At about 1:00 a.m., half a dozen plainclothes police came into the hall where we had been waiting.
They had grim looks on their faces and papers in their hands. They seemed to be bearing news, but they also looked weighted down, as if whatever they carried was heavy. My stomach began to churn. “How many families are you going to talk to?” I overheard one asking another.
A blue-eyed officer with dark grayish hair glanced down at the papers and asked one of the volunteers to point out various people.
He seemed to be looking for certain families. I walked up to him.
Seven hours earlier, shots had been fired near the Olympia shopping center in Munich, and I had raced from Frankfurt to cover the story. Now I was looking for my cousin’s son, 14-year-old Can, who had been at the shopping center with a friend.
“We have a family member missing. Please, can you tell us anything?”
He folded the paper he was holding and opened a notebook. “Please give me your name, address, and who is the missing family member.”
My voice shook as I recited the details. “For full disclosure, you should know I am also a journalist working for the Washington Post,” I told him. “But I’m not asking you these questions as a reporter. I’m asking as a member of the family.”
Since 9/11, I had scoured the world writing about terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. I’d interviewed parents who had lost their children in Iraq. I remembered counting the bodies of dead protesters in Alexandria, Egypt. I had covered terrorist attacks on three continents — experiences that I had nearly finished chronicling for my memoir, “I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad.”
But this time I wasn’t covering a story, I didn’t have that wall to protect me.
In fact, I wondered if I’d ever really been able to build that wall.
The police officer said he understood and asked me to wait while he spoke to someone on his cell phone. My aunt had come to stand next to me, and I pressed her hand while watching the policeman’s face and trying to read his lips as he spoke softly into the phone a few feet away. He stared at the ground, and as the conversation continued, he bowed his head further. Finally, he hung up and walked over to us. “Where are Can’s parents?” he asked. “They went to look for their child in the hospital,” I said.
“Aside from you, are there any other family members here?”
I motioned to my aunt and told him there were others, too. Including family and friends, there were sixteen of us. “Why, do you know anything?”
He looked at me for a few seconds, then leaned closer and whispered, “I think we need to go to a private room.”
“Oh, God, please, no.” The words slipped out, because I knew what going to a private room meant. I felt my knees weaken. He closed his eyes as if trying to push the moment away. “Please stay calm, gather whoever is here, and let’s all go to another room.”
We had been waiting at a stadium near the shopping center where the police had asked families waiting for information about missing loved ones to gather. In happier times, soccer tournaments were held there, but now the cavernous space was mostly empty.
We were directed down a flight of stairs into a locker room. The police officer with the blue eyes and one of his female colleagues entered through a separate door. I heard them say something about “McDonald’s” and “shooting” and that they’d found a tall, slim young man whose wallet had an ID card with the name Can Leyla.
“This young man wouldn’t have made it into the hospital,” the male police officer said. “I am sorry.”
“What are you saying?” Can’s twenty-one-year-old brother, Ferid, stood up. “You are talking about my brother? Are you saying Can is dead?”
“I am sorry. Your brother is dead.”
“The boy was just fourteen years old,” Ferid said. “How is this possible? There must be a mistake.”
It was only later that I heard the whole story and was able to make sense of it.
An eighteen-year-old German-Iranian student named David Sonboly had opened fire at the McDonald’s across from the Olympia shopping center, killing five people inside, including Can.
Outside, on Hanauer Strasse, Sonboly shot and killed two pedestrians, then walked to a nearby electronics store, where he shot and killed another person before crossing the street and entering the shopping mall. Moving from the ground floor through the parking garage, he killed one more person and discharged seventeen rounds into a parked vehicle.
Shortly after 6:00 p.m., Sonboly was seen on the parking garage rooftop, where a man living in a neighboring apartment building yelled at him. At least two bystanders filmed this episode on their phones. The police shot at Sonboly, causing him to run through a grassy area leading onto Henckystrasse, where he hid in the stairwell of an apartment building. When he stepped out, the police confronted him, and Sonboly shot himself in the head.
The whole thing took several hours. When it was done, ten people were dead, most between fourteen and twenty years old; the exception was a forty-five-year-old Turkish mother of two. Although many were German citizens, all were of foreign descent: Turkish, Romanian, Hungarian, or Kosovan. Thirty-six others were injured, ten seriously.
The locker room filled with screaming. “Oh, my God, how can we tell his parents?” my aunt cried. “They won’t survive this.” We were both weeping. I had no idea how or what to tell them. It was unthinkable.
The police officer walked over to me. “I need to ask you to call the parents and tell them to come back, but you must stay calm. I don’t want them to hear about this until we have them in a safe place.”
I was in tears and shaking. But my pain doesn’t matter, I thought. We had to do what we could to help Can’s parents and brother.
“I will try,” I answered in a broken voice. I went upstairs, where it was quieter, and dialed my cousin Hassan’s phone. He picked up after two rings.
“Hassan? Where are you?” I tried to keep my voice even.
“On the bus. We wanted to go to another hospital and look for Can.”
“No, please can you and Sibel come back here?
The police just came, and they want to speak to the families.”
“The police? Do they want to speak to us alone?”
I knew I had to speak carefully. I didn’t want them to figure out what happened while they were out in the city, away from the rest of the family.
“No, no, they want to speak to families in general, make some announcements,” I lied. “But they are waiting until everybody is here so they don’t have to say it twice.”
To calm myself, I made a fist, clenching my thumb between the other fingers.
A police officer standing nearby laid her hand on my shoulder.
“Ah, okay, we’re coming back,” Hassan said.
As we waited for them in the locker room, I thought about Hassan and Sibel, and the horror and pain that lay ahead for them. I didn’t know how I would be able to look at them when they walked in. Some of Can’s cousins asked to wait outside. The police, fearing that Can’s parents would see their red eyes and damp faces, advised against it. But the young people insisted.
A few minutes later, one of the cousins returned, shouting, “Come up, hurry, Sibel is screaming and breaking down! She just learned Can is dead!”
We all ran upstairs, where a crowd of anxious people, many also awaiting news of their loved ones, stood watching Sibel and Hassan. Sibel was lying on the ground, pulling her hair. Hassan walked around shouting and screaming Can’s name over and over. Apparently one of the female volunteers had told Sibel “I’m sorry” as she and Hassan climbed off the bus.
“Noooo, noooo, my son is not dead!” she screamed, beating her hands against her head. “Can!” Hassan, meanwhile, screamed and sobbed in his brother’s arms. Sibel began biting herself. “Kill me now,” she said. “Just kill me. Why would somebody take my beautiful son? He hasn’t done anything.”
Hassan just sat there, crying. He tried to hold her. “Don’t touch me!” she yelled. “Just bring me my son.” She begged God to take her life and bring Can back. “Please, you are all lying to me, my son is not dead,” she said. “No, no, my son is not dead. They said he will come on the bus.”
She cried and screamed his name again. This went on for what seemed like an eternity. Then I heard another man and woman screaming nearby and knew that some other family had just learned their own bitter news.
Somehow, we found our way back to Hassan and Sibel’s apartment, where we stared helplessly at pictures of Can hanging on the walls. Sibel was screaming and beating herself. It was as if she were trying to wake herself up from a nightmare. Hassan went into the bedroom, closed the door, and cried.
“Souad, my son is not dead — right, Souad? Can is coming back?” Sibel cried. “Please tell me you all lied to me. Please, Souad.”
I held her. “Sibel, I wish we had lied.” I felt weak and useless as she shouted and screamed. Then we heard shouting from the house next door, whose balcony was only a few feet away. Another father and mother were screaming for their son. “Who are they?” I asked my aunt.
“They are the parents of Selçuk Kiliç, Can’s best friend. They grew up together.”
I learned that Can and Selçuk, who was fifteen, had been like brothers.
Both families were Muslim, but Can was Shia, and Selçuk Sunni. For hours, two families and their friends mourned the loss of boys who’d shared everything. Hassan and Sibel’s apartment filled with relatives and friends. Whenever the doorbell rang, Sibel asked if it was Can coming back.
I stayed in Munich to help out, going to Hassan and Sibel’s house every day to grieve with them and other relatives and friends. A few days later, a police officer from the crisis center called. “We are finished with the autopsy and would like to organize for the family to say good-bye.”
He asked if someone would come to see Can and decide where and how he should be buried. They invited a family representative to come to the funeral home where the body was being kept to prepare it for a viewing.
When I told Hassan what the police had said, he begged me to go and see Can’s body.
Sibel’s cousin’s roommate Kader, a medical doctor by training, said she would come with me.
I asked Hassan if he wanted Can to wear something special. He requested that Can be dressed in the shirt of his favorite soccer team, Fenerbahçe Istanbul, whose colors were blue and yellow. I took the shirt, and Kader and I drove to the funeral home, stopping on the way to buy two big bouquets of yellow and blue roses. Inside, we saw a white coffin.
The undertaker, who happened to be Turkish, said we should let him know when we wanted him to open it. I didn’t say a word and wondered if maybe there had been some misunderstanding, and this might not be Can. I found myself hoping the coffin held someone else.
“Are you all right?” I heard Kader asking. “Are you ready?”
“I am ready.”
It was Can, all right. I looked at his face, the cold, pale skin and long eyelashes. His mouth and eyes were half open, as if he were surprised.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. They’d dressed him in a long white tunic and put a white bow tie around his neck, presumably to hide the incision made there during the autopsy. His feet were bare.
We struggled to lift him, to get the soccer jersey on. He was heavy and stiff-limbed, and I found myself wondering if we might hurt him. They had given me gloves, but I could feel his skin through the plastic. He was very cold. He had grown a lot since I’d last seen him six years earlier, I thought.
Our families weren’t especially close. I remembered him as a child, but the body in the coffin belonged to a young man. Kader and I stood still for a few seconds. The last faint hope that there might have been some kind of misunderstanding was gone.
We went back to Hassan and Sibel’s apartment to tell them how their son looked. Later, when we all returned to the funeral home together, Sibel screamed at the sight of Can’s cousins standing over her son, kissing him good-bye.
Watching her, I was filled with anger and guilt. Anger because it seemed we hadn’t learned much from the suffering of the past fifteen years. Guilt because it was part of my job to give people clear information that could help dispel racism and fight violence, and I, along with other journalists, had clearly failed. This shooter stood for all those people I’d come across who killed because they had created their own ideologies of hatred and, in their sick minds, a justification for taking other people’s lives.
As it turned out, David Sonboly wasn’t an Islamist; he was deeply troubled and subscribed to a more familiar ideology.
It was no coincidence that the shooting had taken place on July 22, the fifth anniversary of the attack by Anders Behring Breivik, a right-wing Norwegian terrorist who blew up a van in Oslo and then fatally shot sixty-nine participants at a Workers’ Youth League summer camp on a nearby island. Born with the name Ali (he’d changed it to David when he turned eighteen), he was a dual citizen of Germany and Iran whose parents had immigrated in the 1990s as asylum seekers.
Before he became a mass killer, he was known to the police as a victim of petty crime: he’d been beaten up by other kids, and he’d been a victim of theft. Reportedly bullied at school, he was receiving psychiatric care and taking antidepressants to cope with anxiety and social phobia.
According to one of my sources with the police, Sonboly had walked around for fifty minutes inside the McDonald’s before killing Can, Selçuk, and the other young victims. The police believe he was targeting young, handsome “cool kids” of foreign origin, the kind of boys he’d hoped but failed to be himself.
In his room at his parents’ home in a middle-class Munich neighborhood, the police found books and news clippings on school shootings, among them a book called Rampage in the Head: Why Students Kill.
They said that Sonboly had struggled for years with psychological problems, but at that moment I didn’t care. He had killed Can and Selçuk, two boys of different sects whose lives had argued powerfully against the set narrative that Sunni and Shia cannot live peacefully together.
I flew to Casablanca two days later and met my parents. The trip had been planned before the Munich attack as a chance to visit relatives and maybe do a little research into my family history. My mother is from Turkey, while my father is Moroccan. For the first time, we traveled together to the area where my grandfather used to have his lands, in al-Haouz and on the road to Khenifra. I also went back to my grandmother’s house in Meknes, to revisit the window where I used to sit and watch people outside. There was the corner where my grandmother and I used to sleep on a blanket. I remembered how I sat at the doorstep with my grandparents listening to my grandfather talk about his past and how much he regretted that he couldn’t read or write. Storytellers are powerful, he told me. They explain the world. They write history.
My parents and I visited my grandparents’ graves and prayed over them.
I wondered what they would have said if they could have seen that their granddaughter was now reporting and writing about the world and that she was doing so because of what they had taught her. I wondered what advice they would give me now. Were the pain, the worries, the threats to my family and me worth whatever I was gaining? Was my work making a difference? I missed my grandmother’s loud laughter and her gift for healing and strengthening. I could have used some of that now.
I looked at my parents, a Sunni-Shia couple who had endured so much yet hadn’t let it divide them. They’d decided decades earlier to take a stand for their love and against the hatred. They had worked to plant the seed inside us, their children.
The world is not facing a clash of civilizations or cultures, but a clash between those who want to build bridges and those who would rather see the world in polarities, who are working hard to spread hatred and divide us. While the work of the bridge builders is certainly difficult, there are people in every generation who live their beliefs and who are willing and able to seek out common ground. I was lucky enough to have the examples of my parents and grandparents to show me what is possible.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s this: a mother’s screams over the body of her murdered child sound the same, no matter if she is black, brown, or white; Muslim, Jewish, or Christian; Shia or Sunni.
We will all be buried in the same ground.
Excerpted from I WAS TOLD TO COME ALONE: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad, by Souad Mekhennet, published this month by HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY. Copyright © 2017 by Souad Mekhennet. All rights reserved.