Merkel meets bereaved a year after Christmas market attack

Deborah COLE
German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the Berlin Christmas market on December 12, a few days before she will meet relatives of victims of last year's attack for the first time

A year after a jihadist ploughed a truck into a Christmas market crowd in Berlin, killing 12, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Monday with the victims' families for the first time.

The private gathering on the eve of the anniversary of the attack lasted about three hours and included some of the 70 others injured in the assault.

It came against a backdrop of angry recriminations by many of the bereaved, who say official incompetence and neglect since the tragedy have inflicted fresh pain.

Merkel acknowledged that "some had wanted such a meeting earlier" but pledged to listen the families' concerns.

"It is clear to me that their suffering, this complete transformation of their lives, cannot be put right," she had told reporters ahead of the gathering.

"Nevertheless we can show compassion and will improve the things that must be improved."

Last December 19 at 8:02 pm, Anis Amri, a 24-year-old Tunisian who had failed to obtain asylum, rammed a stolen truck into crowds at the Christmas market on the Breitscheidplatz, a popular destination for Berliners and tourists alike.

The victims came from Germany as well as countries including Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic and Ukraine.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility the day after the attack -- its deadliest ever carried out in Germany. Amri was shot and killed four days later by police in Italy, where he had previously lived.

In a wrenching open letter to Merkel this month, before the meeting was announced, several family members condemned her "political inaction" and accused her of failing to reach out to them.

"Almost a year after the attack, we note that you have not shared your condolences with us either in person or in writing," the letter said.

"In our opinion, this means that you are not living up to the responsibilities of your office."

Kurt Beck, author of the report that was critical of the treatment of the victims after the attack, said Merkel had "intensive discussions" with each of the bereaved who met with her Monday, according to the DPA news agency.

- 'Bills for autopsies' -

The government-commissioned report released last week identified a litany of shortcomings in the response to the tragedy.

Some relatives desperately searching for their loved ones were told only three days after the attack that a family member had perished, even though they could have been given early warning through facial identification.

Others were sent "bills for autopsies -- including warnings for late payment, I didn't want to believe it, but I had such a letter in hand," said Beck.

"Such experiences should never be repeated," he said, adding that Germany "was not prepared" to deal with the attack's aftermath.

The government has paid out 1.6 million euros ($1.9 million) in compensation to the wounded and victims' families.

Another factor keeping the wounds raw is revelations in the media about administrative gaffes and missteps leading up to the attack.

Amri, who arrived in Germany in the summer of 2015, at the height of the refugee influx, registered under several different identities.

Authorities knew him to be an Islamist extremist and drug dealer whose asylum claim had been rejected and who was being intermittently monitored by police.

But Amri was never deported or arrested.

Merkel noted Monday that a parliamentary inquiry had been called to "get to the bottom of all the questions surrounding the perpetrator".

According to government sources, Merkel wants a new meeting with the relatives of the victims next year to show them that measures have been taken to correct the shortcomings.

- 'Maybe Germans are naive' -

Israeli tourist Rami Elyakim, 64, who lost Dalia, his wife of four decades, in the attack, said he remembered only drinking mulled wine together at the market.

Elyakim, who sustained broken bones throughout his body and still has difficulty moving, said that living in Israel he and his family had grown used to attacks, but they did not expect terror would strike them in Berlin.

"We thought Germany was safe," he told the Bild newspaper. "In Israel no one who was planning something like this would walk around free. Maybe the Germans are naive."

On the anniversary itself Tuesday, the Christmas market will be closed so the families and first responders who tended to victims can attend a memorial ceremony in the church on the same square.

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