Words like fences and barricades are not anodyne in Switzerland

As Geneva wakes up to terror alert, the phlegmatic Swiss remain calm
Words like fences and barricades are not anodyne in Switzerland
Words like fences and barricades are not anodyne in Switzerland

The threat of an attack went from “vague” to “specific” and the European headquarters of the United Nations (UN) in Geneva was evacuated earlier this week amidst fears of an attack. Every room of the sprawling complex where some 9000 people work was searched. In a highly unusual move, UN security guards were seen with MP5 sub-machine guns at entry points to the international office. On Thursday morning Switzerland woke up to news that Swiss authorities were looking for four suspects related to people who carried out the Paris attacks last month that left over a 120 dead and several others injured. Swiss media reported that embassies and railways stations were given special protection and the Jewish community in Geneva was asked to remain vigilant.

The Russia, UN and United States talks on Syria are being held, as announced, at an undisclosed location. Separately, Switzerland’s Attorney General has announced the opening of a criminal enquiry on the basis of a “terrorist threat in Geneva” against unknown persons suspected of belonging to a criminal organization and of violating the ban on al-Qaeda or the Islamic State operating in the country.

It all started on Tuesday when Swiss media reported that a friend of Salah Abdeslam (the latter is wanted in connection with the Paris attacks) was in a van spotted by Geneva police. The van, which had Belgian plates, crossed the border into France. As the weekend approaches and Geneva prepares for its famed escalade – Switzerland’s best-known race which also marks the defeat of the Savoyards in old town Geneva – the question on everyone’s mind is this. How can a city surrounded almost entirely by France defend itself?

Geneva is not new to securing itself from danger. The city, which is home to numerous international organizations including the Red Cross and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the UN’s refugee body as well as its human rights institutions, can turn into a relatively impenetrable area within hours, inured as it is to receiving several heads of state and government at the same time. The road from Geneva airport to the UN is considered the most secure in times of distress with access via feeder roads that can be blocked in minutes. Historically, the country has defended itself from mighty armies seeking new territories and Swiss soldiers are amongst the most coveted in the world. The Vatican guards are Swiss and for over 200 years, Swiss mercenaries have made their name renowned.

But a terror attack is an altogether new danger. It poses two very difficult questions for a very discreet country of 8 million people, officially laic. How to identify terror suspects without feeding into the frenzy of Islamic terror and how to ensure the safety of all its nationals without discrimination? The terror threat comes at a time when Swiss schools and administration in some cantons are discussing the issue of students being allowed to wear the burqua. Where do safety concerns and rights of citizens meet and what is the role of the state in that equation are some questions Swiss people discuss between themselves and in the media on a daily basis.

The country’s newly-minted powerful right which won a majority in national elections last month has already raised the specter of better border policing and fencing of areas that lead into the Alpine nation. Fencing, barricades, walls and other words are almost taboo in the country which prevented Jews from reaching it after fleeing Nazi Germany. Currently, there is a raging debate in the country about the number of refugees it must accept from Syria with the left and the right divided between humanitarian assistance – Switzerland’s post-war leitmotif - and political name-calling.

Switzerland is not a member of the European Union (EU), but under Schengen rules, allows for free passage of people and good under the Schengen laws. That too is now under the microscope with politicians saying Schengen rules are lax and do not speak to today’s reality. They point to work that has already begun in Austria which is fencing itself against Slovenia even as the EU has been warning that more borders and walls will prove to be disastrous for the continent. Austrian soldiers are building a fence to manage the flow of refugees – the six feet fence will be the first within the passport free Schengen zone.

There is more. Short of calling out for heavy reinforcements, Geneva, which is some 310 miles (500 kilometres) from Paris, is surrounded by France with numerous unmanned border crossings. On any given day it is easy to wander into France without realizing that one has crossed into the other country making the task of patrolling or policing that much more difficult. In addition, unlike their counterparts in other western countries who rush in with flashing headlights and screaming sirens, Swiss police, like Swiss people, are very discreet. Politicians including members of the federal council of ministers travel by public transport, shop at local supermarkets and many famous international stars who have made the Geneva region their home mingle freely with people without being gawked at or pestered for autographs. The modern world’s oldest democracy is called one of the world’s most policed countries, but it is almost impossible to place a finger on how this unobtrusive process works.

At the time of writing, Geneva and its vicinity continue to be under high alert, but normal life has not been disrupted. After all, this is the country where every citizen has access to a bomb-shelter and where precision is an art and science, every possible calamity has been taken into account and financed and fear of the unknown is minimal. People joke that their country is probably the only one in the world where everything that is not mandatory is prohibited. Hours before the famous escalade, people The News Minute spoke to said they have faith in their government and security forces to do the right thing and there was little reason to panic. “Let us be clear. This is neither Beirut nor Syria – we are safe,” a local baker told this reporter. I was tempted to add Pakistan, but bit my tongue.

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