German racists drive black female writer out of town

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AMMA DARKO, the acclaimed Ghanaian writer, was returning, in a manner of speaking, to her German roots. She had fond memories of the country where she spent six years of her youth as an asylum-seeker. Technically, she was barred from Germany until she paid off the cost of her deportation after her asylum application was rejected in 1987.

That finally settled, she was ready to begin her literary tour. The publisher had mapped out a route touching on Hamburg, then arching through north- east Germany before heading towards the south-west. Hamburg went fine, but at the next stop the whole enterprise fell apart.

She was travelling by train to the town of Sassnitz on the holiday isle of Rugen. She left the station in the company of a white woman working for the Lutheran centre where Ms Darko was to read her prose. Awaiting them outside the station was a welcoming committee of about 10 skinheads, armed with bottles and racist insults, which they hurled freely at the writer and her companion. The word "nigger" was heard several times.

The two women turned and ran, chased by some of the youths. They got away uninjured, but the public reading was cancelled and the rest of the tour put on hold.

"It was a great shock to her," said Jorg Hunger, who represents the 44- year-old author's German publishers, Schmetterling Verlag. "She was simply not prepared for this."

Saturday's attack on the author triggered an outcry across Mecklenburg- Western Pomerania, the Land famed for its pretty towns such as Sassnitz but which is burdened with an ugly reputation for racism.

"The xenophobia which manifested itself here cannot be condemned sharply enough," said Frieder Jelen, the regional government officer responsible for the rights of foreigners. "It is intolerable that people should be attacked because of the colour of their skin."

Controversy erupted, meanwhile, about the role of the police. One policeman, who tried to play down the incident, is to be disciplined. The investigation of the attack, initially slow, is at last gathering pace. Several suspects were being questioned yesterday.

What still remained unclear was whether the attack was organised or spontaneous. The island of Rugen is notorious for its gangs of skinheads who casually attack visitors, including tourists from western Germany, with baseball bats.

Neo-Nazi parties are also active in the region. At the last elections, in September, there were fears that one of the racist groups would gain entry to parliament. That did not happen as the best-placed party gained only 4 per cent of the votes.

For an attack to take place on a prominent author, whose six-month stay in Germany is financed with a grant, is a public relations catastrophe. The incident sends a "disastrous signal", in the words of a regional official, who asked the public to help to track down the perpetrators.

The government is trying to make amends by staging public apologies. There are plans to invite the author to read her book at the regional assembly in Schwerin, and an invitation for another tour.

The publishers, meanwhile, are drawing up a new map, one that does not venture into the east. If she ever goes there again, Ms Darko will probably travel by car.