Sunday, 11 February 2018

A terrorist in Germany looks like me

A first-hand report of a real incident that took place at Frankfurt airport on New Year's Day 2018.

‘What did you forget to take out of your bag?’ the man asked me rather roughly in German, coming over to the other side of the security gate.

‘Nothing that I think I should have,’ I answered, after thinking once more about what else there was in my rucksack. But why had he moved over to this side of the gate?  Wasn’t he supposed to be on the outer side, asking people to take out their laptops and jackets and making sure that all the hand luggage was properly put on the X-Ray belt for the security check? It did not occur to me till much later that there was a problem.

Looking around I saw that he had closed that security gate and was standing on the inner side with me. Just then I also noticed some activity near the X-ray monitor screen where quite a few security personnel had gathered. Oh, not again, I told myself. I often had trouble with my rucksack at airports because I had to carry besides my laptop many cables and specialised equipment that I needed for doing fieldwork  – audio recorder, accessories, external hard disks, cameras, chargers etc. That is why I had made it a point to take out everything, at least I thought I had taken out everything that could cause any problem.

But apparently the guy at the monitor screen had found something that I had forgotten. And from their hushed and hurried discussion, it seemed as if the security personnel believed they had found something that should not be there.

A young security woman came towards me and asked me politely, ‘Do you speak German? Or would you prefer to speak in English?’

‘Either is fine,’ I said.

‘Is that grey-green rucksack yours?’ she continued in German, pointing towards it.

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Can I have your passport and boarding pass please?’

I gave them to her and she looked at the boarding pass – ‘Going to India are you, when is your flight? Okay, there seems to be enough time.’

‘Can you think carefully and tell me slowly and completely the contents of your rucksack?’

I tried to, having told her that everything that was electronic etc. was already out on another tray – besides that I had a folder with documents, two apples, a pair of socks, my leather etui  for pens and pencils, a little metal box with some jewellry, a toothbrush, an extra sweater for the way,…

‘Are you sure you have not forgotten to mention something,’ she asked me again, looking not convinced at all. ‘It does not look good at all for you, please don’t try to hide anything.’

Why would I? What did she mean? I was slowly beginning to wonder why she was asking me so many questions. What could they have found on the monitor screen? I looked around.

I could see that the gate behind me was closed, and that the area around was also being slowly emptied of passengers. The man at the X-Ray monitor was talking to some others, showing them something on the screen, rather excitedly. On one side of me was the closed security gate I had just crossed with the man who I had met at the other side standing guard. Behind me in a semi-circle were at least a dozen armed security guards, standing around, all eyeing me rather guardedly.

‘Why don’t you let me have my rucksack and I will open it and show you all there is inside?’ I said, trying to keep down my panic.

‘No, that is not possible any more. Let it be. You have to think and tell us what you have put into it.’ I saw the rucksack lying on the still belt and all the people around staring at it, the monitor screen and at me, in turn.

What did they think, did they think I was carrying a bomb, that I was a terrorist?  I asked her, ‘Can you tell me what the problem is? Do you think there is a weapon or a bomb inside my rucksack?’

‘No, unfortunately we can’t tell you anything,’ she told me. ‘We think there is something in your rucksack that should not be there. If that turns out to be the case, you will be in deep trouble. We have informed the head of security of the airport, he will be here shortly. Till then we have to wait, unless you cooperate and tell us what else you have in your bag.’

‘You can’t be serious, are you? This is not really funny anymore. You are making me nervous.’

‘You don’t have to be, if you are hiding nothing from us,’ she answered firmly.

‘I am going on work to India; I am an anthropologist and am going to the field, that is why I need to carry so much equipment.’

‘For how long are you going this time?’ She asked.

‘For a month.’

‘You are Indian, you could stay there and do your work. Why do you keep coming back?’ Her tone seemed to imply that she would be much happier if I did not come back.

‘I live and work here in Germany, you know.’

‘And why do you travel so often to Afghanistan,’ she asked, flipping over the pages of my passport.

‘Again on work.’ I replied, ‘I teach there.’  Is it forbidden to go there? I wanted to ask, but thought the better of it.

‘You seem to travel a lot,’ she said.

‘Anything against that,’ I heard myself saying. I had to stop myself from getting angry. It wouldn't help.

I tried to concentrate on the problem at hand. What could they mean, that there is something in my rucksack that shouldn’t be there? What else could there be? But there was nothing that I could remember. Did somebody put in something into my rucksack when I was not looking? On the train here?

I looked around. The entire area had been evacuated. The police lady and I were in the middle of a circle formed by armed security personnel. Did they think I was going to run away? What did they think I was – a suicide bomber? Is that why they were not allowing me to touch my rucksack? For fear that I would detonate a bomb?

Behind the glass wall on the other side I could see passengers who had just landed at Frankfurt walking past, looking very curiously in my direction, wondering what the matter was. Would they go home and tell their families that they were really a few feet away from a suicide bomber – that they narrowly escaped being bombed by a middle aged Asian woman, not very different to look at from the ones you normally see around, but apparently very dangerous? Thank God nothing happened while they were walking past Gott sei Dank.

O ye… this can’t be really happening to me, can it? I felt like crying. I hated them all…what did they think I had done? Why were they all milling around me… why were they all staring at me in this strange manner – did they think I was a terrorist, a jehadi, on a suicide mission? I wanted to see how I looked, but there was no mirror to be had, I wanted to know what it was about how I looked that made me so suspect in their eyes. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, like almost everyone else.

What made me stand out then? Did they not understand that I was from India and not from any of those other countries from where the suicide bombers came? No, for them it was my looks and not my citizenship that mattered; I guess they would have treated me no differently had I been even German --  my face and skin colour were enough to condemn me --  is this what they called racial profiling? Heard the term often enough on TV. But to think that all that was actually happening to me.

Just then a couple of young security guards came closer to have a look at me and my bag, before walking away, talking excitedly among themselves. They had seen the monitor screen. They looked just like the young men on motorcycles the policemen in India routinely stopped on the road to check papers. They would have been suspect there. Not me. But here at Frankfurt airport, things were different. Perhaps they were the security personnel from the other gates that had been temporarily closed down. So they had nothing better to do. What a great story they would have to tell their friends and family later – Can you believe it, there was a crazy Indian woman carrying a weapon in her rucksack who thought she could just breeze past security at Frankfurt? You can’t imagine how tense the situation was. We had to close down the entire security area for at least half an hour, in the middle of the peak time rush. Not sure how many passengers missed their flights because of this. But she stood there, as if she had done nothing. And she would not admit to anything.

But I had done nothing. I had nothing to admit. Why should I be so scared, I asked myself. I tried to calm myself down. Stop thinking, I told myself, it will all be okay…it was only a question of time…I just had to wait till somebody came and looked through my rucksack.

The lady was trying to engage me in conversation, perhaps to make sure I did not try to do something desperate. She seemed friendly enough. She had softened her tone somewhat from her initial cold and distant manner. Perhaps she could see that I was not lying. ‘Don’t be nervous. If you think you have told us everything, then you have nothing to worry about. Everything will be okay once our boss is here. We just have to wait.’

If it wasn't for the fact that I was right in the middle of it all, I could even be impressed by the immaculate efficiency and professionalism with which they were handling the whole case. Nobody had abused or insulted me, they had been polite even while trying to put and keep the pressure on me, and even though they all stood seemingly rather casually around me, they were very alert and marking my every movement, I was sure. 

I took several deep breaths and tried desperately not to start crying. Did they really think I could be a terrorist? Is this how a terrorist looks like? Does a terrorist look like me? My God, what am I doing here, in this place where just the look of my face makes me seem suspect. My German husband goes to Afghanistan more often than I do, but nobody has ever asked him why he does so. But my going there instantly becomes a topic for further investigation.

A few minutes later the boss arrived – a surprisingly young man who briskly went about his business – a quick look at the monitor screen while the excited personnel who had found what he thought he had found in my rucksack tried to explain to him what he saw, and then he came towards me. ‘Are you sure you have not forgotten to mention something? Please don’t hide anything, else the consequences can be very serious.’

‘I have told your people everything that I can remember…’ I started to say, but one look at the butt of his rifle reminded me of what I had forgotten to mention, my umbrella!

‘I think my umbrella is also inside,’ I blurted.

‘An umbrella!’ He looked at me incredulously and asked, why I had not mentioned it before. An umbrella! The word quickly got around. There is also an umbrella inside. The mere mention of an umbrella seemed to have a huge impact on all those around me. It seemed as if the tension instantly dropped.

My police lady companion was asking her boss, ‘If there is really an umbrella inside then maybe it is just an unfortunate positioning of things inside…,’ the boss stopped her. There was no time to speculate. Or to talk about this aloud. They had to do what they had to do, and finish the process they had started.

By then the bomb disposal squad man had also arrived, all dressed up. He quickly got down to work under the sharp eyes of the young boss. His gloved hands gingerly touched my rucksack. I offered to help him get the things out, but no, they would not let me touch my own rucksack. But I was politely invited to watch while he rummaged through its contents. One by one everything came out – the apples, the sweater, the pencil case, the paper file, the empty water bottle, my toothbrush, my socks, a couple of sanitary pads, and then finally the umbrella… He took the umbrella in his hand, took the cover off and opened it to make sure that it was really an umbrella, giving his boss a meaningful look. When he thought he had looked through everything, he shook the bag and turned it upside down…a forgotten hanky and some breadcrumbs were all that fell out. That was it.

After getting permission from the young boss, he invited me to put my things back into the rucksack. Finally I was allowed to touch my own bag. The security guys talked among themselves. The chap at the monitor looked pretty crestfallen. The ones surrounding me seemed to be gradually melting away. The boss came up to me and said rather brusquely – ‘Next time, please put your umbrella into your suitcase. And do remember to mention it, if you have it in your hand baggage. Have a nice flight.’ Saying that he briskly walked away not waiting to see my reaction.

The lady policeman was still there, smiling at me. It was my turn to ask now. ‘Can you tell me now what the problem was?’ I asked.

‘No, unfortunately we can’t. We must stick to the rules. We are sorry we had to stop you like this. But one cannot take chances you know. One has to follow routine procedures when there is something that looks suspicious, in the interests of safety of the other passengers. Perhaps we wouldn’t have been so worried if you had told us there was an umbrella inside. Hope you are not too upset. Do collect all your belongings and get going – it will be boarding time soon. Have a nice flight!’

They had done the right thing, in the interests of safety of the other passengers. I could not complain. It was my fault, I suppose, not to have remembered to tell them about the umbrella. But still… I did feel as if I had been put through a horrifying ordeal which should never have I walked away towards the departure gates, the grim truth stared me in the face -- no matter what I said or did, they could never trust me, I could never be one of them. For I could not help how I looked --  my face and my skin colour would stand in the way…every time.

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