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“How Do I Measure The Value Of A Human Life?” | Astrid Passin – Testimonial at #VSEAC2023

By June 16, 2023News, Top Story

In the wake of unspeakable tragedy, voices of resilience and courage emerge to share their harrowing experiences. Today, we bring you the testimonial of Astrid Passin, a victim of terrorism. Astrid’s life was forever changed when she found herself caught in the midst of a violent act that shattered countless lives. Her story serves as a powerful reminder of the profound impact of terrorism and the unwavering strength of those affected.


“Speech at the VSE Annual Conference Berlin, 7th June 2023 

Welcome dear guests, Dear organizers of Victim Support Europe and Weisser Ring! 

Thank you for giving me the opportunity today to address a large audience and raise awareness about the situation of many victims who have suffered from terrorism. It is not a topic that can easily be discussed in public or spread on social media. It is a life-altering event that turns everything upside down. Never before has an event changed us so drastically and shifted priorities so ruthlessly. 

Let me give this speech a name to illustrate the complexity of being personally involved in a case of terrorism. A Search for Traces. 

A Search for Traces, which I embarked on after losing my father on the Christmas market on December 19, 2016. It was the site of the heaviest Islamist terrorist attack on German soil, where a truck raced through the centrally located Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, claiming the lives of many people. A black colossus that killed or forever shattered the hearts of many within seconds. Initially, there were 12 victims, and five years later, the number rose to 13, with a circle of bereaved and numerous injured people involved in the case. The broad outline of the incident is so explosive and extensive that it would take hours to describe the extent of its significance for us, for Germany, Europe, and the international community. It is a chain of war that has attacked us globally, and now I am trapped in it. I am in the midst of it. It has affected me, my family, my life, and the lives of hundreds of relatives, survivors, helpers, and the civil society. 

A Search for Traces 

Christmas 2016 

In the refuge of the Memorial Church, my gaze began to wander. Tears, bitterness, sorrow, and disbelief. It all started here. Since then, the holiday of love has been marked by this day of weightlessness, in which one finds oneself. All I feel is this loss, fear, and complete helplessness. My body no longer belongs to me – it does what it wants, and I can’t influence it. What is this? What is happening to me, and why am I here? 

It was an act of terrorism! It was mass murder! Thousands of lights on Breitscheidplatz, burning candles, and Christmas magic – what a contrast?! The victims didn’t “die” – they were brutally killed! We have known for a day now, we are affected. It was an eternal tremor to come to this realization – 72 hours later – the final confirmation: My dad was among them! I feel trapped, threatened, and helpless. Suddenly, it all seems completely surreal: Germany as a nation, politics, intelligence services, the press, and the public are looking at us. We have to learn to understand, and we are completely shocked. Fleeing in silence and almost secretively, avoiding possible questions to which there are no answers. 

What I feared the most: How do I explain it to my child? As a mother, I’m supposed to be strong, knowledgeable, and responsible – but in that moment, I was anything but that… A recommendation from the Social Psychiatric Service: “Just say your father has been in the hospital for a long time!” And then? I can’t do that… 

“I just couldn’t get up anymore, it’s like dying bit by bit, every morning, I hoped I had just dreamt, I have no life anymore and feel overwhelmed.” 

But something drove me. The knowledge of numerous families going through something similar – accepting a loss and somehow moving on. The group of relatives was connected. I was sure that this is the best way to free oneself from heavy emotions and be able to communicate. It took months for everyone to come together and now act as a united front. I immediately felt capable of carrying us cautiously through this time, and the extent of individual fates became increasingly clear. 

A Search for Traces 

Now we know: Waiting situations turn into horror. Our trauma splits into multiple reactions: 

It’s like fleeing, we freeze as if paralyzed, and/or we become aggressive and angry. These are all specific phenomena that we never experienced before, let alone being informed about what post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) means, what it entails, and what happens to us. Only 1/3 of the affected individuals have heard of it before. Thus, it is a fatal and unfortunate circumstance that therapy, on average, can only begin after 12 months, making this PTSD condition chronic as it has already manifested in the body. 

One can become silent, and suddenly the entire speech mechanism fails. Or one “freezes,” the entire motor system seems incapacitated, leading to uncontrolled twitches, tremors, and even paralysis in the arms or legs. There are individuals sitting in wheelchairs, walking with crutches, lying in a coma for months, or even missing limbs. 

They wake up and no longer want to continue. Isolated, for months, and even years, they partly succumb to addiction. With pills, drugs, or alcohol, they banish themselves into an ideal world just to tolerate their existence. How long do we accept this situation? How long does it take to free oneself from this dilemma, if it is even possible? Of course, these peculiarities split into different directions and degrees, but they exist, and professional help is necessary. 

What measures do I receive, and where can I turn? Initially, everything seemed to be lost in complete chaos. What am I? Bereaved, relative, first responder, witness, survivor—where do I fit in? Who is responsible for me, and what do these classifications ultimately mean for future notifications? I am still completely disoriented and jittery. I am unfit for duty—should I go to a doctor or straight to the hospital? 

A Search for Traces 

Whom do I need to inform? Whom do I want to inform? Family, friends, colleagues, customers, superiors, my university or school? My business partners, companies, insurance agents, my sports or leisure association? How do I proceed? What do I do first? Make a phone call? Without a voice, with a trembling voice, or rather write? I can’t even hold a pen, let alone look into people’s eyes because I am constantly overwhelmed by tears. What takes priority? What is important? The employers’ liability insurance association, the job center, the health insurance, the welfare office, the pension fund, or the accident insurance? Then there was also a traffic accident insurance and a victim liaison officer from the state of Berlin and the victims’ association. There is a victims’ association? What do they do? Do I belong to it? What category do I fall into? Am I a victim of violence, even though it was a terrorist? 

The information was that it would be classified as a traffic accident because by law, a truck cannot be considered a weapon. Or should I just hire a lawyer right away? Do I even have insurance? What do I need? A criminal law attorney, social law attorney, medical law attorney, labour law attorney, family law attorney, inheritance law attorney—or best of all: one for everything?! How can I afford that? Do I have to pay for it? I’m not to blame after all! 

Where do I get the necessary information from? I still have to take care of the formalities concerning my relative. Dissolve the apartment or house. Deregister, terminate, and then the funeral! But where to? Which young woman or young couple is prepared for this? Another insurance? One? 

What circumstances await me here? I can’t even enter the apartment. Emptiness. Silence. I can’t, but I have to! 

I need a doctor. But which one? A general practitioner? I need a specialist! A psychologist, neurologist, or maybe an orthopaedist because I’m in so much pain?! Pain like a permanent dagger in my back. A power plant pounding in my skull that won’t rest. Day and night – always the same. For years. 

Who will listen to me now – and can I even go there alone? Does anyone understand me? No! “You’re just overly sensitive.” I don’t want to go out anymore and would prefer not to move at all. 

And then, the phone rings. Multiple times. I don’t want to say anything. Is it the police? The press? Is someone already at my door? And the recurring thought: it was a TERROR ATTACK! I’d rather hide, be in the dark, and not have to do anything. What am I dealing with here? I can’t even turn on the TV – too many images, documentaries, reports with speculations – about the crime scene and the alleged terrorist. Images that I can’t bear and don’t want to see. 

You can find many clues on the internet! Social networks or websites – but for now, I’m not interested in ANYTHING! Just peace and quiet; but the pressure is growing. We want to know what happened… 

A Search for Traces 

But what do I perceive? Where is the government? Why is no one reacting here? The Senate Administration? The Mayor? The Federal Office of Justice, the Ministry of the Interior? The Federal Chancellery or the Presidential Office? It seemed as if the authorities were in hibernation and the departments were only partially staffed, with “holiday replacements.” And us? Who takes care of us? Who supports us? I have to gather my strength and ask around. After 3 weeks, the first letter arrives: from the Minister of Foreign Affairs! Great. Should we say thank you now? After 3 months, the Mayor of Berlin contacts us: we are confused – why only now? Meanwhile, one wonders why there were no pictures of our victims. WE decided it this way, as the circumstances were so dire. From this cover, I tried to develop a comprehensive obituary – but in which medium? It would have been a clear signal, without speculations and assumptions. “But that’s not how it works!” was the response. On the other hand, large and extensive: the terrorist! Every child knows his name. We understand: this is how the press operates – the reports lacking in respect, and how tasteless it was for photos to be shared on the internet: simply dreadful! 

A Search for Traces 

I can file an application. Technical terms pile up: shock lump sum. First-degree relatives in this country received 10,000 euros. What does 10,000 euros compensate for when I can no longer work, when I calculate all the expenses to survive this time? Almost everyone who finds themselves in this situation faces an uncertain financial crisis. The same question arose after 9/11. How do I measure the value of a human life? What should be the guiding principles? Does status, income, education level play a role? It happened that affected individuals had to use their donations and shock lump sums for their legal representatives. For some affected individuals, Weisser Ring and empathetic counsellors were the first major support. Together, we organized meetings to clarify our perspective and exchange experiences. I am grateful for that to this day. 

The State Office for Compensation offered reimbursement for the burial, which amounted to 1,400 euros. Excuse me, what? Who am I supposed to bury with that? Terms like GdS (Degree of Disability), GdB (Degree of Disability), MdE (Reduction of Earning Capacity), according to the OEG (Victims Compensation Act), BVG (Federal Compensation Act), SGB (Social Security Code) were flying around our ears. All nicely explained with paragraphs that even most lawyers can no longer distinguish. By now, I could make a rap song out of it. You’re probably laughing now – you can, but that’s a typical German syndrome. Bureaucratic mentality in its purest form! 

With our insistence, the so-called shock lump sum was increased to 30,000 euros, and the cost of the funeral to 1,700 euros. Thanks! And while we’re on these numbers: The GdS (Degree of Disability) is subject to a percentage rating from 0 to 100%. Meaning, we’re talking here about 0 – approximately 600 euros of monthly compensation – if you are even recognized. These benefits were even denied to a bereaved mother: “No measurable degree of consequential damage, the health disorders have healed, with a recommendation to apply for a determination of disability.” 

Even when I read: “There must be a ‘certain proximity’ between the type of damage and the damage to third parties,” I no longer understand the world. 

The absurd thing is that a dependent report is prepared by the Compensation Office, with a “psychologist” conducting an examination, which can be described with such original tones: 

By the way, with an average duration of 150 minutes; that means at least 20 minutes up to a maximum of 5 hours! 

  • “feeling bad, exhausted, cried, confused, severe nausea, headaches” 
  • “I felt transported back to the night of the attack” 
  • “very stressful, difficult to calm down, an atmosphere of pressure” 
  • “too exhausting for me, and I didn’t feel understood, my body rebelled every time with trembling, vomiting…” 
  • “felt cornered, noticed physical symptoms…” 
  • “I had flashbacks, coughing fit, panic, fear” 

The assessments are described as interrogations in 90% of cases; the average number of these is 3.3 – at least one and up to eight “interrogations.” The affected individuals are very afraid of these appointments and feel as if they have to justify their experiences and are sometimes portrayed as malingerers. The partial probing into childhood and deliberate search for significant events before the attack is often used as a justification to exclude the causal connection with the terrorist attack. By now, every expert should realize that this dimension triggers such extraordinary and massive changes in the life of an affected individual that they can only be compared to experiences associated with war. Battlefields that have manifested in the souls of the victims and cannot be erased. Who can tell me what percentage of suffering I endure? Numerous cases have now ended up in the social court because the affected individuals no longer see any other way to enforce their rights. Independent assessments are not allowed and are rejected. Where are we heading? Our state seems to be crumbling for us, and the security it always promised us is falling apart into little pieces. 

We openly dealt with this peculiar treatment by authorities and politicians. They themselves seemed (partly) ignorant, unsure, and disoriented. With this criticism, a Victim Commissioner of the Federal Republic of Germany was appointed for the first time, who advocated for the interests of the affected individuals in the country. A politician?! Shouldn’t it be a neutral body exercising its services independently? Is the argument sufficient that this person can better represent our concerns in the Bundestag? And for how long is the person in office? The first federal Victim Commissioner served for 1 year, then 4 years, and now: we don’t know yet. Every change in the legislative period makes it harder for them and for us to establish a relationship of trust. 

In 2019, there was a law amendment regarding the “Modernization of Criminal Proceedings” concerning the “consolidation of victim participation.” The Federal Council approved a reform that was not endorsed by the Victim Commissioner of the Federal Republic, the state, the lawyers’ association, and us. We vehemently tried to stop this process and convince the politicians that it would lead to a massive deterioration for us. No chance! Thus, the mandate also proved futile because the politicians consistently pursued their objectives, and we find ourselves severely restricted in our rights as victims of terrorism. 

A Search for Traces 

In the first year, it was clear to us: we need a memorial site! At this spot, on the fast lane, a place of remembrance was created. Thanks to the coordination between us and the authorities, this has become possible. The steps with the golden crack become a memorial. 13 names now adorn this place that brought so much suffering – and yet today it can be a symbol, encouraging reflection on what happened and asking questions. 

But what about those who don’t have a memorial site? The victims of terrorism outside the country received no support – they were even rejected because Germany claimed no jurisdiction. How are they supposed to navigate the language, authorities, and customs of another country? Who advocates for and supports these affected individuals through their suffering, which is no different from ours? 

On the other hand, a path to Brussels opened up a whole new world for me. I participated in the European Memorial Day for the first time and witnessed a very emotional and dignified event. I felt embraced, understood, and motivated to advocate for victims’ rights and found my calling. Since then, I have been involved in expert groups for the victims of terrorism and take pride in actively contributing to bringing about change and improving the situation for the affected individuals. Just as I do it individually – by providing direct assistance, having quiet conversations, personally supporting relatives and first responders, and convincing them to persevere, even when it seems hopeless… 

Thanks to VSE and other European organizations advocating for the rights of victims, we can optimize this process and learn from each other. 

After navigating through all political factions and authorities in Germany, I was able to present all the guidelines developed at the EU level with the help of all stakeholders. I went through the Chancellery, the Federal Presidential Office, the welfare offices, state and federal agencies. Therefore, I quickly pursued the goal of developing a National Memorial Day in Germany as well. Initially, I faced resistance – some believed it would further fuel terrorism. But I didn’t give up, and my intentions grew stronger as I got to know more victims of terrorism. Relatives of the RAF attacks, the 1980 Oktoberfest bombing, NSU, Istanbul, Nice, Brussels, the Landshut hijacking in Mogadishu in 1977, Egypt, Tunisia, and numerous victims worldwide, whose sheer number is shocking. Our suffering is similar, as are the pain and grief we feel every day – regardless of when the attack took place! 

In New York, too, the International Memorial Day has made a statement for terrorism victims worldwide. There, for the first time, I represented the German perspective at the UN headquarters, providing the best foundation for bringing and incorporating their insights into Germany. 

The following points should be included in the guidelines for Victims of Terrorism (VoTs): 

  • Distinction between acts of violence and acts of terrorism

The motive behind a terrorist attack is ideological, with the aim of achieving political goals and causing harm to as many victims as possible. In a general crime, the motive is economic or personal. We became victims of an activity directed against the state, and it is the state’s full responsibility and duty to provide special care for the families of the victims, the bereaved, and the injured. 

  • With the global activities of terrorists, there are recruitments of ISIS supporters in a state where they are trained and then deployed to third countries. These characteristics require a different approach. Due to the opaque and modified structures, it becomes more difficult for the executive branch to expose all members and prevent terrorist attacks.
  • There is a need for a Victim Commissioner for victims of terrorism abroad in the Federal Republic of Germany, including non-European regions.
  • There is a need for a national memorial site to ensure proper recognition for all victims.
  • Global agreements need to be developed between EU and non-EU states to facilitate compensations between countries.
  • This also applies to the possibility for German citizens to participate in legal proceedings abroad (EU and non-EU), and it is important to ensure transparency of the authorities in those countries.
  • If any determination procedure is still deemed necessary, the degree of harm resulting from a terrorist attack must be scientifically supported. It cannot be the case that the victims’ level of disability (GdS) is diminished by attributing their suffering to a pre-existing condition.
  • Assessments must adhere to guidelines that require the involvement of a qualified psychotherapist or physician with expertise in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and structural dissociation.
  • There should be an automatic obligation for welfare offices to provide support, as these payments are minimal. All individuals disabled by terrorism have the right to a full pension.
  • Trainings, for example, conducted internally by professional associations, should take place at neutral venues. As long as welfare offices function like businesses, operating on an economically oriented principle, they are entirely unsuitable for these purposes.
  • It is essential for employees of relevant authorities, institutions, and courts to undergo appropriate training to be able to deal with traumatized individuals with understanding, compassion, and a focus on their specific needs, while minimizing bureaucracy.
  • Legal advisers should be provided free of charge, as individuals with trauma and the associated limitations are not able to adequately represent their interests without assistance and support.
  • The duration of treatment should not be limited.

Let me conclude the search for clues with a poem by Hermann Hesse: 

Patience is the most difficult and the only thing worth learning. All nature, all growth, all peace, all flourishing and beauty in the world are based on patience, require time, require stillness, require trust. 

Thank you very much for your attention, even if it presents a heavy subject to start this event. The question of supporting victims of terrorism should not be a question of budget but rather a question of policy and attitude. Follow your heart, for that is what we want to feel! 

Warmest regards and peaceful greetings, 

Astrid Passin”


Watch Astrid’s testimonial in German here.

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