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African Immigrants Mourn Dead In All-Night Gathering

January 19, 1996

LUEBECK, Germany (AP) _ Jean-Daniel Makodila returned to Luebeck today to find everything he loved was gone: The Zairian man’s four children, wife and three of her siblings had perished in a suspicious blaze while he was out of town.

Neo-Nazis are suspected of setting the fire that raced through the immigrant shelter in the northern port city of Luebeck on Thursday, killing five children and five adults. But police and government officials say an electrical fire has not been ruled out.

If the fire was an arson attack, it would be Germany’s deadliest assault on foreigners since World War II.

Police today freed three suspects detained Thursday, saying they had no strong evidence on which to hold them, and that the three had an alibi. The three men had criminal records, but not for right-wing violence, state Justice Minister Klaus Klingner said.

African mourners held a vigil throughout the night in an immigrants shelter like the one destroyed Thursday. It was to that home that friends brought the sobbing Makodila.

Makodila had been out of town Thursday, having gotten a message that a cousin in another town had died. He returned before dawn today to be met by friends who told him his whole family was dead.

The Zairian man’s sobs silenced the mourners gathered outside the vigil house, and several men carried the broken man upstairs to a living room. His arrival set off cries from women and children on the upper floors.

A few hours later, Makodila left the building, sobbing and leaning on a woman who sagged under his weight. Another man helped and they stopped every few steps as Makodila broke down moaning. Other immigrants lined the stairwell, dabbing tears from their eyes and weeping in unison with the broken man.

Makodila went to City Hall, where 300 Luebeck residents had gathered to mourn the dead. Sobbing throughout the mayor’s speech, he broke down and was helped out by other Africans.

The blaze killed two other people besides Makodila’s family _ a woman who leaped from the blazing building and the 6-year-old daughter she held in her arms. The mother died instantly, and her daughter died in a hospital several hours later.

The three-story building where African immigrants mourned through the night houses more than 80 asylum-seekers from 19 nations. It is the largest of the nine immigrant shelters in the Baltic seaport of 210,000.

The mourners, most from Angola and Zaire, stood smoking in the entrance, minding the children in a large basement room or sitting quietly on the stairs. A few slumped asleep in vinyl arm chairs.

Most have fled wars and political volatility. But the deadly blaze and its suspicious origins made them question their safety in the country where they have sought sanctuary.

``Today, my opinion is very, very changed,″ said Mambasi Kanda, a 38-year-old Zairian who has been in Germany for four years. ``I don’t feel so well here in Germany.″

The German government expressed sorrow today about the fire but government spokesman Herbert Schmuelling told reporters he would have no further comment until the cause was determined.

Attacks on immigrants soared after unification in 1990 and peaked in 1993, dropping off since. German authorities have arrested hundreds of neo-Nazis, banned several groups and infiltrated the movement.

Germany also changed its asylum law to sharply reduce the number of foreigners admitted.

Many of the immigrants in Luebeck have been there more than five years, but still are living in temporary housing, unable to work or find their own shelter, said Carsten Zins, who oversees the nine immigrant homes. ``The tension has grown in the last year,″ he said.

Of the more than 300 immigrants, 100 have been denied asylum, but are in various stages of appeal, Zins said. Decisions on the remaining applicants are pending.

Sometimes, the homes have to turn people away, and housing in Luebeck is hard for immigrants to find. The destroyed home had 45 registered residents, but more than that number lived there, said investigator Helmut Beck.

Behind the house, Germans lit candles. ``We cannot understand it,″ read a sign hung on a chain-link fence.

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