It was meant to be a joyous occasion. Ashley Sweke (50) had left her home in Johannesburg to watch her choir perform in one of the most celebrated chorale festivals in Berlin. What she will remember from the trip, however, is the night she and her husband narrowly escaped a lorry that deliberately crashed through a bustling Christmas market.
Sweke and her husband Desmond, who work together at their town planning business in Johannesburg, had walked 20km around Berlin on Monday, exploring the city as much as possible before they would have to leave. It wasn’t their first time in the German capital – they had been there in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was destroyed, liberating Berliners from the division of what was East Berlin and West Berlin.
On Monday night, the couple would witness another significant moment in Berlin — one that will be remembered with less euphoria than 1989. Throughout their trip, they had watched as people bustled into a lively Christmas market just 500m away from their hotel. After walking around tourist spots in Berlin on Monday afternoon, they headed back to their hotel to freshen up and then left to see the Christmas market.
“Every time we went out on the bus, we saw it and we heard from others how wonderful it is,” Sweke told the Mail & Guardian.
When they entered, they saw the market was busy, as Berliners and foreigners visited the many food stalls scattered about. Sweke’s husband began to get hungry and at around 8pm they walked to a vendor where meat was being grilled on an open flame. Moments later, they heard the sounds of stalls being crushed.
“We were standing in front of the stall about to order food for Desmond and we heard loud bangs,” Sweke recalled. “As I looked up, I could see the truck, this massive truck, heading towards us so fast. The driver must have accelerated hard. I just saw the front of the truck and then the side of it as it came around at an angle.”
Her husband saw the stalls — each of the wooden structures connected together —crashing down and pulled her into another stall nearby. All around them, they could hear the panic and confusion.
“The screaming was horrific. There were loud bangs as this truck ploughed through the stalls, through the people. The screaming was unbelievable,” Sweke said.
The lorry ploughed into the stall next to them, and just as Sweke thought they would surely die, it turned away.
“The last stall that it hit was the one next to us. If it hadn’t veered off to the left, we would have been crushed and most certainly killed. It was that close,” she said.
The police reacted quickly, sirens blared, and soon gunshots followed. The couple realised it was safe to leave the stall where they were hiding when they noticed the quiet that followed after the chaos.
“There was just this deathly silence around. People weren’t screaming anymore, it was horrific — it was this silence of death everywhere,” Sweke said.
Sweke told her husband they should go back to the hotel, and quickly began moving away from the wreckage to the exit at the other end of the market. Desmond wanted them to stay behind and help, but his wife refused, fearing what they would see.
“I said no, because I knew what the carnage would be. I knew that people had been killed. It was quite obvious that there had been many deaths and serious injuries,” she said.
They turned their backs on the destruction and walked back to the hotel. Along the way, Sweke says that police had cordoned off roads and had begun yelling at people to remain indoors. The police shouting frightened Sweke, and when they made it back to their hotel, nobody there knew what had happened.
Twenty minutes later, the couple watched the scenes they had witnessed up close replay on TV as news channels began reporting on the lorry that had ploughed through a Christmas market.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already called the incident a “terror attack”. Twelve people were killed on Monday night and at least 45 people wounded, some of them seriously. Although police initially thought they had captured the driver, they have since released their first suspect — a Pakistani asylum seeker — and are continuing to look for the killer. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) have claimed responsibility for the attack.
Before the Swekes left Johannesburg, they had spoken with their two sons, Ryan (28) and Jordan (25), about the possibility that an attack may happen. Ashley Sweke believed that a violent incident was possible and even discussed her will with her family before heading to Berlin. While she was at the market, however, an attack was the furthest thing from her mind as the celebratory mood dispelled any fears. When she saw the lorry, she knew what was happening and she believed that she and her husband would be killed. Somehow, they were fortunate enough to make it out alive.
”How we escaped being killed is very hard to fathom. I really thought that it was over for us,” Sweke said.