pursuits

Mafia Imports Teen Dealers in Berlin Bestseller by Dead Author

Kirsten Heisig portrays a Berlin the tourists don’t see: A place where children sell heroin at age 11 and commit rape at 13; where teenagers attack shopkeepers with knives and schools can no longer cope with the violence.

Until her sudden death in June, Heisig, 48, was a juvenile court judge working in Neukoelln, one of the city’s most crime-afflicted areas. Her body was found by police last month, though not until four days after she hanged herself from a tree. She left no note to explain her suicide.

She had just completed her book, “Das Ende der Geduld” (The Limits of Patience), published posthumously. The enigmas surrounding her death are partly why her book leaped to No. 1 of Der Spiegel’s non-fiction bestseller list. Yet she also addresses issues that gained topicality after news reports about an 11-year-old heroin dealer known as Jamal, caught for the 14th time by police.

Heisig doles out unpalatable truths in ladles, particularly about sections of Berlin’s immigrant population. She describes the families of kids like Jamal: Sprawling, Mafia-like Arab clans who smuggle children via Lebanon to sell drugs trafficked from the Middle East. These clans, described as “stateless Palestinians” yet often of Kurdish-Lebanese origin, operate in what Heisig calls a parallel, “purely criminal” society.

Kids under 14 cannot be prosecuted under German law. Nor can they be deported, because their documents are taken from them by human traffickers on the plane. The police can only deliver them to unlocked care homes, from which they escape. The inevitable result is that Jamal and his cohorts are back in the underground stations, dealing again, the next day.

Serial Offenders

Neukoelln, Heisig’s district of west Berlin, comprises about 300,000 people, 40 percent of whom have an immigrant background. The unemployment rate is about 19 percent; among the families of immigrants, it is twice that.

Ninety percent of juvenile serial offenders in 2008 were from immigrant backgrounds, with “stateless Palestinians” accounting for 43 percent and Turks 34 percent.

Certain patterns recur in the backgrounds of such recidivists, Heisig writes. Boys are often indulged by their mothers and grow up with no parental discipline. Parents -- who may speak little or no German -- dismiss complaints from school about behavior or absence and accuse teachers of racism.

The child ends up being passed from one school to another “like a hot potato”: By the age of 10 or 11 he is hanging out with friends all day instead of going to school, pestering other children for money, then searching them, until finally, the bullying turns violent and victims are beaten and kicked.

Indifferent to Values

“Many young people of Turkish and Arab backgrounds don’t take any notice of Germany’s rules and laws,” she writes. “They are indifferent to the value system here.”

Muslim families tend to keep their daughters cloistered, so the boys turn to non-Muslim girls for their first sexual encounters. Heisig said she had come across many cases where the girlfriend ends a relationship because of possessive, threatening behavior. Revenge sometimes comes in the form of indescribably brutal rape by the rejected boy and his whole gang, all filmed on a mobile phone, she writes.

“By the time these youths reach my colleagues and me, so much has already gone wrong in their lives,” she writes. “What disturbs me is that we are operating as a repair shop, and an unsuccessful one at that.”

Benefit Cuts

Heisig’s biggest complaint is that charges against youth offenders can take months to reach court -- by which time, they have forgotten the crime and possibly committed a few more since. In Neukoelln, she introduced an accelerated process by which offenders can be in court in weeks.

She favors reducing child benefits for parents whose kids regularly skip school, introducing secure homes for children like Jamal who are below the age of criminal responsibility and improving coordination between schools, police and the courts.

Heisig earned epithets such as “Richterin Gnadenlos” (Judge Merciless) and “The Terror of Neukoelln.” Yet her entire approach was aimed at stopping the 12- or 13-year-olds who appeared before her from showing up again and again -- ultimately an empathetic stance to both the victims and perpetrators. She didn’t favor tougher penalties or a lower age of criminal responsibility. She wanted swift, decisive intervention before it’s too late.

Her commitment meant Heisig regularly gave up her own time to consult with community leaders and talk to parent groups, reinforcing the importance of school and language skills.

Her motivation, she writes in a personal note at the end of the book, was her own happy childhood. “I would like future generations to have the same chances that I did,” she wrote.

It’s sad that life got the better of her. Yet Heisig’s legacy lives on. Her courage is inspirational, and her Neukoelln practices of accelerated court hearings for juvenile offenders have been introduced citywide.

“Das Ende der Geduld” is published in Germany by Herder Verlag (208 pages, 14.95 euros).

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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