Celebration at 'festival' lit by fires of racism: John Eisenhammer writes from Rostock about the east German families who went shopping by day and cheered attacks against foreigners by night

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EVEN the sea breeze cannot blow away the sharp smell of charred walls and stairs. Nor the cloying scents of frustration, embarrassment and hatred still hanging in the air. Look to one side, as you stand on the grassed area in front of the massive block of council flats where the refugee hostel is, and you see families laughing as they return from shopping or work. Look to the other side and you see the blistered, blackened vestiges of a xenophobic orgy.

It is like day and night. By day, since Saturday, those same families with children and food would gather before Block 18 on the estate eager to see the latest goings- on around the hostel. And by night they clapped and cheered as youths tanked up with beer began their assaults on the terrified foreigners inside with rocks, fire- and smoke-bombs. It was like a volksfest, a popular festival. But it resounded to the cheer of Germany for the Germans, illuminated by the fires of racism.

For four nights hundreds of police and special riot units tried to contain what has been the worst explosion of violence against foreigners since unification. The local police chief, Siegfried Cordus, said he had never seen such viciousness and brutality. 'People clapped at every stone which hit a policeman,' said a bystander. Lothar Kupfer, Interior Minister of the state of Mecklenburg, in which Rostock lies, spoke of a 'civil war'.

In the end, for all the water- cannon, tear gas and truncheons, the police lost. Late on Monday night they withdrew, apparently to re-group or change shifts, leaving the hostel at the mercy of the hooligans. Some were just kids, most from the estate and Rostock, reinforced by neo-Nazis from far and wide, hardened by street battle. They were well organised with petrol containers in nearby bushes from which they filled their beer cans, once drunk, to make fire-bombs. The crowd of onlookers, some 3,000 strong, bigger than on either of the previous two nights of rioting, egged them on. Once inside the building the youths smashed everything on two floors. A few jagged bits of porcelain are all that is left of the toilet. Water drips everywhere from broken pipes.

The hostel was destroyed despite the fact that, in desperation, the authorities had evacuated all the 200 residents, mainly Romanian gypsies, on Monday afternoon, busing them to temporary hostels in other towns. But there were about 100 Vietnamese families with children in the adjoining block. Not refugees, but still living and working in Rostock since their guest-worker days under the Communists. Terrified, they barricaded themselves in their flats as flames leapt from the windows nearby. For well over an hour the fire service looked on from afar, terrified by the rioters. The police were still re-grouping Finally, the Vietnamese were slipped to safety over the roof. The fires still burnt.

'And the fires will continue burning wherever they take these so-called asylum-seekers. People here are fed up,' says Dietmar, gesticulating wildly. He is one of the small groups that continually forms in front of the scarred building. 'It was disgusting, the way they sat around here, rubbish everywhere,' says 15-year-old Alex. 'The city dump is paradise compared to this shit-heap. They had to be got rid of.'

The hostel, which served as the refugee distribution centre for the entire state of Mecklenburg, is situated in the heart of the massive Lichtenhagen housing estate, a desolate Communist-built concrete zone which is home to 20,000 people. Real unemployment is around 50 per cent, since the harbour and shipyards, the city's mainstay, barely function. The disillusionment and frustration, the anger of the bored youth groups that have sprung up everywhere, found an easy target in the foreigners' hostel. 'They get housing while we cannot find any; they get money for sitting around all day,' says 19-year-old Werner.

The pressure grew as ever more refugees flooded in, Germany's liberal asylum laws powerless to stop them. Over the summer, 80 a day were arriving in Lichtenhagen. Often they could not be distributed quickly enough, so they camped in the open. 'No other country in the world would tolerate this influx. It is unmanageable,' says Heike Buhrow, who works at the hostel. Overall, 46,000 arrived in Germany in July, a new record. The national total this year has already surpassed the 256,000 of 1991. In towns across the country tension is reaching breaking-point.

It broke in Lichtenhagen. 'These were not only neo-fascists at work here. The anger of ordinary people, built up over months, suddenly exploded,' says 65-year-old Franz Bartl.

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