Postcard from... Berlin


Anyone who has been on the streets of Berlin on New Year's Eve will know that the experience is exciting, if not easy. For most of the year Germany enforces strict controls on the sale and use of fireworks. But these are waived for New Year celebrations and every corner shop suddenly has a host of firecrackers, rockets and other pyrotechnics on sale to the general public.

The fireworks start going off from 28 December. But at midnight on the 31st, the streets of Berlin seem like Beirut at the height of the city's internecine feuding. The air is thick with acrid smoke. Every family, it seems, has turned its balcony into a rocket-firing battery while on the pavements below gangs of often very drunk youths fight pitched battles with bangers and squibs. In the narrow streets, their echoes sound like mortar fire.

Its mostly harmless fun, but this year a shadow has been cast on the festivities by the appearance of so-called "Polenböller", or illegal Polish-made bangers. These are flooding the market despite the efforts of police and customs. A 51-year-old man bled to death after suffering severe burns while setting off one of the illegal firecrackers in a remote part of east Germany last week. He tried to stop the bleeding himself. Investigators said he would have survived if he had been given proper medical care.

Contraband fireworks are big business. Customs authorities say they seized more than 51,000 illegal and potentially life-threatening fireworks at the Polish-German border last year. They found 10,000 of the devices in a single car.