Archive | November, 2013

Refugee camp at O-Platz holding out

27 Nov


The Berlin winter is upon us. The cold is becoming painful and the puddles are freezing. But the refugee protest camp at Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg isn’t going anywhere. On Sunday, they were supposed to move to a former seniors’ residence in Wedding. But the Zum guten Hirten house only had space for 80 people – 70 more were turned away and returned to the camp.

More importantly, the camp wasn’t set up to demand a house – it was set up to demand an end to deportations, as well as the right to work, live in normal apartments and travel. “You can evict us,” said Turgay, one of the refugees’ spokespeople, “but we will occupy a different space tomorrow!” So no one was happy when Kreuzberg mayor Monika Herrmann from the Green Party sent the police to dismantle the tents just minutes after the incomplete move to Wedding.

On Sunday evening, more than 500 protestors gathered in the biting cold to protect the camp. The police tried to stop a spontaneous demonstration through Kreuzberg’s SO36 district – small groups of riot cops rushed into the mass of people, then panicked and thrashed wildly with pepper spray and batons. The police would later claim that 31 officers were injured. But what does “injured” mean exactly in this context? A sprained finger while shoving someone to the ground? A moist eye after running into a cloud of one’s own pepper spray? Unfortunately, the police statement gives no details.

Herrmann has brought herself into an impossible position: since she assumed office in June, she has defended the refugees “right to protest on that square”. Yet she hoped to get rid of the camp, which continuously attracts new refugees, by moving 80 of them out of sight into a house in Wedding. This year, more than 100,000 people have claimed asylum in Germany. They are forced to live in prison-like Lager and are not allowed to leave their county due to the Residenzpflicht. Did the Green mayor really think that 80 beds would convince the refugees to end their protest? “This is not about us,” said the activist Napuli Langa at a press conference on Monday. “This is about thousands of refugees in Germany!” The crowd responded with calls of “Herrmann raus!”

On Sunday, Herrmann tweeted furiously that there had been no police action at the O-Platz, just a “technical help” with dismantling the tents – and even if police were forced to give up on the eviction, the pictures show that heavily armed cops were out in force. Now, Berlin’s Interior Senator Frank Henkel – big on “law and order”, except when it’s about protecting his friends from the construction mafia – has issued an ultimatum that the camp needs to be evicted by December 16. But even he knows that an attempt at repression will create a Gegenreaktion, a movement that goes far beyond Kreuzberg. In Hamburg, school students are planning a strike on December 12 to support the Lampedusa refugees after a crackdown there.

Vincent and some of the other refugees we spoke to in our last issue seem to have left, perhaps heading towards Italy to renew their papers or just to escape the ice. How can they stay in a country that denies them the basic right to roofs over their heads, that even tries to steal the plastic sheets they have been sleeping under? That’s what makes those activists who have continued the struggle so inspiring. The fire in their hearts has kept demonstrators warm for hours – even though it is way too cold to be demonstrating.

How to support the refugees? Go to the demonstration on Wednesday, November 27, at 3pm at Oranienplatz, going to the district parliament in the Yorckstraße 4-11, which opens at 17:30.


Picture: quilombofotos


New apartments, anyone? Anyone?!?

14 Nov


Who in Berlin wouldn’t want new apartments?

It’s a Sunday afternoon and the sun is shining. A colleague and I have gone to Tempelhofer Feld, once an airport and now a 355-hectare park, to find the answer to this question. We have a giant banner – “5000 new apartments and a new city library!” – and petitions so that visitors can express their support for the government’s plans to put this giant field to use with housing, a library, a school and more. The Tempelhofer Projekt GmbH recently wrote in a press release that their plans for construction implement “citizens’ wishes”. So we set up at a Neukölln entrance to the park in order to find a few of these citizens.

People walk past us with strollers, kites and bicycles. They smile and approach us – and then they see the banner. “Wait, you’re for the construction of the field?!?” Whether they are young people with dreads, new parents with babies or old people with canes, the smiles disappear: “Nein!” “Auf keinen Fall!” “Tschüss!”

My colleague and I had even dressed in bright red to avoid being confused with the activists from the initiative 100% Tempelhofer Feld in their lime green jackets who oppose any construction.

We studied all the arguments in favor:

“There will only be construction around the edges, no more than 15 percent of the total space,” I tell an inline skater, “so there will still be an enormous field in the middle.” You don’t need a full 355 hectares for skating, right?

“New apartment buildings will release pressure on the housing market” my colleague reassures two young men, “and the city needs housing.” We smile like Mormon missionaries – we won’t be deterred in our quest for signatures.

When people say “they’re only going to build luxury apartments”, we repeat the government’s promise that half of the housing will be affordable. But then we have to admit that this is only a non-binding declaration of intent, and in this case “affordable” means €6-8 rent per square meter. “I could only afford that if I squeezed onto two meters” says a bike rider as he drives away.

We repeatedly hear that there are enough empty apartments in the city or enough space elsewhere to build new housing. Most people snort and walk off, but some get really angry. “People like you should be beaten up!” says a middle-aged woman we assume is a preschool teacher. At least she used the respectful Sie form to threaten violence.

Somewhere out there must be Berliners who favor the construction plans. But after almost an hour, we still haven’t found a single one who wants to sign. The woman a few meters away with a petition against construction has gathered 30 signatures. This seems, at least according to our experiment, to be the wish of the citizenry.


Picture: Benjamin Pritzkuleit

Wir sagen mal Ja zum Beton

13 Nov


Unterschriften gegen Neubauten am Tempelhofer Feld ­sammeln kann ja jeder. Aber dafür? Berlin braucht doch Wohnungen. Wir haben einen Selbstversuch gewagt

“Lobbykacke!” Das ruft uns ein dünner Herr mit grauen Haaren zu, als er mit dem Fahrrad vorbeirast. Vorbei an uns. Und unserem Plakat: “Feld bebauen – jetzt!” Der Mann will offenbar keine 5 000 neuen Wohnungen in Berlin. Selbst schuld.

Es ist ein strahlender Sonntag im Herbst, viele Menschen gehen vom Neuköllner Schillerkiez auf das Tempelhofer Feld. Am schmalen Tor stehen wir. Ein Journalist, seine Begleiterin, eine Unterschriftenliste und ein Banner, das ein befreundeter Grafiker gemacht hat: “Neue Landesbibliothek. 5 000 neue Wohnungen.”

So, wie es der Senat vorhat mit dem ehemaligen Flughafenareal. Dagegen will die Initiative 100 % Tempelhofer Feld bis zum Januar 174 000 Unterschriften für ein Volksbegehren gegen jegliche Bebauung am Feld sammeln. Dabei versicherte doch die stadteigene GmbH Tempelhofer Projekt per Pressemitteilung, der Senatsbauplan setze nur “Bürgerwünsche” um.

Wir sind heute hier, die Bürger zu diesen Wünschen zu suchen.

Ein paar Meter weiter steht eine Frau, die Unterschriften für das Volksbegehren sammelt. Gegen die Bebauung. Gegen uns. Sie guckt ein paarmal zu uns rüber. Was die wohl denkt?

Und die Bürger kommen. Mit Kinderwagen, Fahrrädern und Drachen. Viele lächeln, bieten gleich Unterschriften für unsere Liste an. Der schnelle Erfolg überrascht uns. Wir erklären nochmals unser Anliegen. Das ändert alles.”Waaaas?” Ihr seid für die Bebauung? Nicht dagegen?”

Dabei haben wir uns extra knallrot angezogen, um uns von den limettenfarbenen Jacken unserer Gegner abzuheben.

Nun aber trifft uns die geballte Verachtung der Bürger. “Nein, danke!” – “Das will ich nicht!” – “Tschüss!” Eine Dame mit Filzhut wütet gar: “Leuten wie Ihnen würde ich am liebsten eine runterhauen!” Dann schimpft sie noch über den “Schwachsinn” der “Investoren”. Immerhin siezt sie uns.

Die Frau von der Bürgerinitiative nebenan ist sehr freundlich. Sobald die Menschen sich entsetzt von uns abwenden, läuft sie ihnen hinterher und gibt ihnen die Gegenliste. Ihre Kollegin dagegen beschimpft uns: “Wer bezahlt euch denn?”

Aber so schnell geben wir nicht auf. Wir sind schließlich argumentativ voll auf Senatsebene. “Höchstens 15 Prozent des Feldes sollen bebaut werden”, erkläre ich einem Inlineskater, „da wird es immer noch eine riesige Freifläche in der Mitte geben!“ Zum Skaten braucht man doch nicht ganze 355 Hektar, oder? “Neue Wohnungen werden den Markt entlasten”, predigt meine Kollegin kurz darauf zwei jungen Männern. Und den nächsten Passanten versichere ich, als wäre ich Michael Müller persönlich: “Es sollen nicht nur Luxuswohnungen entstehen! Auf der Tempelhofer Seite wird auch bezahlbarer Wohnraum gebaut!” Die Leute gucken kurzzeitig interessierter. Bis wir zugeben, dass “bezahlbar” eine Kaltmiete von sechs bis acht Euro pro Quadratmeter bedeutet. Wir können ja auch nichts dafür.

“Das kann man nur bezahlen, wenn man sich auf zwei Quadratmeter zusammenquetscht!”, sagt ein Fahrradfahrer. “Sozialbauwohnungen in öffentlicher Hand wären gut”, grübelt ein junger Mann, der ein bisschen bekifft wirkt. Andere schimpfen: “Berlin hat schon genug leer stehende Wohnungen!” Oder: “Es gibt genug Fläche für Neubau, wenn sie überall neue Baumärkte errichten können.”

Eine Stunde und einige Beleidigungen später geben wir auf. Unsere Bilanz: keine einzige Unterschrift für mehr Wohnungen. Die Ausbeute der Volksbegehren-Frau in dieser Zeit: 30.


Bild: Benjamin Pritzkuleit

At sea on O-platz

13 Nov


Vincent’s journey took him from Libya through Lampedusa to Berlin. Now living in Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz refugee camp, the young Nigerian immigrant is out of options… and dreading the coming winter.

“It was a very bizarre experience.” That’s how Vincent describes the Libyan civil war and the NATO bombing campaign that started on February 15, 2011, a war that drove him from Tripoli to the small Mediterranean island of Lampedusa and, more than two years later, to the protest camp on Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz.

Vincent’s journey started in Tripoli, where the young Nigerian was working on building sites – just one of 1.5 million immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa doing menial jobs in oil-rich Libya. When the Western military intervention started, he recalls, “I was hiding indoors for seven days without food or electricity. Eventually, I said to myself: If I die, then I die, but I have to go.” On the streets of Tripoli, he was stopped by Gaddafi’s soldiers. They asked what Vincent was doing: “Starving,” he answered, “and looking for food.”

The Libyan authorities wanted to send a message to the European powers: if Gaddafi fell, then there would be no one to hold back a flood of refugees across the Mediterranean. So Vincent, along with hundreds of African workers, was rounded up and taken to a seaside camp outside the capital. It was just before midnight when government soldiers told them all to get on a boat. “We didn’t know where we were going,” he recalls, and most people refused to get on board. “They beat people – I got a slap in my face that I will never forget for the rest of my life.” Eventually, 400 people were forced onto the boat, and Vincent was stuck on one of the lower decks.

After six hours the boat stopped dead in the water. “Christians were calling to God and Muslims to Allah,” Vincent recalls. The motor’s fan belt was broken and there was no replacement. After half a day, the problem was resolved and the boat headed back to Tripoli. “We were just 100 metres from the port we had started from,” he says.

Twenty-four hours after their original forced departure, they took off on another boat.

But that same night, the second boat stopped: “It was leaking. We had to carry up water in buckets.” When it was fixed and started moving again, the captain still wouldn’t reveal their destination. “We ran into fishermen who spoke with the captain in Arabic, and they said we were heading to Lampedusa. Around two in the morning, we saw a red light.” Eventually, a big rescue ship appeared behind them.

When they arrived on the island, the police, the army and Amnesty International were there to meet them. “We slept there for one night, then a ship from the Italian government took 2000 people to the mainland.” The ship stopped at different ports in Italy, dropping off refugees at each one, and Vincent got off in Genoa after six days, together with about 100 other refugees. He was lucky to have made it that far: another man at his camp was on a boat with 750 people on the same route, and after three hours they capsized. Half of the passengers were never found. These shipwrecks are not uncommon: just days before our interview, 270 more refugees had died off of Lampedusa.

The refugees got temporary asylum in Italy, but their refugee status allowed them to travel for up to three months within the 26 European countries in the Schengen Area. Very unofficially, Italian immigration officers suggested that they would have better chances if they went to northern Europe. “Some of us were empty-handed, others got €500.” After some time spent begging on the streets of Milan and a failed attempt to find work in Paris and Helsinki, Vincent eventually set his sights on Germany. “It took a long time to gather €80 from begging, but with that money I got a ticket to Berlin.”

At first Vincent stayed with another Nigerian in Berlin, but they soon ran out of money. Searching for help, they found the Oranienplatz camp, open since October 2012. Vincent has now been living there for four months. Like most of the ‘Lampedusa residents’, he’s overstayed the three months his Italian refugee status allows him, and the German authorities could deport him at any time.

On O-Platz there’s little German to be heard: mostly French and Arabic (which Vincent learned in Libya) or English. Often there is nothing to do but stand around, and the atmosphere can be tense – many people survived serious trauma but never got any professional help.

So far, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district mayor Monika Herrmann has been allowing the camp to stay. And some Berliners have been donating clothes, food, German classes or money for electricity. Yet the temperatures at night are quickly dropping, and Vattenfall has just sent the camp a €6000 electricity bill. Everyone here sleeps in tents – none of them adequate for cold weather. Once determined to squat the square no matter what, the O-Platz refugee-protesters are now hoping not to spend a second winter in the open.

With his Italian refugee document, Vincent can’t work in Germany; he would do nearly anything to earn money, though. “But I don’t want to be a notorious guy,” he adds, referring to drug dealing in nearby Görlitzer Park. Vincent is turning 30 next April, and every time he phones home his widowed mother asks him for money. “I don’t have a wife or children of my own, I don’t have a job. I really, really don’t know what I will do,” he says, standing in the tent that shelters him and 20 fellow Nigerians on O-Platz.

Originally published in Exberliner #121, November 2013.


Picture: Tania Castellví