‘I woke from my Covid sickbed to the sound of gunfire’ – dispatch from Vienna
On the eve of the city’s second lockdown, it faced a new – yet all-too familiar – trauma
Having just written a postcard in these pages praising Vienna as the best travel destination I have visited in some time, I did not expect to be writing again so soon, and under such different circumstances.
Last night at 8pm an unknown number of armed men fanned out into the streets of the first district where I am staying and opened fire at random, in a manner all-too familiar these days, while invoking the greatness of God in his Qur’anic name.
Reports have the shooters moving down from the city’s main Synagogue to the seat of its Archbishop, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, although this is more likely a ‘happy’ coincidence for the terrorists involved. This is the main pedestrianised bar area in Vienna’s old city, and they struck, with neither provocation nor warning, on the night before the city returns to lockdown due to a surge in hospitalisations for Covid-19.
The police response was rapid. One terrorist was shot on the spot, later identified as a 20-year-old Albanian, with dual Austrian and North Macedonian nationality, who had been sent to jail for attempting to join Islamic State in Syria, but released a year early from his 22-month sentence in December.
The other suspected perpetrators – the maximum number given by police is four – fled into the night, but not before they had killed at least four and severely injured 17 more, prompting a massive joint police and military operation and the closure of various borders to prevent escape from this small landlocked country. (Austria is, at most, 370 miles east-west, and 170 miles north-south.)
I, myself, was woken by the sound of gunfire – either from the farmer’s market 400 yards to the north, or the city park 200 yards south – from the fever-dreams of the Covid-19 with which I had just been diagnosed.
An initial misdiagnosis from a doctor a few days before had stated firmly that anything that began with a running nose and sinus congestion, but without loss of the sense of smell, must be a rhinovirus, i.e. the common cold. A second opinion yesterday, taking into account that I had gone from 10k daily runs to being unable to walk 10m without dizziness, equally firmly stated that if I had caught a cold, I had also caught coronavirus at the same time.
So, in the haze of mild hypoxia and viral insomnia, I looked out of my window to see people running down the street and then switched on my phone to find an email from the Reuters and EPA-veteran photographer Jim Hollander, who has documented more war zones than most, saying: “Hope you’re not walking around central city area while this attack underway. Stay safe.”
Having assessed the situation, I replied, “Yes, tried to get an early night to throw off Covid only to be woken by gunshots. I am on the third floor with a two-inch-thick steel door and a lock like the Gates of Warsaw, so all good. If I see anyone suspicious pass under the window I’ll be sure to drop an armchair on them.”
It sounds blasé, but as I said, I was not entirely compos mentis. My feverish faux-courage passed with sleep, though. And this morning I woke to a Vienna stricken with mourning, and under the highest state of alert. The streets had an even stranger feel than expected. I had just written of Vienna as a traveller’s heaven and it was as though, within 48 hours, the first two horsemen of the apocalypse, pestilence and war, had ridden into town.
Aware I was infectious, I only went out to quell the third – hunger – as there is no delivery service I could discern, and I am here alone and without friends living nearby. Even so, I had a mask, liberally applied hand sanitizer and exercised an extremely wary version of social-distancing.
The most jarring oddity lay in the fact that the streets not only had the solitude of lockdown, a phenomenon with which all readers will by now be familiar, but also had heavily armed and armoured police stationed outside all major buildings, while security service vehicles intermittently tore up and down the streets with sirens screaming and beacons blazing.
On a lighter note – and as someone who grew up with the IRA bombings of London, I feel one must find a lighter note – I also received a series of texts from the film critic Neil Young, who had been working at the Viennale, the city’s international film festival, which had just finished. He had been trying to get me out to Bar Francis around the corner from my apartment last night at 7:45pm. A little while later more messages informed me that he had been sealed in the pub, Jeffrey Bernard-like, extending the planned midnight curfew on drinking into the early hours.
“I’m now locked in. Waiter says there is a terrorist attack. I asked for another pint”, he wrote. Followed by – and note that he is the only journalist I know without a smartphone – “Are you following the news about the current situation in Vienna?” I hear this morning that, unlike Jeffrey Bernard, he is quite well.
Lightness to one side, as the city mourns, my heart goes out to the victims and their families.