The color has vanished from Karamba Diaby’s office. A veil of ash has settled onto his furniture and walls. The red sofa, the white shelves, the honey-brown wood floors. All of it has taken on a gray hue.
Diaby is standing in front of the door to his office, which is where the arsonist set the fire. From the mail slot, it flared all the way up to the ceiling. Even several weeks later, it still smells like smoke. "Everything has to go," says Diaby, vaguely waving his hand at the room. The soot is everywhere. They’ll have to replace the furniture and the books, the walls need to be repainted, the door replaced and even the electric wiring will have to be redone.
Diaby turns around and strides out of the room. He heads out the back door into the stairwell, takes a left and exits through a door that is not blackened from the fire. He ends up in an alleyway in the city center of Halle (Saale), in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, just a few steps from the market square. Diaby’s office manager is waiting in front of the main entrance to the office.
"Oh, I thought you’d be coming out the front," the office manager says, pointing at the scorched door.
"No. I didn’t want to go through that."
Karamba Diaby, 61, has been a member of parliament for the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) since 2013, representing the electoral district that includes Halle in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament in Berlin. Since his initial election, there have been three attacks on his office in Halle. In the first one, in May 2015, the windows were broken. Then, in 2020, someone fired five shots at the office window, with Diaby receiving a death threat a short time later signed with "Heil Hitler." In the third attack, just over six months ago, a man set fire to the door.
Was the last attack born of hatred for the governing coalition in Berlin, led by the SPD? Or perhaps just pure hatred of the SPD? Or, was it because Diaby is Black?
Passersby were able to apprehend the arsonist immediately after he set the fire, holding him until the police arrived. Diaby knew the man – having reported him to the police on six different occasions for insulting him and sending threat letters.
Diaby has been living in Halle for the last 35 years. He went to university there, met his wife and started a family. He was there for the final years of East Germany, experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall in Halle and the difficult period that followed. If you ask Diaby what emotion he connects to the city, he says: "affinity."
But there have also been moments that have cast a shadow over his life in Halle. Messages in which he was insulted as a "filthy Black pig." Times when he has wondered whether attending an evening event was safe for him or not.
Friends, colleagues and relatives have frequently asked Diaby why he has stayed in Halle all this time. Despite the attacks, the insults and the fear. "I feel very comfortable in Halle," has always been his response. But it is hard not to wonder how such a thing is possible. How can you fight on behalf of a city in which some are constantly fighting against you? How is it possible to withstand hatred in a place you call home?
It's a Sunday morning in July and Diaby is sitting in the clubhouse of a garden colony to the west of Halle. The six-person leadership committee has welcomed Diaby with cake and coffee, which they are drinking out of porcelain cups decorated with flowers. Afterward, they take a stroll through the allotment gardens. Diaby points to the Japanese anemones. "My favorite flowers!" he gushes.
A married couple opens their garden gate and Diaby walks along the stone pathway to the vegetable beds, the rest of the group following along. Diaby looks at the zucchinis and examines the greenhouse full of tomato plants, the fruits glistening green. He promises to send a recipe to combat the mildew that has beset the grapevines. "My wife has a special mixture. It stinks, but it works!"
Diaby likes visiting the allotment garden colonies in Halle in the summertime. It’s easy to get into conversations with people, and there is no door standing in the way. All Diaby has to do is wave across the fences. He also finds it simple to find a topic of conversation in each garden he visits: the racoon plague, the roses, the bat boxes.
The fact that a member of German parliament takes time for such a thing on Sunday is rather unusual, says one gardener, bidding farewell. "I’m one of you," Diaby responds.
Integration through Allotment Gardens
In the 1990s, he wrote a Ph.D. thesis entitled: "The Heavy Metal and Nutrient Content of Allotment Gardens in Halle." Investors at the time were hoping to eliminate the garden colonies, arguing that the soil had been poisoned by East German industry. Diaby went from colony to colony, planting kohlrabi or celery. Later, he examined the root knobs – and found that it was all edible. In only very few cases did harmful elements exceed threshold values. The garden colonies survived.
Diaby says that his work in the gardens was the first time he had really come face-to-face with eastern Germans. Of course, he allows, he heard some stupid comments – such as people saying that he was only in Germany for the blonde women, and things like that. "But in most instances, I was received with open arms," says Diaby. They would invite him into their garden shacks or to BBQs. Diaby enjoys gardening, the harvest it produces and the feeling of community. "I felt accepted." The allotment gardeners helped him feel at home in Halle.
For the last several years, the SPD politician has had an allotment garden of his own, and he and his wife grow cucumbers, okra and tomatoes. Diaby, though, is particularly proud of his sweet potatoes. When he harvested them, he took pictures and started showing them around on his mobile phone like others might show off photos of their children. At some point, though, he heard that there was a saying in Germany: "The dumbest farmers grow the biggest potatoes." Since then, Diaby has been a bit more reserved.
Diaby tries to spend almost every weekend in his garden if his schedule allows for it, planting and watering, weeding and harvesting. It is a place where he can relax – which is why it is important to Diaby that the precise location of his garden not be revealed.
One time, a well-known right-wing extremist in the city filmed and harassed Diaby during lunch in Halle. He said that Diaby had been gifted his German passport and kicked "his own people" in the ass. Diaby suffered through the tirade in silence.
On another occasion, Diaby – who was a member of the city council at the time – found a postcard in his mailbox. On the front was a photo of the fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. On the back, it read: "Hello Bimbo, you freeloaded well again today! Go back to Africa!" And he has received a number of threats: "He will leave the SPD or there will be blood. Bullet, bullet, I love you." At times, Diaby has been placed under police protection.
When speaking about the hostilities that he experiences on an almost weekly basis, Diaby tends to refer to them as: "Unpleasant incidents."
What emotions are triggered by such hatred?
"It makes me sad. And worried."
What are you worried about?
"My team. I don’t know how I could live if something happened to somebody."
When Diaby says things like that, he's usually pensive, never angry.
When someone fired five shots at his office in January 2020 with a Softair rifle, Diaby was in Berlin. A staff member in Halle wrote him that they had found five holes in the window and notified the police. Diaby responded: "Could you send me a picture? Kind regards, Karamba."
Refusing to Hide
Diaby’s life in Halle began with a misunderstanding. He arrived in East Germany in 1985 from Senegal on a study grant. In the initial months after his arrival, Diaby and other international students took a German language course in Leipzig, before then being sent to various universities. Diaby was placed in Meresburg, but he wanted to go to Halle instead. He had heard that it was home to the Martin Luther University and thought it had been named after the Black civil rights activist Martin Luther King. Diaby thought it would be an honor to pursue his university studies at place like that. He only learned later that it was named after a different Martin Luther. But by then, he was already in Halle.
Despite earning a chemistry degree, Diaby was unable to find a job after graduation. He says that during this period, he applied for a job at a company called Caramba Chemicals, which produces things like anti-rust solutions. But he never received a response. Perhaps the company thought it was bad joke – someone called Karamba applying for a job at Caramba.
Like thousands of others in eastern Germany after the fall of communism, Diaby ended up in a make-work program, where he became involved in political education, visiting schools and speaking to young people about racism and right-wing extremism. Afterwards, he became more and more deeply involved in political work.
Diaby says that he never would have made it as far as he has without the opportunities he was given in Germany. He joined the SPD in 2008, in part because of his identification with social justice issues.
Today, as a parliamentarian, Darby is a member of the Committee on Economic Cooperation and Development, the Committee on Foreign Affairs and of the West Africa Parliamentary Group. Only recently, he celebrated his 10th anniversary as a member of the Bundestag.
What political achievement is Diaby most proud of?
"I am very proud of the Immigration Act for Skilled Workers," he says. "With it, the coalition managed to take a huge step forward."
The coalition he refers to is led by his SPD under Chancellor Olaf Scholz and also includes the Green Party and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). And it has been under almost constant criticism for not having made much progress on its numerous promises.
"We are facing many crises, not just in Germany. Given the circumstances, the coalition has really achieved quite a lot."
Sometimes, he sounds as though he has memorized the Bundestag press kit word-for-word. Diaby says that he is so eager for harmony that he sometimes wonders how he ended up in politics.
It’s an afternoon in mid-July and Diaby is sitting in an office a floor up from street level. His previous office on the ground floor still isn’t ready to be used again following the arson attack. The renovation work can’t get going until the insurance company has finished its checks.
Darby begins talking about the investigation into the arson attack. Police arrested a suspect, and he is in pre-trial detention with proceedings set to begin soon. The people behind the first two attacks on Darby were never found, making this the first time that an accused assailant will appear in court. Diaby is hoping for justice on at least this occasion.
He has opened his doors to his constituency on this afternoon, annoyed that the meetings have to take place up here instead of at street level as he prefers. When the office window was shot at, Diaby’s team opened the doors to the constituency on the very next day.
"After the attacks, I could have moved into an office on the fifth or sixth floor, so that from the outside, people would only see my name on the doorbell," says Diaby. But that would have felt too much like hiding. And he wants people to see him. He wants people to be able to pop in spontaneously for a cup of coffee. "Now, people have to know beforehand when I’m accepting visitors," he says, lamenting that nobody comes by anymore without an appointment.
On this day, two men and a married couple have signed up for a meeting. They talk about potholes in the roads, poor mobile phone reception, long waits for medical procedures and the challenges that inflation has created for retirees.
"You get the impression that public services no longer work in this country," says one of the men. Diaby nods and takes notes. He insists that the coalition in Berlin is doing its best to address such problems and notes that the country is facing a number of crises, including the economic situation and the war in Ukraine. He also mentions the fragmented political landscape. "Then you shouldn’t be surprised if the AfD makes big strides," the man responds, referring to the right-wing radical Alternative for Germany party. "I am really concerned about how the mood is developing here."
In nationwide surveys, the AfD – which is represented in the Bundestag in addition to most state parliaments – is currently polling at just over 20 percent. In Saxony-Anhalt, the state in which Halle is located, the party has long received well over 30 percent in the polls. In November, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the country’s topmost security agency, officially classified the Saxony-Anhalt chapter of the AfD as right-wing extremist.
Faith in Dialogue
In October, the European Agency for Fundamental Rights published a study on racism against Black people. In Germany, 77 percent of respondents said that they have been disadvantaged in the last five years because of their skin color, background or religion – more than in any of the other 12 EU countries that were part of the study. In September, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is closely linked to the SPD, published its latest study on right-wing extremist attitudes in German society. It found that 8 percent of Germans hold a right-wing extremist worldview.
How does Diaby deal with such developments?
"I certainly think a lot about them."
"About what kind of a society we all want to live in. And what kind of a society my children will have to live in."
Diaby says that insults and harassment on social media have increased in recent years. He has repeatedly received messages of hate that express support for the AfD and is growing concerned that the political debate is growing more radical.
Diaby has already seen racist violence escalate in Germany once before, back in the 1990s. Within a handful of years, hostels and apartments belonging to asylum seekers and foreigners went up in flames in Rostock, Mölln and Solingen, causing fatalities. During this period, neo-Nazis also beat the Angolan man Amadeu Antonio Kiowa to death in Brandenburg.
On one occasion in 1990, when Diaby got off the bus one evening, a couple of young men yelled after him, accusing him of not having paid for his ride. Diaby stopped to show them his ticket and they punched him in the face, breaking his glasses, as Diaby recalls. He was able to run away before anything worse could happen.
Sometimes, Diaby says, he has trouble sleeping.
When the Social Democrat ran for a seat in the Bundestag for the first time in 2013, it was a minor sensation. The first Black German parliamentarian born in Africa – and from eastern Germany to boot. International news outlets like the New York Times, CNN and Al Jazeera all covered his story. DER SPIEGEL also published an article about Diaby, called "The Experiment." The story noted that in some parts of Halle, it was dangerous for people of his complexion to be out on the street at night. After it was published, Diaby complained, saying he felt like he had been duped and that the story had portrayed Halle in the wrong light.
Diaby wanted to prove the naysayers wrong He wanted to show that an orphan from Senegal could make it all the way to the top in Germany. That while racism might be a problem, the majority of German society is nevertheless open and tolerant. That the narrative holding that eastern German cities like Halle are breeding grounds for right-wing extremism isn’t true.
Maybe it's just a question of perspective. Halle has a beautiful market square, a large university and a cathedral. It is home to the Paulus district, where people live in prewar buildings with stucco ceilings and where the Green Party received solid support in the last federal election. And then there are districts like Silberhöhe and Neustadt, where people live in pre-fab, concrete blocks along streets where nothing seems to have changed for decades. In Silberhöhe and in parts of Neustadt, the majority voted for the AfD.
Halle is a place where Diaby has been punched in the face and publicly harassed by a right-wing extremist.
It is also a place where the majority cast their ballots in the 2021 federal election for an African-German Social Democrat. A place where Diaby received the best SPD result in all of Saxony-Anhalt.
Diaby believes in dialogue. "It might sound banal, but talking helps,” he says. You have to explain political decisions and accept criticism, he believes. "I can’t solve all the problems that people bring to me, but I can take all problems seriously," Diaby says. "But of course that only works if people are willing to talk." Diaby even wanted to establish contact with the man who threatened him and then set his office on fire. But the police advised him against doing so.
Diaby often takes public transportation in Halle. He visits schools, companies and every garden colony in the surroundings. He reads to children at child protection facilities and cooks for people with psychiatric illnesses. He wants people to always be able to approach him.
How does Diaby want to be remembered for his political work one day?
"As a politician who always focused on the interests of the people who elected him," he says.
After his visit to the garden colony, Diaby wants to go for a drink somewhere. He doesn’t have much time. Midday on Sunday is reserved for his family and they always share a meal together. And his wife Ute has already called to ask when he is coming home. He walks rapidly toward a café on the market square and the waiter comes out to greet him with a handshake and a pat on the shoulder. "Hi boss, haven’t seen you in a while." Diaby smiles, sits up a bit straighter and orders a tea. "You see," he says. "People know me in Halle."
After the shots were fired at his office, a lot of people dropped by to express their solidarity. One woman brought flowers that she then stuck into the holes made by the projectiles. After the arson attack, Diaby received hundreds of messages: from the chancellor, from the state governor and, most of all, from common citizens. "We stand with you," and "You aren’t alone." It’s things like that, says Diaby, that give him strength. "The support that I have received has always been greater than the hate."
Diaby describes himself as a German with Senegalese roots and says he is 95 percent integrated. The 5 percent that is missing, he says, comes from the fact that he’s not always a fan of German food and still doesn’t understand the German obsession with weather forecasts. He says that receiving German citizenship in 2001 was one of the most important moments of his life.
Diaby opens up his phone and searches for a message. He no longer reads most of the pejorative things said to and about him. Recently, though, he says, he saved a message that really got to him. "Someone wrote that I should go back home and engage in politics there. It left me wondering: Where am I supposed to go? This has been my home for almost 40 years," he says, his brow furrowed.
Diaby avoids being provocative, doesn’t make crude remarks and rarely complains. His answers to questions are deliberate and thoughtful. When he has meetings on his agenda – whether they are with university students, citizens or other lawmakers – he always withdraws for a time to prepare. He feels bad if he shows up late to appearances. He looks a lot like someone who thinks they can’t afford to make any mistakes. Like someone who always wants to do everything right, perhaps even better than most others – because Diaby knows that some people will never see him as being like most others.
It's a warm fall day in late October in Halle. Outside, people are pushing their way through the pedestrian zone toward the main square for the last ice cream of the season, or perhaps a coffee in the sun. Inside is Diaby, rolling his pen back and forth between his fingers.
When asked how he is doing, Diaby, looking at the pen, says: "Good." He always seems to be doing well.
In August, the trial against the man accused of setting fire to Diaby’s office got underway. The verdict: Not criminally liable. The man was sent to a psychiatric clinic. A court spokeswoman said that the arson attack did not appear to be politically motivated.
Asked what he thinks of the verdict, Diaby says: "As a politician, it is not my place to comment on the work of the judiciary. But of course you ask yourself questions."
What kinds of questions?
"This man passed by hundreds of doors before he lit mine on fire. There are a number of political representatives in Halle, but he only repeatedly showered me with racist insults. He threatened me over and over again. That’s supposed to be normal?"
Diaby rocks back and forth in his chair and sets down the pen. His fingers run along the edge of the table and the arm of his chair. He then picks the pen back up and resumes twirling it.
Does he find it frustrating that the possible motive for the attack hasn’t been more clearly identified?
"If you allow yourself to get frustrated, you might as well quit politics," says Diaby.
Has he ever thought about quitting?
"No. Over 42,000 people in Halle voted for me. Quitting would mean giving their votes less weight than those of a hateful minority. I would never allow that to happen."
The renovation work one floor below has finally begun. A piece of plywood has, for the moment, replaced the burned door at the entrance of his office. The walls are white, the floor clean and the room is empty. The smell of paint fills the air. In the middle of the room are two closed packages from IKEA. The sofa, the tables, the shelves, the books – it will all be replaced.
And Diaby isn’t going to quit He’s going to start over. Again and again.