German authorities looked the other way as a right-wing terrorist cell went on a seven-year killing spree. Now they won’t look in the mirror.
MUNICH, Germany – One clear November day in 2011, in the town of Eisenach, two bank robbers, cornered by police, set their getaway van on fire and killed themselves inside it, going out in a blaze of fire and gunshots. It made for a sensational breaking news day, and that might have been the end of it, if not for a disturbing DVD that was distributed to several major media outlets in the days that followed.
The DVD contained a short film collage made using footage from the animated series, The Pink Panther. In it, the cartoon cat protagonist joins a group called the National Socialist Underground, or NSU, whose members “serve the fatherland.” He goes on what the narrator calls a “tour of Germany”; slowly, it emerges that this “tour” consists of visiting various murder scenes. Clips of the Pink Panther, playing over his trademark theme music, are spliced together with grisly photos of men, all ethnic minorities, who had been murdered in Germany between 2000 and 2007.
The film was a confession — or rather, a boast — of responsibility for what would come to be known as the NSU murders, the most horrific string of racist killings in Germany’s postwar history.
How did German authorities fail to notice that a group of neo-Nazis was killing ethnic minorities, practically under their noses? The answer — according a growing body of evidence deemed inadmissible to the trial — is that they should have noticed. Or even, that they did — but looked away.
Now, the victim’s families believe their last resort for justice is failing them. Among those standing trial in the Munich courtroom sits not one government employee, not one police officer, not one intelligence agent — not even an informant.
Germany’s struggle to reckon with the state’s role in the NSU killings has new relevance following the arrival of more than 1 million asylum-seekers to Germany since 2015. Their presence has been met with a wave of hundreds of attacks. As German authorities prepare to confront a new groundswell of xenophobic violence, precedent doesn’t bode well. They still haven’t come to terms with the last one.
“We have a bad, bad story,” begins Gloria Ibara, a refugee from Burundi and the mother of four. Sitting on a mattress in a simple Nairobi apartment, she tells me of her problem: “They want to kill our family.”
Gloria, whose bright smile accents her worn face, was born in rural Gitega province to a family of farmers. As her children grew, Gloria came to realize her son Eric was gay. (The names of the family members have been changed out of concern for their safety.)
At first “I told him to stop, that it’s not good,” Gloria says. But over time she decided that “that’s the way he was, and he couldn’t change it.” So she went on loving and caring for him just the same.
In many parts of East and Central Africa where homophobia is rife, parents react harshly on learning that a child is gay. Parents feel enormous pressure to either “fix” their gay kids or disown them. I’ve met dozens of LGBT refugees who have fled their home countries and escaped to Kenya, and only one—a woman, also from Burundi—wasn’t disowned by her family. So when Gloria learned that her son Eric was gay, it was extraordinary for her not to reject them. Stunned as she was when she later found out that her older son, Claude, then well into his teens, too was gay, she supported him too. It’s for that reason that they are now a family on the run.