Racist murders in Hanau: The night the world stood still

On 19 February 2020, a man shot nine people. The families of the victims have lived with the pain and many unanswered questions ever since.

Their names.
Their names.AP/Michael Probst

Hanau-When Ajla Kurtović was getting ready for bed on the evening of 19 February 2020, she received a text about an alleged robbery – or perhaps a shooting – in the city centre. Kurtović exchanged a few brief messages with her father before going to sleep.

The next morning Kurtović's phone was full of messages, she told this newspaper almost a year later. Her father called and told Ajla that her brother Hamza had been shot the previous night. The injuries were only minor. Hamza was in hospital, but it was unclear which hospital. Her father and mother were waiting at the police station.

When Ajla Kurtović arrived at the station, her parents still didn't know Hamza's whereabouts. 

Only later did Ajla Kurtović and her family find out what happened. Shortly before 10pm, 43-year-old Tobias R. shot three men in two different bars in the city centre before getting into his car and driving to Kurt-Schumacher-Platz in Hanau's Kesselstadt district. There he shot six more people in the street, in a bar and in a kiosk, before driving home. In the early hours of 20 February, tip-offs led the police to the perpetrator's home, where they found the shooter's body. He had killed his mother and then himself.

Why was Tobias R. able to keep on killing?

In the early morning of 20 February, the Kurtović family was waiting for news. At some point, Ajla Kurtović says, her voice trembling for a moment, someone read out a list of the victims of the shooting. Among them was the name of her brother, Hamza Kurtović. He was 22 years old.

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"For us, the world stopped at that moment," said his sister.

One year later, the world is still turning but it isn't moving for Ajla Kurtović. She, her family and the relatives of the other victims still do not know what exactly happened that night. Although the course of events has been reconstructed, so many questions remain unanswered, too many to be able to somehow come to terms with the horrific crime.

Why weren't we told which hospital my brother was in?

Ajla Kurtović, Hamza's sister

Why was the perpetrator able to get into his car after he had already shot three people, drive to the next crime scene and continue killing there? How could it be that the police emergency number did not work properly on the night of the mass shooting? How did a mentally ill person legally acquire weapons? The psychiatric report certified the 43-year-old's paranoid schizophrenia after the crime, and it was revealed he had already been treated once for schizophrenic psychosis in a psychiatric hospital. Nevertheless, Tobias R. was able to join a gun club.

One of the most pressing questions for Ajla Kurtović and her family is: Why did it take so long until they were allowed to see Hamza? "Why weren't we told right away that night which hospital my brother was in?" asks Ajla Kurtović. That, she says, was "inhumane". Moreover, she says, the police continued to keep her parents' hopes alive throughout the night. "Even in the morning they told my parents: 'Your son is only slightly injured, don't worry.' When in fact Hamza had passed away shortly after midnight." In fact, a whole week passed before Ajla, her siblings and her parents would be able to see deceased Hamza again - in the forensics department.

'Racism kills.' A mural in Hanau memorializing the victims.
'Racism kills.' A mural in Hanau memorializing the victims.Photo: AFP/Armando Babani

Autopsy without the consent of the family

Armin Kurtović, Ajla's and Hamza's father, has serious accusations. An autopsy was performed on his son without the required family consent, and without giving his parents and siblings a chance to say goodbye to him beforehand. Armin Kurtović only saw his son again after the autopsy. "They slit open my son – I will never forget that sight for the rest of my life," Kurtović said in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio.

Andreas Jäger is the victims' representative for the city of Hanau. He has accompanied the families of those murdered over the past year, helped them make contact with the authorities, helped them organise a move when the proximity to the crime scene became unbearable. And above all, he has listened. He too has said that official requests submitted to the police have fallen flat.

For Jäger, as well, the crime remains incomprehensible one year later. "When I heard about the attack on the morning of 20 February, my first thought was: 'That didn't happen here. People don't get shot in Hanau.'" You can't prepare for something like that as a city, said Jäger. "It is still unimaginable to me that someone from Hanau would shoot other Hanauers."

As incomprehensible as the act is - it did not come unannounced.

Days before, the perpetrator had already published a 24-page manifesto filled with racist fantasies and conspiracy theories on his website. It has also been proven that he had filed criminal charges containing paranoid, extreme-rightwing conspiracy theories with the Federal Prosecutor General's Office and the Hanau Public Prosecutor's Office in November 2019. Even then investigators assumed he had a mental illness.

When I heard about the attack on the morning of 20 February, my first thought was: 'That doesn't happen here. People don't get shot in Hanau.

Andreas Jäger, victims' representative

The victims' relatives cannot understand how a mentally ill man was allowed to legally possess weapons. And they cannot understand why no action was taken although the perpetrator had announced his intentions on the internet. And the fact that media outlets speculated on the night of the attack that it had been a Milieutat - a feud within the immigrant community - rather than a murder.

Ajla Kurtović and the other relatives of the victims are still waiting for tangible political consequences. Immigrant associations and anti-racism organisations are also calling for a more comprehensive investigation of the crime.

Liisa Pärssinen, head of the Response, a counselling centre for victims of far-right, racist and antisemitic violence, says that support provided by the state of Hesse to the families of victims has been inadequate. "The victims' relatives are hardly listened to and they have to fight hard for help themselves," says Pärssinen. The financial resources provided are insufficient, and not enough therapists are available to adequately care for the survivors and the victims' relatives. Response is calling for a special fund for victims of rightwing violence.

Sociologist and rightwing extremism researcher Matthias Quent believes that the authorities, the media and politicians have learned something since the attack in Hanau. "Racism is now called by its name," Quent says. But even one year later, the realisation that the NSU murders and the assassination of politician Walter Lübcke as well as the attacks in Hanau and Halle were the consequences of institutional racism that has fostered for centuries, has still not taken hold.

"Instead, the image of a psychologically disturbed solo perpetrator is often spread, the 'lone wolf' who acts out of his delusions." Since the attack on Hanau, the federal government has presented an 89-point plan to fight rightwing extremism and racism. "That at least means that there is recognition that racism is a problem for society as a whole," says Quent. "A problem that we as a society have to solve."

Still no apology from the police

Ajla Kurtović says that in Hanau itself the solidarity after the attack was enormous. For the most part, her complaints are not directed at the city. "The city of Hanau and the mayor stood by us," she says. A conversation with the police, on the other hand, has still not taken place, nor has there been an apology. Her questions and those of the other families remain unanswered.

This is all the more agonising because there will be no trial. The perpetrator is dead. No court will be able to clarify how the crime could have happened, where mistakes were made, what could have been prevented. Nevertheless, the victims' relatives hope to get answers at some point. She still trusts in the rule of law, Ajla Kurtović says, but this trust is being put to the test.

Her brother and the other victims had all felt safe before, before 19 February 2020, in Hanau, in their home country. Of course there was racism before the crime, says Ajla Kurtović. Also in Hanau. "I never thought that I would be personally affected by it.

The city is not at peace for another reason. The father of the murderer is said to have repeatedly insulted relatives and friends of the victims during vigils honouring the dead. According to media reports, the 73-year-old has demanded the return of his son's murder weapon from the public prosecutor's office. Both the prosecutor's office and the relatives of the victim have filed criminal complaints against him.

The families and friends of the victims of the 19 February shootings have grown closer to one another - as close as the corona pandemic permits right now. Ajla Kurtović says it helps her to meet with the siblings of the other murdered victims.  "We don't have to say much. After all, they have experienced the same thing as I have. They feel the same pain."

Today, 19 February 2021, one year after a mentally ill man, driven by racism and hate, preyed on his fellow human beings and killed nine of them, Hanau will remember the victims: Hamza Kurtović, Ferhat Unvar, Said Nesar Hashemi, Vili Viorel Păun, Mercedes Kierpacz, Kaloyan Velkov, Fatih Saraçoğlu, Sedat Gürbüz and Gökhan Gültekin.

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