What It’s Like to Be a Refugee in Germany’s Conservative Stronghold
One afternoon, in a plaza in the center of Dresden, a tall man with a fatherly face and glasses insists that our interview be videotaped. Tourists and natives sit on patios eating sandwiches and ice cream as the man’s colleague tries to get the video camera working. An old man in a straw hat approaches me to admire my interview subject. “Just so you know—in anti-Islamic dialogue, he is the No. 1 in Germany! That’s why they call him a Nazi. And he is definitely not a Nazi.”
With the camera finally ready, the man begins his speech, gesticulating as though to a live television audience, even though only a couple curious onlookers are watching. He warns of a surge of radical Islam in Germany. It’s the result, he says, of the masses of Muslim refugees—men in particular—who have arrived here in recent years on the pretense of seeking asylum.
“Islam is used as a legitimization of rape and the willingness to achieve power through terrorism,” he tells me in German through an interpreter. “They have a totally different culture and a totally different attitude toward women and violence.”
The man’s name is Michael Stürzenberger, and he’s one of the better-known figures in a movement called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA. PEGIDA rose primarily in opposition to Germany’s open-door refugee policy. In a calm, matter-of-fact tone, Stürzenberger tells his imaginary audience that the Muslims want to build 100 mosques in Munich. “They want to eliminate Judaism and Christianity,” he says. “They are friendly to the outside. But that is all part of their agenda.”
Within an hour, Stürzenberger’s audience is no longer make-believe: He’s on a stage in the center of the plaza, speaking before a crowd of some 2,500 PEGIDA enthusiasts. They’ve assembled to air their grievances against Islam, liberalism, and the media. They use terms like Lügenpresse (“lying press”), a rallying cry used by the Nazis that recently found its way from Germany to America, in the form of social media posts from certain Donald Trump supporters. “There is a TV crew here from Texas called Infowars,” Stürzenberger tells the crowd. “They are the good ones—they are for Trump. Be nice to them.”
Cornelius said the drive to Arabal would take an hour, but it’s been more like three. Already a full day’s journey from Nairobi, we chanced that by dark we could reach the Arabal river and make it back to the town of Marigat to sleep. But now the sun is inching westward and our car is running out of gas.
This isn’t a place you want to be stranded for the night. Baringo County is in the midst of a war over livestock. A severe drought has forced Pokot herders to drive their cows and goats from the dry flatlands up into the beautiful mountains above Lake Baringo in search of grass. But this land is inhabited by Tugen, and the Tugen are struggling to feed their own livestock as it is.
In central Kenya, grass and vegetation can be a matter of life and death, and not just for the animals. Pastoralists depend upon milk and meat for their livelihoods. Deprived of that income, entire communities can become food insecure. For many families, livestock are their only assets: they have no bank accounts, no land to farm.
Combine those stakes with the fact that experts believe there are 530,000 to 680,000 guns in circulation among civilians in Kenya. Guns have long been traded across Kenya’s porous border with Somalia, but some have recently been traced to Uganda and South Sudan. Most herders who carry them do so for self-defense—to protect their animals from raiders. But others use them to raid.
Some of the Pokot who have crossed into the administrative region of Arabal this year fall into the latter category. Since the drought began late last year, there have been dozens of shootouts between Tugen, Pokot, and the police. Thousands of heads of livestock have been stolen, though just how many thousands is anyone’s guess.
Survivors of these shootouts speak of the Pokot as if they were immune to bullets, as if they were sharpshooters who never missed, as if their ammunition were infinite. But survivors are hard to find.
Read the feature story at Roads & Kingdoms. Reported with Anthony Langat, photos by Will Swanson.
For nearly three days, 61-year-old Tristan Voorspuy watched from his conservancy as the tourist houses on the ridge burned. On Sunday around 11 a.m., Voorspuy rode off, unarmed, nearly four miles into the bush to confront the herders who had set them ablaze. Several agonizing hours passed before air surveillance spotted what appeared to be his horse lying on her side near one of the burnt houses. It wasn’t until nearly dusk that a brave Kenyan conservancy employee made it to the scene and returned with the news: Voorspuy was dead. His body lay in a pool of blood, with bullet wounds to his head and chest, between a badly burned lodge and an empty swimming pool.
“It was revenge,” says Mworia, for the decision by conservancy owners to ask authorities to expel the herders, which they did in violent ways.
Laikipia is located in central Kenya in the heart of the Great Rift Valley. It is home to one of East Africa’s largest concentrations of wildlife, from elephants to rhinos and buffalo to packs of wild dogs. An estimated 86,000 tourists visit each year to explore parts of the 32 vast conservancies and ranches that occupy a third of Laikipia County. Many adore Laikipia because it is so remote, situated far from the more popular safari parks that flood with tourists during the dry seasons.
Over the past seven months, however, the peace for which Laikipia is known has given way to a war over grass. A severe drought that began in the fall of 2016 caused nearly 3 million people in northern Kenya to need emergency food assistance. The lack of vegetation caused herdsmen to drive thousands of cows, goats, and sheep southward from nearby counties to where, quite literally, the grass is greener—on private conservancies and ranches, including Voorspuy’s.
Many of these trespassing pastoralists see Laikipia’s wildlife not as wonders to admire, but as pests. Buffalos trample their cattle; lions devour their sheep. So the herders, some of whom were armed, began to kill the wildlife. In a matter of months, they decimated many of the largest animals that roamed the conservancies.
“Pretty much every wild animal we have has been shot by these herders,” says Sean Outram, manager of Sosian Ranch. Packs of wild dogs—the most endangered large carnivores in East Africa—have been all but wiped out. Dozens of Laikipia’s estimated 5,000 elephants have died in the conflict, as have hundreds of buffalos. Fifteen elephants and at least 12 giraffes were killed on Sosian alone. “Anything that moves has been shot—some of it for the skins, some of it for trophy. Some just because they wanted to shoot it,” says Outram.
There may have been something deeper to the herders’ resentment. Many of Laikipia’s conservancies are owned and managed by white people—Kenyan descendants of British colonialists or immigrants from Europe and other African countries. People like Voorspuy. “The tribesmen who murdered Tristan Voorspuy saw not a farmer whose life had been spent in Africa and who provided employment for scores of local people, but instead just a rich, white interloper on a horse who challenged them on land they demand to claim as their own,” wrote Max Hastings, a former safari tourist of Voorspuy’s, in the Daily Mail. “Unless its government shows the will and means to restore peace to Laikipia, which means expelling this murderous throng of invaders by force of arms, the nation’s future stands at risk, and its priceless wild heritage faces the prospect of near-extinction.”
Read the feature story at Outside Magazine.
Here, immigrants tell stories about their homelands and laugh with German volunteers about cultural differences. Graffiti covers the walls, a sign on one wall reads, “Refugees welcome. Bring your families.”
They do. Children play table football, while teenagers – mostly boys – lounge on couches.
But this particular space, known as the “international cafe”, rests in an uncanny location.
Dresden, the capital of Saxony, is a stronghold for Germany’s anti-immigrant politics. Each week, thousands of supporters of the right-wing, anti-Muslim, anti-refugee movement PEGIDA gather to demonstrate against Germany’s liberal policies towards asylum seekers.
They chant that refugees should “go home” and denounce what they see as the Islamisation of Germany. Refugees often take care to avoid central Dresden on Monday nights out of fear they’ll become targets of the protesters’ angry speech, or worse.
A lawyer and his family fled death threats in Pakistan and came to Germany only to face terrorism. Now, they’re being forced to go home.
Salzhemmendorf, Germany – Late one summer night in this quiet village, a Molotov cocktail came flying through the window of the apartment where a Zimbabwean refugee and her three young children lived.
In the apartment next door, an asylum seeker from Pakistan who calls himself Mr Khan heard nothing. He was sitting at his computer with his headphones on, watching videos on the internet with news from Karachi. He and his family had fled Pakistan for Europe in 2012 after some of his colleagues – lawyers who were Shia Muslim – had been murdered by Sunni Islamic extremists.
When he heard a loud banging on his apartment door, he opened it to find a police officer, who ushered him and his family outside. The building smelled of smoke, and Khan surveyed the wreckage: The Molotov cocktail had destroyed the bedroom it was thrown into. It was the room in which the woman’s 11-year-old son usually slept on a mattress on the floor. By chance, he was sleeping in his mother’s room that night, which may have saved his life.
Outside, “I heard the sound of the fire brigade,” Khan said. “If they did not come, this whole building could have been finished.”
After Khan’s building was attacked by xenophobic Germans, he wondered whether Germany would accept their asylum applications, and allow them to stay.
“Tomorrow, I don’t know what will happen,” Khan said. “Maybe Germany will say, ‘Out!'”
In fact, it did.
Read the full story at Al Jazeera. This is the 6th article in a 7-part series.
Last week I wrote about an attack on a refugee housing complex in Altenburg, Germany, in which two baby carriages were set aflame. It occurred just two days after members of a right-wing, anti-immigrant movement called PEGIDA marched through the town. That piece grappled with the question of how Germany—a nation with an unparalleled record of confronting its past—has found itself once again home to a small but active collection of xenophobes willing to resort to hate speech or even violence against newly arrived refugees.
But what is Germany doing to protect asylum seekers from right-wing terrorism? In 2015, the newspaper Die Zeit counted 220 violent attacks against refugees but only four convictions. Last year, the number of attacks (including ones that did not result in violence) exploded to 3,500.
How to stop this proliferation? Read the full piece at Columbia Global Reports.
On December 7, 2015, two baby carriages were set on fire at an apartment complex housing refugees in the pristine Thuringia town of Altenburg. Ten refugees, including two infants, suffered from smoke inhalation. The attack came two days after right-wing protesters marched through the town carrying signs that read, “Please continue your flight. There’s nowhere to live here.”
“On the ground floor there was a woman living with her baby who had to jump out without shoes,” district administrator Michaele Sojka told me when I met her last June. “Everyone was really shocked that something like that could happen in our city.
Two men were arrested, and six months later one of them was found guilty of arson. The judge said the man had “acted on xenophobic motives.” The other was handed a fine for repeating Nazi slogans. “One of them must have been drunk that night,” Brit Krostewitz, a volunteer with the Altenburg Network for Integration, told me. “They are just stupid Nazis.” Most Germans know the type.
This is Germany, a country whose leaders just 80 years ago tried to deport and then exterminate all non-Christians and “outsiders.” A country so ashamed of its xenophobic past that to display any hint of nationalism, such as to wave a German flag during a soccer match, remained taboo. Germany, a liberal European state that goes so far as to limit speech—by criminalizing Holocaust denial—least anyone attempt to forget or manipulate that torrid past.
And yet, Germany has recently become a breeding ground for small pockets of xenophobic citizens to commit hate crimes and terrorism against foreigners.
Read the full story at Columbia Global Reports. This is the first part of a short series on refugees in Germany.
In Freital, Abu Hamid and his fellow refugees were attacked by right-wing Germans, who could be convicted of terrorism.
Freital, Germany – On Halloween night, 2015, in this town outside the Saxon capital of Dresden, Abu Hamid went into the kitchen to grab some food when he noticed sparks of light outside the window. Sensing danger, he and his roommates rushed out of the kitchen just as a booming explosion shook the house, shattering the windows and sending pieces of glass into one man’s face.
“After that, we thought someone would come inside the home and attack us,” Abu Hamid said. “One of my friends, he took a knife.”
The explosion was caused by illegal fireworks, as they later discovered. It appeared someone had placed them on the windowsill that night to target those inside. For months beforehand, local police had failed to see a connection between a series of right-wing protests against refugee housing shelters and the bombing of a car belonging to a left-wing politician in Freital. Just one month before Abu Hamid’s apartment was attacked, another, almost identical firework attack had been launched on the house of some Eritrean refugees in the town.
It wasn’t until news outlets as far away as Berlin began pressuring authorities to take action that Germany’s federal prosecutor took up the case. In a dramatic SWAT-style raid, federal and state police arrested five suspects believed to have formed an organised anti-refugee militia.
Once the face of anti-refugee sentiment in Germany, Clausnitz and its newcomers have learned to co-exist.
On a cold night last year, some 70 Germans, mostly men, surrounded a bus of refugees in this small town and began chanting at them to “go home”.
It was February 2016, and nearly one million asylum seekers had arrived the previous year to Germany from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. As they waited to see if they’d be allowed to stay, they were sent off to live in different cities and towns across the country.
One bus with 15 asylum seekers from Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan was sent one evening to the village of Clausnitz, in the eastern German state of Saxony.
Their hostile reception by protesters who shouted at them and blocked them from entering their apartments made international headlines. A video of the encounter circulated widely, reinforcing stereotypes of small-town Germans as racist and blemishing Germany’s so-called “welcome culture”.
The refugees pleaded to the driver to turn around and return them to the temporary shelters they’d been living in around Dresden, the Saxon capital. Neither the refugees nor the demonstrators wanted this. But then, neither had a choice.
Read the full story at Al Jazeera. This is the 4th story in a 7-part series.
At the start of the refugee crisis, dysfunction and danger awaited those registering for asylum in Germany.
Before the wheels of Germany’s asylum system were fully turning, hundreds of thousands of newly arrived refugees were piling up in cities throughout the country. In Berlin, tens of thousands were forced to sleep on the streets at night and fight for their place in line by day at the now-infamous Lageso , the State Office of Health and Social Affairs, while they waited to apply for asylum.
The climate of fear and tension at Lageso reached its climax one afternoon in October 2015 when a 32-year-old German man appeared at Lageso and, in the chaos of the crowds, enticed a four-year-old Bosnian boy named Mohamed away from his family and abducted him.
Read the full story at Al Jazeera. This is the 3rd story in a 7-part series.