Tiny, Picturesque Village a Cauldron of Hate
BREITENHEERDA, Germany (AP) _ The foreigners outnumber the Germans in this remote mountain village, a situation the locals find too alien to tolerate.
The conflict between east Germans and outsiders has reached even this pastoral setting, far from the decaying urban cauldrons where neo-Nazi groups plot violence against foreigners. Breitenheerda’s natives say it is economics, not racism, that fuels the tension.
When the first busload of Slavs, Asians and Africans arrived in May, the city council took direct legislative action - its members blocked the refugee home driveway with their bodies. Then they resigned.
Residents locked their doors and turned off their lights. Children were ordered to stay home. Robert Mukisa, a young Ugandan, took an occasional stroll down the winding country road outside the refugee home, a fenced-in barracks where East German soldiers once waited to fire rockets at American planes.
An old man honked his car horn and flashed an obscene gesture. A boy jumped off a motorbike and chased Mukisa with a stick. Residents crossed to the other side of the road to avoid an encounter with a black African.
″They treat you like an animal,″ said Mukisa, 26, a multilingual university graduate writing a book about his bad times in eastern Germany.
Breitenheerda, a farm town high in the hills of Thuringia state 150 miles southwest of Berlin, almost hysterically believes it is a tiny blueprint for what Germany may become as it absorbs a stream of refugees.
″We have 300 people here and we get 500 refugees. That is not normal,″ said Wolfgang Kretschmer, 33, the former deputy mayor who resigned with seven other town leaders.
He said economics, not hatred of foreigners, is the reason for the tension in this no-stoplight burg reachable by axle-smashing roads as narrow as a skinhead’s mind, a town where country kids on bikes fire BB guns at the barracks on the edge of town.
Many federal lawmakers agree, and they blame Germany’s liberal asylum laws for the surge in refugees and corresponding wave of violence against them, primarily in economically depressed, ideologically confused eastern Germany.
In one of the most vicious attacks, right-wing extremists threw a firebomb overnight Wednesday into a refugee center in Ketzin, an eastern German city 12 miles west of Berlin. Forty-four refugees were left homeless when the blaze gutted their shelter.
Two weeks of non-stop attacks on refugee homes throughout eastern Germany have increasingly mobilized a bipartisan effort to toughen the nation’s asylum laws.
But refugees, who tend to be grouped together in housing compounds, are sometimes merely convenient targets for what some Germans fear is an intolerance of anyone who does not look Western European.
Last year, hundreds of skinheads terrorized Polish visitors arriving by bus after Germany lifted visa restrictions. In the east German city of Hoyerswerda last October, residents attacked not only refugees, but an even larger number of Vietnamese and African guest workers who had worked peacefully in the town’s coal plants for years. Authorities finally moved the foreigners out of town.
In east Berlin, skinhead gangs have clashed with gangs of young Turks whose prosperous parents came to west Berlin as guest workers.
Breitenheerda, once homogenous, now hosts some of what the United Nations estimates are 18 million refugees worldwide fleeing economic hardship, famine or any one of the 35 conflicts raging worldwide.
They include Soviet Jews, people from parts of the former Yugoslavia, Bulgarians, Romanians and Africans such as Mukisa, who said authorities in Uganda found out he was working with an anti-government opposition group.
″Many of these people have never seen a foreigner,″ said Hans-Henning Axthelm, the state social and health minister who recently visited Breitenheerda. ″Now they see hundreds of them.″
He said the state is strapped for space and, for security reasons, must house refugees in former Soviet and East German military bases.
There also has been a trend to move refugees into more rural areas, farther and farther from population centers where organized neo-Nazi groups are most concentrated.
Kretschmer has a theory about that. ″My feeling is that it’s better for the government to put it in a small town like this, where they only lose 200 votes.″
Although he links the foreigners to crime and is particularly upset by the presence of black Africans, Kretschmer said the town’s opposition is based on economics.
The village, dependent on the former nation’s moribund farm economy, had plans to lease the barracks to a tent manufacturer.
He said 141 of the 205 registered voters took part in a non-binding referendum on whether the refugee home should go, and all but seven said yes.
Few of the refugees want to be here, either.
Ethnic Albanian Nezhmedin Zeneli, 32, came here with his wife and six children from the Yugoslav province of Kosovo in January. The couple had their seventh child in April.
″The food is no good. The water is no good,″ he said. ″All my children have been in the hospital.″
So why come to Germany?
″There is no alternative,″ Mukisa said. ″Germany is the only country that you can get into.″