They noticed the first intoxicated refugees at the train station at 6 p.m., recalls Esa, who, as a Muslim, doesn’t drink any alcohol himself. He says more and more drunk people began materializing at the station. "They were drinking vodka, whiskey and Martini by the bottle," Esa says. As people got drunker, the level of aggression rose as well, he recalls, and fights began breaking out. "Many of these people had no experience with alcohol because they are forbidden from drinking back home."
Esa took a two-minute video with his mobile phone showing a group of men dancing wildly. They are visibly inebriated and a cluster of people gathers around. Suddenly, one of the dancers exposes his backside, causing the crowd to hoot audibly. "These people no longer had any control over themselves," Esa says as the video ends. Then it’s time for a few questions.
ZEIT ONLINE: Where were the people at the train station from that evening?
Basel Esa: There were mostly refugees -- from Algeria, Morocco, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq or, like us, from Syria. At one point, I looked around on the square in front of the train station to see if there were any Germans. I couldn’t see any.
ZEIT ONLINE: How could you tell where they were from if you were standing a few meters away?
Esa: From their appearance, the way they spoke. I can also tell if a person is speaking British or American English, after all.
ZEIT ONLINE: Who was it that harassed and grabbed the women?
Esa: They were dumb, uneducated men. They think that if a German woman is wearing tight clothes, she’s cheap and has no honor. I mostly saw Algerians and Afghans going after the women -- that was the majority. Some tried to grab their behinds as they passed. On one occasion, I saw a group of around 15 men pull two screaming women into their midst.
ZEIT ONLINE: Why did the situation escalate to such a degree?
Esa: Many refugees from countries like Algeria know that they stand little chance of working or studying here. They will probably get sent back anyway. So they think that no rules apply to them, that they can do whatever they like. They talk about this very openly.
As of last Friday, Germany’s federal police had identified 32 suspects believed to have committed physical assault and theft. The suspects include three Germans, but the majority is, in fact, made up of Algerians and Moroccans -- though suspects from five additional countries, including Syria, have also been identified.
In order to avoid getting into any trouble, Esa says he and his friends left the train station area before midnight, instead choosing to ring in the New Year in the neighboring Altstadt, Cologne’s historical heart, near the banks of the Rhine. At 4 a.m., Esa and his friends then began making their way back to their hostel in Bergheim. By then, police had cleared the square in front of the train station.
Esa says there has been a lot of talk about New Year’s Eve at his refugee hostel. "We fear that these perpetrators may suddenly come to represent all refugees in Germany," he says. "That the Germans will no longer be friendly to us."
When he talks about the men who groped women and stole mobile phones on New Year’s Eve, Esa suddenly starts to sound more like a politician with the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party than a refugee. "I don’t understand why you Germans don’t immediately kick these criminals out of your country," he says. Perhaps because one of the key traits of rule of law in Germany is that people are given a second chance? Esa shrugs and retorts, "I think your rules are too lax."
Suddenly, the sound of a muezzin rings out. It’s the alarm on Esa’s mobile phone -- it’s time for the afternoon prayer. When he returns 15 minutes later, he sits down on the bed with his arms folded. He’s got something else he wants to get off his chest, his own message to the nation.
"I want to apologize to the Germans for what happened in Cologne," he says. "But please, please tighten your rules. Otherwise I’m afraid this will happen again. Isn’t there a big party in Cologne in February?"
By party, Esa is referring to Karneval, Cologne’s annual Mardi Gras festival, which is expected to draw more than a million visitors this year between Feb. 4-8.
Translated by Daryl Lindsey