East Germany's gateway to the world closed by violence: John Eisenhammer reports on the racism that is ravaging the city of Rostock

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The Independent Online
THE PRIDE of the East has fallen. Once hailed by Communist leaders as East Germany's 'gateway to the world', the Baltic city of Rostock - the symbol of the country's internationalism and economic prowess - has become, after the past week's orgy of xenophobic violence, the ugly symbol of eastern Germany's collapse.

The last vestiges of dignity were consumed in the fires of a refugee hostel, wrecked by hundreds of baying youths and applauded by thousands of local onlookers.

The citizens of Rostock used to live in one of Communist Germany's most privileged cities. Rostock, along with East Berlin and Leipzig, was the recipient of extra funds from a bankrupt regime, desperate to maintain its handful of urban showcases for the outside world.

Now the city languishes in the poorest, most dismal region of reunited Germany - the state of Mecklenburg. In November 1990, despite being the largest city in the state - and therefore sure of its claim - Rostock was not chosen to be Mecklenburg's capital. That honour went to inland Schwerin. It was the final insult.

The vast housing estate of Lichtenhagen, stage for the racist outrages against the refugee hostel in its midst, is itself a product of that Communist pride and privilege. Built in the Seventies, these long rows of concrete barracks offered, by East German standards, above average accommodation to the favoured 20,000 inhabitants.

Just a few minutes to the east of Lichtenhagen stand the cavernous Warnow shipyards. They were part of the huge East German shipbuilding kombinat, centered on Rostock. Before reunification, 55,000 people used to work in the yards. Now just 5,000 are employed there. Moored alongside the Warnow yard are several newly completed vessels ordered by Moscow (the former Soviet Union used to account for 80 per cent of the industry's orders). Nobody appears to want them any more.

Clambering past the smashed, dripping water pipes and up the charred stairs to the 11th floor of the refugee hostel where 200 people, mainly Romanian gypsies, lived before they were driven away by the mob, you are met with a view that sweeps over the shipyards, across the mouth of the River Warnow to the port.

In the late Fifties, the then leader of the German Democratic Republic, Walter Ulbricht, called upon the families of Rostock to collect rocks for the construction of the country's deep-sea harbour. After the division of Germany, the Communist east suddenly found it had no port that could take quantities of ocean-going vessels. Hamburg and Bremen were on the western side.

Although Rostock had a long tradition of sea-faring and trading - it was a member of the medieval Hanseatic league, a powerful political and commercial grouping of Germanic towns - it was never an important port.

The Communist authorities poured scarce funds into their 'gateway to the world'. Through it went much of East Germany's trade with the Soviet Union and the far-flung reaches of the Socialist empire, Vietnam, Angola, Cuba. The shipyards were also largely created by the Communists, to build vessels for Moscow as part of war reparations.

In the Seventies, Erich Honecker poured further scarce funds into building the motorway linking Rostock to East Berlin and the southern industrial regions. By East German standards, Rostock was booming, benefiting from the state-planned concentration of the country's entire shipping and ocean-going industry around the city.

Now, the harbour cranes stand like giant skeletons in an industrial graveyard. Many have not moved for more than two years. Where once up to 30 ships a day would steam into the busy quays, with countless more waiting on the Baltic horizon for a berth, the port is lucky these days if more than a handful straggle in. Up to 25 million tons were handled a year in the late Eighties. This year the port hopes to achieve a tenth of that total. Weeds have grown up around the yellowed wheels of railway carriages that have nowhere to be shunted to.

Soon after reunification, the ports of Hamburg and Bremen sent smiling, blue-suited executives with offers of help for Rostock, while at the same time they cut their rates in a short, brutal campaign to destroy the potential competitor. Rostock never stood a chance. Just two days ago came news that the sale of the Warnow yards to the Norwegian company Kvaerner, due to take effect this week, had been postponed, with the purchaser seeking even tougher conditions.

Many workers have already left for western ports, now doing better than ever. Others, among the thousands laid off, are still in places like Lichtenhagen.

Real unemployment there is around 50 per cent. The total is also swelled by those laid off by the former fishing and processing kombinat, a little further down the coast. It used to have up to 50 vessels, trawling as far afield as southern Africa and Newfoundland. Now there are just six.

From boom to bust, Rostock has experienced just how brutal is the collapse of a virtually mono-industrial city. The surrounding countryside, totally dependent on agriculture, is an even worse scene of devastation. Unemployment in many villages reaches over 80 per cent. The high expectations placed on reunification have fragmented into bitterness, frustration and envy.

Last week, they were hurled, with unparalleled brutality, at the terrified residents of block 18, Rostock-Lichtenhagen, the refugee hostel.

(Photograph omitted)