By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
ZURICH -- At 1:30 a.m., Antonio da Costa heard a knock at the back entrance of the McDonald's restaurant where he worked as a janitor after-hours.
He opened the door, he recalled in an interview. There stood two men, each gripping a chain saw. One yanked the cord on his saw, stepped toward da Costa and shouted above the roaring machine: "We don't need Africans in our country. We're here to kill you!"
The two masked assailants cornered da Costa and began raking him with the whirring chain-saw blades. They slashed one arm to the bone, nearly sliced off his left thumb and hacked his face, neck and chest, the 37-year-old Angolan said, his voice quavering as he recounted the May 1 attack.
The gruesome assault in a suburb of Zurich -- consistently ranked in international surveys as one of the world's most livable cities -- dramatized the surge in racism and xenophobia as Switzerland confronts its most difficult social transformation in modern times. Today, more than one in five people living in Switzerland are foreign-born, the second-highest percentage among countries in Europe.
One of the world's oldest democracies is at the center of Western Europe's most divisive political debate: to embrace an increasingly globalized, multicultural society or to retreat into social isolation in an effort to preserve eroding traditional identities.
Across Switzerland, anti-foreigner and anti-Islamic attitudes have become so pervasive on the streets, in politics and within governmental institutions that the United Nations, European Union, Amnesty International and Switzerland's own Federal Commission Against Racism have expressed alarm in recent months.
The theme is dominating the campaign for national parliamentary elections Oct. 21 and is crystallized in a controversial campaign poster showing three white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag above the slogan, "For more security."
The sign is the creation of the anti-immigration Swiss People's Party, which in three decades has grown from a fringe group to the party with the largest number of seats -- 55 of the 200 -- in parliament's lower house, the National Council, and a major player in the coalition government.
On Saturday, counter-demonstrators threw rocks and bottles at Swiss People's Party protesters during a political rally in front of the national parliament building. Police fired tear gas to break up the melee.
Doudou Diene, the U.N. special fact-finder on racial intolerance, accused the party and its campaign posters of "advocating racist and xenophobic ideas."
"That's nonsense," said Ulrich Schluer, a Swiss People's Party legislator, newspaper editor and creator of the sheep campaign. "It's not against race. It's against people who break laws. People are fed up."
Even prominent members of his party denounced the campaign posters as going too far, though none is known to have made an effort to have them removed from the train stations and streets of Switzerland.
"We have addressed the problems that most of the population is thinking about," Schluer, 63, said in an interview outside the opulent marble-columned National Council chambers in the capital, Bern. He said rising crime rates, concern over terrorism and the increasing drain on the national budget to support poor immigrant families have drawn more voters to the Swiss People's Party.
His party has initiated and won national referendums making it tougher for foreigners to enter Switzerland and obtain citizenship and easier to deport immigrants. Switzerland now has the strictest naturalization laws in Europe.
The Swiss parliament last week passed a party-sponsored bill allowing police to use Tasers -- weapons that fire electrically charged barbs of about 50,000 volts at the body -- to force recalcitrant immigrants onto airplanes during deportation.
Three years ago, the party helped defeat a national referendum to ease the citizenship process for second- and third-generation foreigners; its campaign posters depicted brown hands reaching into a basket of Swiss passports. Another poster showed a picture of Osama bin Laden on a Swiss identity card with the caption, "Don't be fooled."
The party is now calling for a national referendum on banning minarets on mosques and another on allowing deportation of a family if one of its members younger than 18 is convicted of a crime. It is also pushing to repeal the federal law making discrimination and incitement to racial hatred a crime.
"These campaigns remind me of the worst times in Europe between 1930 and 1938," said Yves Patrick Delachaux, a Geneva police officer and author who has made a career of combating racism in his police department. "The same types of posters were used to encourage people to kick the Jews out. We have to be very careful with such propaganda."
Switzerland's Federal Commission Against Racism warned in a report last month that racial discrimination has become institutionalized in government agencies and that the centuries-old Swiss tradition of community decision-making has been corrupted by xenophobia.
In Switzerland, each local community determines who among its immigrants will be granted citizenship. In many towns and villages, public votes are taken among citizens.
The Commission Against Racism said those decisions "sometimes take the shape of a refusal with discriminatory and even racist overtones." The commission said most people denied citizenship were Muslims and natives of the Balkans who were granted asylum during the ethnic wars of the 1990s.
Glenda Loebell-Ryan, a candidate for parliament and head of the Zurich branch of SOS Racism, an anti-discrimination group that assists victims of racism, accuses anti-immigration parties of "instilling fear in the population."
She said the political rhetoric is fueling the kind of aggression that led to the chain-saw attack on Antonio da Costa at the McDonald's restaurant.
Asked about da Costa's account, Swiss People's Party legislator Schluer said: "Sometimes a mistake can happen. I don't say all Swiss men and women are the most ideal human beings in the world."
Philipp Rothenbach, prosecutor in the case, said in a written statement, "The search for the unknown perpetrators is ongoing." He added that there were no independent witnesses to the attack, but said, "The investigators have pictures from a video camera from McDonald's."
Da Costa, who came to Switzerland 11 years ago as an Angolan war refugee, said he had grown accustomed to the racial slurs and looks of suspicion from white Swiss over the years. But he said nothing prepared him for the two men and their chain saws.
"We know Switzerland is a nice country, there's security everywhere," said da Costa, who speaks three languages but has worked most of his time in Switzerland as a janitor. "You never think something like this can happen.
"I couldn't defend myself against two chain saws," he said. As they slashed at him with the buzzing blades, da Costa said, he tried in vain to protect his face with his arms. "I couldn't feel my fingers. I was on my knees. I tried to tell them I didn't want trouble, I just came here to work. They were treating me like I was an animal.
"One put the chain saw on top of my head and said, 'We're going to cut you in half.' "
He closed his eyes at the memory. "I tried to hide my eyes. I didn't want to see the way they were going to kill me," he continued, in French. "I was praying. In my head I'd already died. I'd lost all hope of living.
"Then it was a miracle. He saved me," da Costa said, referring to God. "I found the courage inside. I got up and pushed open the door with my chest because I couldn't use my arms, and ran." He fell, breaking his teeth; the men stood over him and tried to restart the saws, but could not, he said. He sprang up and jumped a fence, eluding them.
That night he underwent six hours of surgery to stitch the cuts on his face, chest and arms and reattach his left thumb. Five months after the attack, half of his face is slathered in a white salve, his left arm remains in a red cast, 16 purple slashes are outlined on his right arm and damaged teeth continue to fall out.
"My own children are afraid of me -- my own children," said da Costa, his eyes welling with tears. "They want to know, 'Why did somebody cut up my daddy?' "
Researcher Corinne Gavard in Paris and special correspondent Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.