The school massacre: 'Always in the background'

22nd April 2007, Comments 0 comments

Gutenberg High School in Germany marks the fifth anniversary of a massacre that left 16 students and staff dead while survivors say they still find it hard to cope.

 Johann Gutenberg Gymnasium, the German high school where 16 people were killed in a shooting spree five years ago, rises like a magnificent renaissance palace over its downtown street in the city of Erfurt.

Chatting pupils walk up and down the grand steps leading to the front door of the 1908 building and on a sunny spring day in 2007, it is hard to imagine this as a place of evil, where a 19-year-old ex-pupil went from room to room shooting dead school staff and children.

But the memorial plaque, naming each of the 13 staff, two students and the policeman killed by the gunman, allows no one to forget the nightmare of April 26, 2002, which only ended with the gunman's suicide.

The school will be holding a memorial service Thursday. Teachers and students, former pupils and political leaders will gather outside the building and lay wreaths near the memorial plaque.

The ceremony is set to start at 10.45 am, matching the moment when the rampage by ex-pupil Robert Steinhaeuser began five years ago.

"It's always a difficult moment to get through for us. The whole event seems to flash past you again in your mind," said school principal Christiane Alt.

Martin Libutzki, an 18-year-old pupil, agrees.

"You notice that the classes get tenser as April 26 rolls round again," he said. Current 10th, 11th and 12th graders at the school and most of the school staff were present during the 2002 rampage.

"On the surface, we are no different from any other high school," said Eric Wisotzki, 18, the elected chief representative of students. "We learn. We laugh. We're just normal kids. But that event is always in the space, always in the background."

Too raw

This year's 12th-grade school-leavers are set to have their last day of classes on April 27.

*quote1* The last day is a time of high-jinks, the so-called day of revenge when they play practical jokes on the teachers who have kept them working hard over the years. But this year it will be postponed to April 30. Everyone feels too raw the day after the anniversary.

The shooting spree at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia has been traumatic for Gutenberg students and staff.

"When we see the TV pictures from Virginia, our own memories come slamming back," said principal Alt.

A fresh start?

Gutenberg staff and pupils moved back from temporary quarters into the Erfurt site in summer two years ago after extensive refurbishing and rebuilding and a debate about whether a fresh start at the old site made sense.

"We did come back, but it has been terribly hard for us," admits Alt reflectively. She adds that the renovation has turned Gutenberg into a roomier, airier and friendlier place, with a whole new wing including a gym, but it remains a place of dark memories.

Counsellors who surveyed more than 700 pupils just after the rampage concluded that 41 per cent had been traumatized in some way.

*quote2* There are still 31 survivors receiving psychological counselling, according to the accident-compensation fund that has so far spent 4.7 million euros ($6.4 million) on therapy and pensions for dependents of those killed.

"Many of those traumatized are still not back to normal," said a therapist, Alina Wilms.

"For example, they get flashbacks, where certain sights, noises or smells suddenly trigger memories of the rampage and make them panic."


On New Year's Eve, when Germans let off fireworks, some of the trauma victims shut themselves up, because the sounds of explosions set off flashbacks. Others become panicked when they see people dressed from head to foot in black, as the teenaged gunman was.

The therapist said a considerable number had developed a deep mistrust towards all other people and unfamiliar situations.

"That's why they feel let down that the government did not do en

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