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Escape from hate

Skinhead gangs and neo-Nazi groups are behind an alarming rise in racial attacks across Europe. Their teenage recruits face a lifetime of fear and intimidation if they try to leave. Yojana Sharma reports on the former extremists who are risking everything to help others find a way out

The death of Alberto Adriano, a German citizen of Mozambican origin, may not have been in vain. Racist attackers - two of them just 16 years old - kicked him to death on the streets of Dessau, an east German city, earlier this year. They stripped him naked and screamed "nigger pig" and "this is the march of the German resistance" as they kicked his head with steel-tipped boots. In August his attackers were jailed for murder. The victim's wife was too scared to attend the trial and remained under police protection.

The murder was part of a fresh wave of racial violence sweeping Germany - almost 100 people have been killed in racist attacks there since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. It prompted a rally of 200,000 protesters in Berlin on November 9, the 62nd anniversary of Kristallnacht, when Hitler's rampaging Nazis set out on a wholesale destruction of Jewish property. Addressing the crowd, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder called for a "revolt of the decent" against neo-Nazi terror. The message, he said, should echo across Europe, where support for far-right groups has been growing. With German police investigating 11,000 racist attacks in the 12 months to the end of October, an increase of 20 per cent over the previous year, the issue has been forced to the top of the country's political agenda.

To help stem the tide, the Germans are turning to an unlikely source - Sweden - and a man, Kent Lindahl, who from the age of 11 spent 10 years robbing, assaulting and sometimes maiming foreigners in Stockholm. Now he runs a government-backed organisation in Sweden, Exit, which helps young neo-Nazis and skinheads to leave their gangs. With an organisation that resembles those fighting the power and fervour of religious cults, he has helped 80 individuals escape, including some girls, since setting up in 1998. Another 20-25 are in the process of getting out.

This is only a fraction of the number asking for help. "We've stopped counting the number of phone calls we receive from neo-Nazis who want to get out," he says, estimating them at more than 1,000 in Sweden.

In Germany, the extremists are on the march. Just two weeks ago, neo-Nazis paraded through the streets of Berlin in protest at Chancellor Schroder's proposal to ban the far-right National Democratic Party. And internal security chiefs warn that right-wing extremists may be planning a large-scale terrorist campaign.

The internal intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, estimates tens of thousands of neo-Nazis are active in the country, mainly in the east, with a rapidly growing hard core of around 9,000 particularly violent individuals. And recruits are getting younger. Two suspects detained by police for firebombing a synagogue in Duesseldorf this summer were just 15 years old.

The sheer size of the far-right movement in Germany and the historical legacy of Nazism pose specific challenges. Young people have grown up aware that many of their grandparents and great-grandparents were Nazis in the Thirties and Forties, and in some cases remain proud of the fact. And some German politicians continue to play the racist card at election time.

Exit Deutschland - a government-backed organisation to rescue young people from the hands of the far right, is modelled on the Swedish scheme. It is being spearheaded by former East German policeman Bernd Wagner, and Ingo Hasselbach, once a key figure in the East German neo-Nazi movement. Mr Wagner says: "There are areas in eastern Germany where entire classes in a school might be right-wing. There are clubs and communities of 100 per cent extremist tendencies."

Back in Stockholm, Kent Lindahl says young people need help to escape the clutches of far-right gangs, because if they try to break free unaided, they risk becoming victims themselves. The skinheads and neo-Nazi gangs recruit at a vulnerable age, usually from 12 or 13 up to 18, because it is easier to influence the young and attract them to a simplistic world view. "Beyond that age it is extremely rare to see new recruits," he says.

Nicklas Mattson, 17, joined at 11. He was brought up in the Swedish industrial town of Goteborg. His father was a singer with a dance band and was rarely at home. Nicklas had few friends in school and hung around the streets drinking with his stepbrother, seven years older, who was a member of a skinhead gang. By the time Nicklas was 14, he was getting into fights almost every weekend.

"It could be anyone. I would fight them because I didn't like the way they looked or the clothes they wore." He still says he and his friends were not political, but they had a clear ideology that drove Nicklas to disown his own grandmother, who helped to raise him, because she had been an inmate at Auschwitz. (Although not Jewish, she had been sent there for trying to leave Germany during the war.) "I had denied the Holocaust so I could not admit to my grandmother's existence. I was ashamed of her. She took it very hard - she had nightmares about me and dreamed that I was an SS soldier at Auschwitz," he says.

In one terrible incident he and two friends attacked a foreigner in the street. "We ran after him. We kicked him in the stomach. Kicked until he was down. Crawling. We just kicked and kicked. There was no end."

He still does not know what happened to the victim. "I don't think I want to know," he says.

Fighting was paramount for Mattias Wikstrand, now 24, who joined a skinhead gang at 13. The son of a golf course attendant and a dinner lady in Stockholm, he went to a school where he mixed with the children of immigrants - Iranians, Latin Americans, Arabs.

The skinheads approached him because he liked fighting. He later joined a neo-Nazi group, "because they thought like I did, you know, 'Kill the nigger, gas the Jews'. That kind of thing. We followed the Germans and worshipped Hitler."

The group often wore uniforms - his was a blue shirt and khaki pants - and observed flag-waving and torch-bearing rituals. He met up with neo-Nazi groups in Denmark, Germany and Britain and he attended "white power" music concerts. Later he joined the Swedish neo-Nazi party, the National Socialist Front.

But it was fighting that really excited him. His group got into fights most weekends; he has the knife scars to prove it. The worst was with a group of 100 Greeks in a restaurant. In the chaos, one friend was stabbed in the kidney, teeth were smashed in, broken bottles pushed into faces. "We were really beaten up."

Mattias is less forthcoming about injuries to the other side. But he admits he has knocked people's teeth out, smashed glasses over their heads. "You grab anything you can find. Perhaps a knife or a bottle," he says.

The recurring theme is the foreign enemy. Kent Lindahl believed he was part of a crusade to save the "white race". In his flat he had an altar to Hitler. His arms are still covered in tattoos proclaiming the slogans of white power.

The reasons for getting out can vary. Kent Lindahl's turning point came when his mother fell gravely ill while he was serving one of several prison sentences, and she refused to let him visit her, even though he could have obtained permission. "She did not want others in the hospital to see what her son had become," he says. She died before he was released, and Mr Lindahl wondered for the first time, was it all worth it?

For Nicklas Mattson, the turning point was the shock of being caught by the police after tearing around in stolen cars and smashing up a private party. Mattias Wikstrand, after six years, wanted a "normal" life. "As a neo-Nazi everything is a problem," he says. "You have trouble with the police, problems finding a job, problems with your family. Everyone else dislikes what you do. People provoke you." (A year ago many neo-Nazis were "outed" in a Swedish newspaper campaign. Names, addresses and photographs were published. Many lost their jobs and apartments within days.) But getting out can be dangerous. The police describe the Exit scheme as similar to a witness protection or defector programme. Funding is often required to help "exiters" create a new identity - to leave their school or job and find a new place to live. Nicklas Mattson realised he had to disappear when gang members came looking for him. "They came to my family, to friends who were not skinheads, they said they were going to kill me."

Mattias Wikstrand was lucky that many of his most dangerous "friends" were in prison at the time. But he describes the fear of seeing insults scrawled on walls, and of receiving 30 threatening calls in one day. "They called me traitor, scum, and said, 'we'll get you'."

Neo-nazis tried to force one of his friends off the motorway. Police found axes, baseball bats and knives in their car. Mattias has no doubts the gang would have used them. He has been moving around for five months, waiting for the threats to subside.

Where families are afraid of helping for fear of becoming targets, Exit provides the support. Police, social services and government departments - including the tax authorities - co-operate to protect identities. A phase of reflection is essential to prevent reversion. Often this requires counselling and therapy. Finally, defectors are given a network of contacts to help stabilise them. Like an Alcoholics Anonymous or drug rehabilitation programme, each stage takes time.

"Getting rid of the hate is difficult. There is a lot of hate. Skinhead groups depend on it and build on it," says Nicklas Mattson. "But it comes off in the end. It feels good now to go out on the streets and not hate people."

Exit-Sweden has had only three reversions - mostly, as Mr Lindahl puts it, "because we lost vital contact at a crucial time".

The most difficult part, he says, is to give defectors a sense of self-worth. A social network must be built up to counter the loss of identity. Neo-Nazis, Nicklas Mattson and Mattias Wikstrand both admit, get a kick out of entering a subway train and seeing people leave the carriage in fear.

"If you are someone who is hated, but still someone, and then you enter a great void where you are nothing, it is very difficult," says Mr Lindahl. "We try to offer the same things the neo-Nazi scene offers - activities, a sense of belonging, a social network - but also a positive and creative future."

Many in Germany and Sweden say much more must be done in the community to prevent teenagers from joining extreme groups.

Mr Lindahl believes an increase in the number of youth clubs and social centres would do a great deal to keep young people from sliding into neo-Nazi groups in the first place. The use of former skinheads is also crucial, he says. "A neo-Nazi who wanted to leave would never go to an anti-racist organisation. They are more likely to contact us and to trust us because we've been through it."

Exit's success has brought in donors such as McDonald's and the Swedish insurance group Skandia. And the group's tactics are being replicated across Europe. Exit groups were set up in Norway, but they have closed for lack of funding, and in Finland, where the focus is mostly academic.

Nicklas Mattson goes into schools to talk to pupils and teachers about his "former life". He says: "I stress: it's your choice, but you will pay the price - it's not cool to be a racist in jail."

Mattias Wikstrand talks to parents and teachers on how to recognise the signals - "Some start with white power music, change their dress habits. You have to be vigilant" - and is now a youth ambassador to the Swedish culture ministry's department against racism.

Both work with Exit, "paying back their moral debt to society" as they put it. As for their victims, Mattias Wikstrand says: "They can never go away. I don't have nightmares, but I can't get rid of it."


Racial attacks in the headlines in Germany October 21 Six skinheads face charges of aggravated assault after attacking a Congolese student and beating and kicking his Turkish friend October 31 Briton goes on hunger strike to demand compensation for an attack by neo-Nazis in Brandenburg which left him paralysed November 3 Two men are convicted of attacking an African immigrant at a bus stop, hitting him with beer bottles and kicking him with steel-tipped boots as he lay on the ground November 14 Eight youths convicted of manslaughter. Their victim, an Algerian, bled to death after trying to escape a neo-Nazi mob chasing him through the town of Guben November 17 Four teenage skinheads convicted of attempted murder and arson after they firebombed a hostel housing a family of asylum seekers from Kosovo November 24 Trial begins of an alleged member of a band of right-wing extremists, the Teutonic Comradeship, who, on their way home from a march organised by the National Democratic Party, assaulted a group of German and Polish punks with stones and bottles Source:

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