Five pedestrians in Berlin, Germany have been attacked by a cyclist who throws acid in women's faces. After the most recent victim was assaulted while walking in the street, police told local broadcaster RBB that they are investigating links between the attacks.
The most recent incident occurred just after midnight on February 27, as a woman walked in the eastern Friedrichshain district. According to RBB, the 27-year-old victim described the assailant as a male cyclist in dark clothes, and said he cycled away from the scene of the attack. She sustained serious injury to her eyes and, like the other four victims, had to seek medical treatment at hospital.
"The woman told us that she had been on the walkway when an unknown cyclist approached her and splashed her with a liquid," police spokesperson Kerstin Ismer told RBB. Local reports also said that firefighters attending the scene had to neutralize acid splashed on nearby parked cars.
The fear is that a serial assailant is on the loose in the German capital. Since December 2016, four other women have been attacked in similar ways. In December, three women were targeted by a cyclist in isolated attacks across the city—in Prenzlauer Berg, Weissensee, and Charlottenburg.
In at least one case, the substance sprayed in a woman's face was subsequently found to be battery acid. In another disturbing touch, Die Welt reports that the cyclist used a water gun to squirt the corrosive liquid at his victim's face in a separate attack.
The Berlin police department did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Broadly. Speaking to RBB, Berlin police declined to confirm whether the five cases are connected, but said they are investigating a possible link.
"The vast majority of victims of acid attacks are women and young girls," says Jaf Shah of the Acid Survivors Trust International, a British charity that works with victims of acid attacks. "And the assailants, on the whole, tend to be young men." Although unwilling to speculate on the Berlin case—"we have no information on the perpetrators"—Shah explains that rejection is a common motive for acid attacks. "Often, women and young girls are attacked because men feel they've rejected their sexual advances of marriage proposals."
The effects of an acid attack, even if no lasting physical damage is sustained, can be lifelong. "There's often a severe psychological trauma that requires ongoing psychosocial support," Shah tells me, "and the psychological damage resulting from an acid attack can cause extreme social isolation."
The Berlin case is unusual, as the women don't appear to have known their attacker, but random acid attacks—while mercifully rare—are not unheard of. "Here in the UK, we've been experiencing large numbers of fairly random acid attacks," Shah tells me. However, what differentiates these attacks is that the victims are often male. "It's white men attacking white men," he explains.
And while acid attacks are commonly associated with certain geographic regions: South Asia, Southeast Asia. and parts of Latin and Central America, according to Shah, they're not a new European phenomenon. "Acid violence is not a new problem in Europe," Shah says. "It's existed in Europe since the 1700s."