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Unravelling the mystery of the Berlin acid attacker

Berlin has been puzzling over a series of cases in which six unrelated women were attacked at night by a man on a bike, at least four of whom were sprayed with battery acid. But what would move someone to commit such a crime against random strangers?

Unravelling the mystery of the Berlin acid attacker
File photo: DPA.

Last week Berlin police reported that yet another woman had been attacked by an unknown man on a bicycle. It was the sixth such case since December, but unlike the five women before who were left injured in similar assaults, the most recent woman managed to block the attack with her scarf.

Police have been left scrambling for evidence to find the culprit or culprits, and they can’t even be sure that whoever is behind the attacks is the same person. But the modus operandi appears to be the same: A man on a bicycle rides up to a woman walking at night and sprays her with a liquid. The substance has been identified as battery acid in four of the cases, police told The Local.

“What happened at the crime scenes appears to be the same and we are investigating, but we cannot be 100 percent certain that it is the same person because we do not have him yet,” a police spokeswoman told The Local last week.

Given that the assaults all happened suddenly and in the dark of the night, the victims have only been able to provide a few details about their attacker’s appearance.

The latest woman who was left uninjured was able to give more of a description: that he was between 35 and 45 years old, light-skinned, of medium height and had a strong-looking build.

And the question remains of what would motivate someone to go after these seemingly unrelated women.

The director of Berlin Charité hospital’s Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychology, Isabella Heuser, has some ideas.

“I wouldn’t say that this is a random attack. The target seems to be young women out at night… If a man is doing this, it is probably a hate crime because for some reason he hates young women,” Heuser explained to The Local.

“The most likely reason that someone would commit these horrible crimes is that he might have have been rejected by a young woman.”

Heuser said that acid attacks are highly unusual in Germany, but that they happen more often in countries like India and Afghanistan when men decide they want to punish women or girls for what they think is inappropriate behaviour. In India, for example, lawmakers implemented harsher sentences for acid-throwing in 2013 due to the high number of incidents.

Heuser said the person behind the Berlin attacks displayed psychopathic features – not showing remorse or empathy towards the victims.

“A psychopath can on the surface be a nice guy, but they are all manipulative and they do evil things without any regard for feelings or the integrity of the victim,” she explained, adding that the Berlin cyclist “doesn’t talk or say anything, he does what he wants to do and then just rides away.”

But knowing that the culprit could be a psychopath who hates women does not add much to the ongoing police investigation. His choice of spraying acid at women rather than more physically attacking them also may be because he knows it will leave no DNA evidence behind, Heuser says.

“Unfortunately you are not going to be able to find him by profiling, which of course is a terrible thing to say because it means he can only be caught after he attacks again. There will have to be another woman who will be victimized, and that is horrible,” Heuser said.

One thing that could help narrow down the search is that the attacks all occurred fairly close to one another, mainly around the eastern districts of Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain. This could mean that the culprit lives in that area – but Heuser said it could also be because the man knows women are often out walking at night in those areas due to the nightlife.

The victims themselves have no doubt suffered “deep psychological trauma” due to the attack, says Heuser. One of the women had to stay in hospital for a week due to injuries to her face, police said.

“This can be scarring for life, not only physically but also psychologically, but they have a good chance to overcome the psychological scarring,” especially if they undergo trauma therapy, Heuser noted.

The case has also had an impact on other people living in Berlin, which Heuser said is only natural.

“It’s simply scary to think ‘Oh God, I could have been there.’ Everyone walks around doing this and that without thinking about things, but even this now seems dangerous to them. This affects people’s sense of security, and people want to feel secure.

“Especially in Berlin where we have the luxury of being able to feel relatively secure, and then all of a sudden this happens… It’s really terrible.”

WILDFIRES

‘Unprecedented’: How explosions and fires have rocked Berlin’s Grunewald forest

An "unprecedented" fire broke out on Thursday around a German police munitions storage site in a Berlin forest. Here's how events unfolded and the reaction.

'Unprecedented': How explosions and fires have rocked Berlin's Grunewald forest

What happened?

Emergency services were called out after explosions were heard in the ‘Grunewald’ forest in western Berlin in the early hours of Thursday morning. 

It then emerged that a fire had broken out near a police munitions storage site, all on one of the hottest days of the year when temperatures were forecast to reach around 38C in the German capital. 

As explosions continued at the site, sending debris flying into the air, firefighters weren’t initially able to get near the flames to extinguish it. Emergency services set up a 1,000-metre safety zone around the area.

This aerial photo taken by the Berlin Fire Brigade shows the fire in Grunewald.

This aerial photo taken by the Berlin Fire Brigade shows the fire in Grunewald. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Berliner Feuerwehr

Later on Thursday afternoon, Berlin fire brigade spokesman Thomas Kirstein said the situation was “under control and there was no danger for Berliners” but that the fire was expected to last for some time.

No one has been hurt by the fires. Around 250 emergency workers were deployed to the site.

READ ALSO: Blasts ring out as forest fire rages in Berlin’s Grunewald

How was the fire being tackled?

The German army (Bundeswehr) was called in. They sent a tank aimed at evacuating munitions at the affected storage site as well as remote-controlled de-mining robots, while drones circled the air to assess the emergency.

Water cannons were also deployed around the safety zone to prevent the fire from spreading.

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey interrupted her holiday to visit the scene, calling the events “unprecedented in the post-war history of Berlin”.

Giffey advised people in Berlin to close their windows but said the danger was minimal as there were no residential buildings within a two-kilometre (1.2-mile) radius and so no need to issue evacuation orders.

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey speaks at the scene of the forest fire on Thursday

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey speaks at the scene of the forest fire on Thursday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

“It would be much more difficult if there were residential buildings nearby,” she said.

What caused the blaze?

That’s still unclear. Police say they are investigating what started the fire exactly. 

The store in question holds munitions uncovered by police, but also unexploded World War II-era ordnance which is regularly dug up during construction works.

Giffey said local authorities would “have to think about how to deal with this munitions site in the future and whether such a place is the right one in Berlin”.

Is Grunewald a popular site?

Very much so. The sprawling forest on the edge of Berlin is home to lots of hiking trails and is even near some popular lakes, such as the Krumme Lanke. It’s also near the Wannsee and Havel river. 

Map shows where the fire broke out in Berlin's Grunewald

Map shows where the fire broke out in Berlin’s Grunewald. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa Grafik | dpa-infografik GmbH

Authorities appealed for the public to avoid the forest, which is regularly visited by both locals and tourists.

Deutsche Bahn said regional and long-distance transport was disrupted due to the blaze.

A part of the Avus motorway between Spanischer Allee and Hüttenweg was also closed in both directions, as well as Kronprinzessinnenweg and Havelchaussee, according to the Berlin traffic centre.

Aren’t forest fires and strong heat causing problems elsewhere?

Yes. Authorities on Thursday said no firefighting choppers were available as they were already in use to calm forest fires in eastern Germany.

However, they also said the 1,000-metre safety zone applied to the air, so there was a limit to how useful it would be to drop water on the fire from above.

The German capital is rarely hit by forest fires, even though its 29,000 hectares of forests make it one of the greenest cities in the world.

Brandenburg, the region surrounding Berlin, as well as parts of eastern Germany have for days been battling forest fires.

Parts of Germany were also recently hit by forest fires during heatwaves this summer. 

Temperatures were expected to climb as high as 40C across parts of Germany on Thursday. However, it is set to cool down on Friday and thunderstorms are set to sweep in from the west.

With reporting by AFP’s David COURBET

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