BERLIN – In the posh, lush Pankow neighborhood of East Berlin, nothing indicates that people are squatting the Kunterbunt house. Everything is orderly in the small brownish building, a legacy of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). There are flower bouquets on the tables and water paintings of landscapes hanging on the walls. Yet Doris, Magret, Ingrid, Brigitte and her husband Peter are entering their seventh day of siege. What’s so special about these squatters? Their ages range from 63 to 76 years old.
When the district authorities told them the house they are using as a retirement club would be closed on June 30 and then sold, they decided to occupy it. On June 29, they set up their camp beds. “Very early the next morning, while we were still sleeping, the janitor came to change the locks. But we were already here. No one had taken us seriously. Now, we’re not budging,” says 71-year-old Peter Klotsche with a wide smile.
These former inhabitants of East Germany are mobilizing for the first time. “We contributed to this country,” says 72-year-old Doris Syrbe, the leader of the protest. “Our retirement pension isn’t high. Today, we don’t want what we have to be taken away, we just want to be left alone.”
“The world can hear us”
Since then, the retirees squatting the Kunterbunt villa – formerly the house of Stasi chief Erich Mielke – have become the protagonists of a media saga that has crossed national borders. “We weren’t expecting so much attention. We’ve been bombarded,” admits Doris Syrbe. “Every day, we are visited by journalists from Germany and around the world: Swedes, Iranians, British. Berlin television follows all of our movements. At first it was exhausting.”
But now, the seniors have gotten the hang of things. A press folder, a spokesperson and a guestbook in the entrance record all of the episodes of their fight for tranquility.
People from all four corners of Germany have expressed their support for the Pankow retirees. One Berlin electrician spontaneously came to repair their bathroom water-heater after he heard on the radio that they had to take cold showers. “We wanted authorities to listen to us. Today, the whole world can hear us,” says Brigitte Klotsche, who is taking advantage of the last rays of sun, on the terrace of an impeccably maintained garden.
“I hope our struggle will serve as a model for other people with hardships,” adds Ingrid Pilz, a slight 76-year-old lady, as she raises her eyebrows, carefully penciled with a crayon. “In Spain, senior citizens are demonstrating too. But it’s a bit more aggressive. Here, we are radical pacifists.”
A city in debt
Opened 15 years ago at number 10 of the Stille Strasse ("Quiet Street"), the villa welcomes 300 senior citizens aged 63 to 97 years old. They come to paint, play chess, do gymnastics or learn Spanish -- but also to keep loneliness at bay and forget the hazards of old age.
But the city of Pankow, who owns the house, is in debt. It doesn’t want to pay the annual 52,000 euros needed to maintain the house, nor its refurbishment -- which would cost an estimated 2.5 million euros. The authorities promised the Kunterbunt villa regulars that they would be redirected towards other cultural centers in the region.
What authorities hadn’t counted on was the friendship and solidarity that the retirees built over the years. “We aren’t protesting because we’re bored or because we think it’s funny, but because we want to save our community,” says Doris Syrbe.
The city council is working on a less radical solution that would enable the seniors to stay in the house, after a proposal by the radical left Die Linke party. The verdict will be revealed on Aug. 29. Until then, the social club squatters are intent on staying.
“The police wouldn’t dare force people our age to leave,” says Doris Syrbe with a smile on the corner of her shriveled lips. Since dawn, the pensioners have been taking turns cleaning, cooking and shopping. Every day, children, grandchildren, friends and neighbors come by with their arms full of food and baked goods.
In Pankow, the drab residences of the former GDR leaders have made way for modern villas with gardens that are very popular among wealthy Berliners. Only the Kunterbunt villa and its occupiers are resisting attacks from developers -- for now.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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