Germany's Immigrant Community in Hanau Reeling After Shisha Bar Shooting

For decades Turks, ethnic Kurds and other immigrants have coexisted in the town, leaving residents shocked after the gunman, who posted a hate-filled manifesto, killed nine people of foreign background

People attend a vigil for the victims of a shooting in Hanau, near Frankfurt, Germany, February 20, 2020.
KAI PFAFFENBACH/Reuters

In the German town of Hanau, a longtime immigrant destination with decades of coexistence between people of different origins, residents were left with the fear Thursday that their community was targeted after a gunman shot and killed nine people of foreign background.

Residents shook their heads at a level of violence that is rare in Germany, and wondered at the level of anti-foreigner hatred expressed by the attack in a place where Turks and ethnic Kurds patronize the same hookah bars, and where members of both groups were among the victims along with people with roots in Bulgaria, Bosnia and Poland.

Among the dead was the owner of the Midnight Shisha Bar, an immigrant from Turkey who worked and saved to buy his own business, along with the gaming kiosk next door.

"He was very hard working, he had a big circle of acquaintances and a lot of friends, very friendly with employees,” said Hanau native Metin Kan, who recently helped out at the gaming parlor for several months.

He said the area was clearly targeted because it was a center for immigrants.

“It’s shocking,” he said.

Turkish officials have said five of the victims were Turkish nationals, and Germany’s federal prosecutor, Peter Frank, said all nine people killed were of foreign background.

One of the victims was a Bosnian, identified by a relative from his hometown of Prijedor as Hamza Kurtovic.

The relative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Kurtovic was in his early 20s and was born in Germany, where his parents immigrated nearly 50 years ago.

He said the shooter lived in the same neighborhood of Hanau as Kurtovic as well as two other victims, and that they knew him in passing.

The gunman has been identified as 43-year-old Tobias Rathjen, a Hanau resident who was found dead alongside his mother in his townhouse after the rampage. Both suffered from gunshot wounds, and a firearm was found on Rathjen, authorities said.

In a hate-filled manifesto posted on his website, Rathjen called people from multiple countries, including Turkey, Israel, Syria, Iraq, India and Vietnam to be "completely exterminated."

A screenshot of footage made available on Youtube of Tobias R. since February 14, 2020.
AFP

Almost 3 million people of Turkish origin live in Germany. Many came to the country decades ago as guest workers, helping fill a labor shortage after World War II, and they include many of the country’s Kurdish minority.

Despite the decades-old conflict in Turkey between the government and Kurdish separatists, the two groups get along on a personal level in Hanau, said Baran Celik, a 27-year old mechanical engineer whose grandfather arrived from Turkey in the 1970s, and whose father is the cousin of one of the victims.

He saw “no problem at all” between the two groups.

“The families and friends all know each other,” he said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not differentiate between victims in a statement issued after the attacks.

“May God rest the souls of our expatriate citizens who lost their lives in yesterday’s heinous attack in the German city of Hanau; and I call upon patience for their families and loved ones,” he said.

People place candles and flowers at a monument on the market place during a mourning for the victims of the shooting in Hanau, Germany, February 20, 2020.
Martin Meissner/AP

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said the Hanau shootings were a call to action, not just in the town but across Europe.

"The indifference shown in Europe to the fight against rising xenophobia has led to new attacks being added every day,” the ministry said in a statement.

“It is time to say ‘stop’ to these attacks.”

Hanau Mayor Claus Kaminsky, joined Thursday by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer to place flowers at the scene, said the attack was “incomprehensible” in a town with a long tradition of different groups getting along.

The large town of about 100,000 residents is some 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) east of Germany’s financial capital Frankfurt, and is on the Frankfurt subway line.

City Councilman Thomas Morlock noted that Hanau has a history of accommodating people from elsewhere, including serving as home to some 30,000 U.S. troops during the Cold War.

Longtime resident Ali Gemgucek, who heard the shots while out walking Wednesday night, was blunter about Hanau’s gritty side, referring to the street where the shooting took place as “a swamp” not unlike the areas around neighboring Frankfurt’s train station.

Bilal Yildiz, a bartender from the Arena bar where the other shooting occurred, came to stand outside the police line at the Midnight Shisha bar. He had been scheduled to work behind the bar Wednesday night but was off with a bad shoulder.

The bartender who took his shift was slightly injured. “He hid under a chair, he’s a lucky man,” said Yildiz. “We have never heard of such a thing.”

Speaking to Turkey’s Haber television, victim Beyazkender Muhammed said he was one of only a few people who survived the shooting at the Arena Bar, the scene of the second attack.

Lying in his hospital bed with a bandaged shoulder, Muhammed said he and his friends heard five or six shots outside before the gunman entered and opened fire on about a dozen people inside.

“He shot the first people he saw in the head. A man fell to the floor,” Muhammed said in German-accented Turkish. “Then he fired at all of us. I got shot in the arm while I tried to hide behind the wall.”

Muhammed said he lay on the floor on top of someone, and someone then lay on top of him, and someone else then on top of him.

“There was a kid underneath me with a hole in his throat,” he said. “The kid said to me: ‘my brother, I cannot feel my tongue; I cannot breathe.’ I said to him, recite the Kalima Shahadat prayer (from the Quran). He recited the Kalima Shahadat, he called on everyone to recite it. There was no other sound, just the two of us. I didn’t see him escape or anything.”