrobe. Emiş Gürbüz takes worms from Sedat's grave and buries them in the bushes. If someone tips over the picture of Sedat that she has placed on the mailboxes in the apartment building, she'll sit in the darkness in a chair at night to find out who did it. Çetin Gültekin says that she can't accept the fact that she has slowly started to accept what happened.
None of the family members have ever been to a trauma center, none of them have been through a rehabilitation program. When she loads up the dishwasher with tea glasses at the Initiative, Serpil Unvar sometimes asks herself what they will all do when they are done filing all their inquiries at the agencies.
Trials are held so that people can learn the truth, so that those responsible can be punished, so that there can be closure at some point. At the Initiative, they are doing what they do so they can carry on with life.
Some of them here compare their suffering. They say things like: If I had just one child like the Păuns, I would have shot myself long ago. They ask: Do you think the other mothers are suffering as much as I am? Sometimes, they are furious with each other, they want the others to fight even harder or raise their voices even louder – to attack the agencies and the society that made racism possible in the first place with their silence. Sometimes, they also want the other to be quieter in interviews. But they are always quick to put their differences aside and give each other a hug.
Piter Minnemann: In the beginning, I felt like shit because nothing happened to me. Not because I wanted something to happen to me, but because I thought their children must have been struck by bullets meant for me. There have been times when people have come up to me and said, what are you? You're big, you're strong. You're a kickboxer. Why didn't you throw a chair? Why didn't you jump on him? Why didn't you take his weapon out of his hands? Why didn't you break the window? Why didn't you do something?
Two days after the killings, Piter Minnemann converted to Islam and is now named Bilal. He’s 19 years old. At the Initiative, he has begun calling Armin Kurtović uncle and Çetin Gültekin abi, big brother. Over a cigarette, he reassures the mothers: Your son didn’t suffer. It was quick, I saw it. He gives interviews about the blocked emergency exit. Minnemann is a gifted speaker and he has begun delivering the opening addresses at their rallies. He had the date, Feb. 19, 2020, tattooed on his chest.
In the search for culprits, they sometimes get angry with each other. Kim Schröder only enters the Initiative when Mercedes’ mother isn’t there. Sophia blames her for Mercedes’ death.
Diana Sokoli: But why are you to blame?
Kim Schröder: Because I was standing there and ducked when the shots were fired! If I hadn’t ducked, all of us who were in that kiosk would be dead, and Dario too!
Diana Sokoli: I can understand, though. It was the same with Fatih. He drove his friend here that day because he wanted to save the 10 euros for the taxi. I also beat up the friend and insulted him. Instead of sitting in the car, his friend said, come brother, let’s get out and have another smoke.
Çetin Gültekin: It's God's will. There is nothing we can do about it. This friend who said one cigarette, one more cigarette, he was just the reason. And there also moments when we say, let's smoke another cigarette, and then you stay alive.
Like many here, Serpil Unvar is a believer. But since Ferhat’s death, she says she has found it harder to believe in things like heaven and hell. She’s scared and wonders: What if there’s nothing after death and I never see him again?
Serpil Unvar: Why is Ferhat dead, Emiş?
Emiş Gürbüz: And why is Sedat dead, Serpil?
Serpil Unvar: Ferhat was a sad boy.
Emiş Gürbüz: Sedat was always laughing.
Serpil Unvar: If I had made him happier, he wouldn’t have been in that kiosk.
Emiş Gürbüz: I should have just sat in that shisha bar with Sedat for 24 hours. We didn’t take good enough care of our children, they just slipped through our fingers. It’s our own fault.
When it comes to the question of guilt, the conversations always lead to the parents of the gunman.
The families do not view the perpetrator’s mother, who he shot that night, as a victim. They say she looked the other way for decades, not wanting to see what her child was doing. The gunman's father, a 73-year-old engineer, was taken to a psychiatric ward after the night of the crime and then to a hotel. Although the doctor told the police not to bring him back, he returned to the neighborhood three weeks after the crime.
Serpil Unvar: Do you think we could live in Hanau if our children had done that?
Dijana Kurtović: No, of course not! And look at what happened in Trier, and the old man has a driver’s license and cars. He could drive into a crowd of people, couldn’t he?
Their investigation has revealed that the gunman's father has turned to the authorities on at least 17 occasions, filing complaints filled with racist content, all after the Feb. 19 massacre. He has submitted written requests to reclaim his son’s murder weapons and ammunition. He views the memorials, which are supposed to commemorate the victims, as "incitement of the people.” He wants the authorities to unblock his son’s website. He photographed the Arena Bar years before his son’s crime and saved the pictures on his computer.
On this late December day, relatives are holding a vigil in front of his home. Piter Minnemann is standing at the microphone and he looks at the police when he asks: Why did the officers send me home on foot on the night of the crime? Why did they hide behind Etris just because one of them screamed: The shooter is back? Why am I doing worse today than I was a year ago? Why are we afraid again? Who is protecting whom in this country?
Ajla Kurtović: After the funeral service, the police liaison for immigrants called me. She said there were new findings in the investigation and that they couldn’t speak to my father because he’s so impulsive. The father of the gunman had returned, and she asked me to tell my dad in a quiet moment. And she told me to tell him that there was no point in seeking revenge. That if we retaliated, we would only be hindering the police’s work. She told me to call her if my dad was planning something. I hung up and thought: Was that for real?
Officials called all the families in Kesselstadt around that time, and they visited survivors and they also warned seriously injured people like Etris Hashemi to abide by German law, repeating these terms over and over again: blood vengeance, vigilante justice, preventative custody.
As Minnemann asks questions at the vigil, the father of the gunman walks up and down behind the police officers and then shouts: Get off my property! He leads a German shepherd on a leash.
Armin Kurtović: I have considered having Hamza exhumed and brought to Bosnia. I can’t go on. Everyone who comes says I have done everything I can for you. If the crime had happened in a German beer hall, the emergency exit would have been open. Just let them say it publicly: You shitty dagos, you’re not worth protecting!
You can submit an official query as to why the emergency exit of the Arena Bar was closed that night, and as a journalist you are always told to direct your request to someone else. The police say that they noticed that the emergency exit was closed and that they had reported it to the trade licensing office and that an obviously illegal employee in the shop had been reported to the main customs office in Darmstadt. The trade licensing office, meanwhile, says it isn’t responsible for keeping escape routes clear, and instead says the issue should be referred to the Darmstadt regional council. The regional council says it is responsible but that it hadn’t received any notification regarding the Arena Bar. The main customs office, meanwhile, confirms that it received the notification but states that it is not responsible for emergency exits.
DER SPIEGEL found that the trade licensing office initiated proceedings against the bar's operator in November 2017, and that the man was to have his bar license revoked. Neighbors had complained about noise and drugs. The operator fought back in court and it wasn’t until November 2019 that he finally lost his license. He remained the owner, but rented the establishment to a new tenant.
In the meantime, the public prosecutor’s office in Hanau is investigating, but only because Armin Kurtović, the grieving father, has filed a criminal complaint for involuntary manslaughter against unknown persons.
It seems as though the trial in the shopfront on Krämerstrasse is doing more to seek clarification and consequences than the authorities in Hesse, who only admitted their omissions on the night of the crime after relatives and survivors refused to relent with their public questioning of events. And no matter how many times they ask, they can’t shake the feeling that something is being kept from them. The deeper that impression gets, the more they feel likes strangers in this country.
Armin Kurtović was born in Schweinfurt 46 years ago. During the interview with the Federal Government’s Victims’ Commissioner, he put his German identity card on the table and asked: What’s this thing worth if I’m not treated like a German?
At Krämerstrasse, people are wondering why they had to experience racism from officials after the crime. Why the autopsy report mentioned an "oriental, Mediterranean-looking appearance” in the case of a young man who was blond and blue-eyed, or why an interpreter was sent to them when a DNA sample was taken. Why the police sent their migration officers, the city sent the foreigner’s advisory council, even to families who have been living here for decades.
In the months following the crime, they had to listen to television interviews in which Heiko Kasseckert, a member of the Hesse state parliament with the conservative CDU party, demanded that the pictures of their children be removed from the Grimm Brothers monument. His reasoning: The market square isn’t a crime scene and the Grimm Brothers are, after all, the city’s most famous sons.
They say it pains them to watch, a year after the crime, the Hesse state parliament vote to approve an aid fund for crime victims, but fail to name "racism” or "right-wing extremism” as part of its purpose.
Çetin Gültekin: Foreigners have been dying and burning here since 1989. What did we do? We didn't harm a thing. We are totally reasonable people! At some point, we have to go ballistic. Otherwise this is going to happen in another city. The Nazis think the victims are decent people and won’t fight back. Hanau needs to be the last place where this happens!
Armin Kurtović: They just want us to do it, Çetin, so they can say they’re animals, they’re criminals. That they’ve lived here for generations and still haven’t integrated.
In the years before they had their own children, right-wing extremists murdered people in the cities of Mölln and Solingen and committed racist attacks in Rostock and Hoyerswerda. Their children were becoming young adults when news broke of the NSU murders, and they saw rise of the right-wing populist AfD.
In Hesse, Volker Bouffier has served as governor for more than 10 years now. They say he intervened in the investigation into the NSU murders as the state’s interior minister at the time and protected an intelligence agent who had been at the scene of one of the crimes at the moment of the killing. After their meeting with him in the state capital in Wiesbaden, they called him "The Yogurt Man.” During their visit with him there, he had served them yogurt and said he had seen much worse attacks. When they asked why the families were treated so badly after the crime, he promised them: We’ll do better next time.
Armin Kurtović: You know what the worst thing is? When he was at City Hall, sitting across from us with tears in his eyes, I believed what he said …
Dijana Kurtović: ... It could have been my son.
Armin Kurtović: How naive we were. He could say, you know, your loved ones are dead, I can’t bring them back, I’m sorry, we failed, my agencies failed, we were overwhelmed. We will learn lessons from this. Çetin, we have other children, do we have to worry something will happen to them, too?
Posting by Ferhat Unvar on his Facebook page in 2016:
In 1945 a country shouted
Suddenly, there’s the AfD,
concerned citizens and Pegida (Lyric from the song "Sick World” by the German rapper Pillath)
Serpil Unvar: Ferhat was right about his worries. If he saw what I was doing here, he’d ask me: Mom, have you lost it? Do you really think you can make a difference in this country?
Serpil Unvar has since founded the Ferhat Unvar Education Initiative and wants to fight racism in schools.
Saida Hashemi passed her exams this fall and is now a math and history teacher. She is also running for office in local elections for the Social Democrats.
Najiba Hashemi is taking German lessons. She wants to be able to understand the files even better and write a book for Nesar.
Sedat Gürbüz has been given an honorary grave.
Ferhat’s cousin Abdullah Unvar wants to run for a seat in the German federal parliament.
Etris Hashemi has led a swimming course for children, just as he used to do with his brother Nesar.
Çetin Gültekin moved away from Kesselstadt with his mother and son. He says that when Mert gets married, he’ll buy a motorhome and tour around Europe with his mother.
Iulia Păun tried to get pregnant a few weeks after Vili’s death. The Păuns will soon be adopting a child. They want to name it Rareş. The name lies, engraved in an amulet, above their TV, it means "rare.” It’s the name Vili had wanted to give his first child.
Armin Kurtović wants the tissue samples taken from his son during the autopsy back. He wants to bury them. In Hanau.