Perpetrator on the run after ramming truck through Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding dozens.
Berlin, Germany – Some Berliners say they will still go about their business – with defiance. Others fear more attacks are coming – and vow to alter their routines.
But most agreed that a murderous rampage in Berlin on Monday night has left their lively, fun-loving city shaken to its core, and said they were determined to defend their way of life here in spite of it.
“The city feels heavy-hearted in the Berlin fog this morning – I am watching commuters and coffee shop dwellers greet each other with concern about colleagues and friends,” said Alice Romeril, 24, a marketing specialist, on the morning after the deadly incident.
“In the office, the main discussion is of those who may have lost loved ones. But it is also one of [determination] – not to stop coming together to celebrate in the last days before Christmas.”
On Monday evening, a truck plowed into stalls and people celebrating the holidays at a Christmas market just off iconic Kurfürstendamm avenue, known locally as the Ku’damm and West Berlin’s main shopping street, killing 12 and injuring almost 50 people .
German authorities, meanwhile, continued to hunt for the man who allegedly drove the truck into the market. Late on Tuesday, December 20, they released a 23-year-old Pakistani refugee seeking asylum in the country, saying they lacked evidence to link him to the carnage.
Instead, authorities say the driver of the truck jumped out of the vehicle after the attack, leaving behind a dead Polish man, found with gunshot and stab wounds in the passenger side of the cab. Since the truck reportedly had Polish licence plates, security officials believe the Polish man was the driver of the truck and the suspect had likely hijacked the vehicle.
As the search for suspects and answers goes on, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday expressed what many in Germany felt in the aftermath of the killings.
“Like millions of people in Germany, I am horrified, shaken and deeply saddened by what happened last night in Berlin on Breitscheidplatz,” she said. “Much of what we know about these events is still uncertain but as things stand, we have to assume that this was an act of terrorism.
“I know that it would especially difficult for us all if it turns out that the person who committed this act had asked for protection and asylum in Germany.
“This would be especially repugnant toward the many, many Germans that are involved in refugee aid on a daily basis and toward the many people that actually need our protection and are making an effort to integrate in our country.”
Soon after the attack, the far right, anti-Muslim Alternative For Germany (AfD) party – which has been making gains in German legislatures for the past year – sprang into action, claiming the open-door asylum policies of Merkel were to blame for the threat to Germany, and the deaths.
“When will the German state strike back,” asked Marcus Pretzell of the AfD on Twitter. “When will this cursed hypocrisy finally stop? These are Merkel’s dead!”
Still, beyond the investigations and blame, the quiet drama of shock and grief played out on the streets of Berlin. Near Ku’damm, signs mourned the victims: “In sadness and sympathy for the victims and their loved ones,” read one at a subway station.
Germany is strong and has good infrastructure for catching whoever did this
During the day Tuesday, Berliners laid flowers at makeshift memorials around the market while inside, investigators continued to gather evidence and pieces of the truck. At noon, people gathered at the next door Kaiser Wilhelm memorial cathedral to light candles, pray and pay respects to the victims – including a group called Muslims for Peace, wearing shirts reading, “Love for all, hate for none”.
At 3pm the city observed a minute of silence.
And on the Ku’damm, pedestrians spoke in hushed voices. And as people walked by the scene amid a backdrop of festive holiday lights and decorations on the street and on shop windows, they shook their heads gravely.
“Germany is strong and has good infrastructure for catching whoever did this,” said Thomas Kahn, 34, of Berlin. “But still, it’s very sad.”
Around town, some Christmas markets were actually fuller than they usually are during the day, as people remained determined not to let fear overtake their daily lives. At Gendarmenmarkt Christmas Market in the city centre, people shopped for gifts at wooden stalls, snacked on wursts and lebkuchen (gingerbread), sipped hot Glühwein (spiced mulled wine), and spoke about why they came.
“This can happen anywhere, any time, so why shouldn’t we be here?” said Peter Knoll, of Berlin, sipping hot Gluhwein with a few friends on the grey, cold Berlin winter day. “Besides, we look forward to these all year.”
Christmas markets are a much-loved tradition in Germany, with every town in the country hosting at least one from late November until Christmas Eve. It’s a place where friends, colleagues or family head to in the evenings and weekends, an integral part of the social fabric of the holidays.
At the same time, the market hit on Monday on Breitscheidplatz on the Ku’damm is one of the smaller ones in Berlin, but very busy because Ku’damm is the city’s biggest shopping street, and a draw for tourists staying at dozens of hotels in the district – and Christmas markets are high on their must-see lists.
On Tuesday most markets, meanwhile, closed early, as requested by city officials. One in northern Berlin upped security, and refrained from playing music “out of respect for the victims” but remained open for those wanting to defy fear.
Many said life must go on, or the terrorists win.
“My thoughts are first and foremost with the families. I cannot imagine the devastation of losing a loved one so violently during such a time in the year,” said Nadia Ali, 26, an Iraqi who has adopted Berlin after she arrived to complete her studies.
“I am confident the German government will make necessary adjustments to security precautions and learn from this horrible event,” she added. “But we will not cower and allow fear to control us. As people, we need to be wary of divisions and look out for one another more than ever. Today we mourn, but tomorrow the work begins.”
Still, fear abounds. Germans have braced themselves for attacks since those on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery store in Paris in January 2015, and later in central Paris in November 2015.
Then came New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne, when hundreds of women were assaulted, allegedly by foreigners. Fears were compounded by attacks this summer in southern Germany reportedly perpetrated by refugees.
Many say they expected another attack sooner or later.
“With this supposed attack on the Christmas market in Berlin, our worst fears have come true,” said Stephan Mayer, a politician in the Bundestag. “Now the safety of every Christmas market in Germany has to be examined – even to the point where we ask ourselves whether they can even still take place.”
Still, Ann-Kathrin Hipp, 23, a student who was Christmas market-hopping on Tuesday said she encountered a lot of people going for more than the usual shopping or mulled wine, and that she was glad people were fighting their fears.
“There were some people going there wanting not to be afraid of the attack,” she said.
“I think that staying at home being afraid is the wrong way to handle this situation because that’s what these people attacking us want. So we should try to live our lives as normally as possible even though it is really sad and horrible what happened.”
Meanwhile, some said that they worry about other things affecting their way of life more.
“It’s sad, but I don’t feel any less safe,” said Lea Cassebaum, 28, a brand consultant in Berlin. “I think my values and my way of life are much more threatened by the rise of right-wing parties like the AfD than by terrorists.”
Nikolia Apostolou contributed to this report from Athens.