In the lignite mining area in western Germany there are abandoned towns that should be excavated. But in the meantime, war refugees from the Ukraine are housed there. A DW report.
On Google Maps, three large bright spots can be seen in western Germany, in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia – they are the three opencast mines Inden, Hambach and Garzweiler, where the energy company RWE mines lignite.
There are villages nearby, some of which have been deserted for months, others for years. RWE bought the houses of the residents who were relocated to other places in exchange for compensation.
The empty “ghost villages” were originally supposed to be cleared away, but their future is unclear today because of the German government’s decision to phase out coal.
“We have nothing to complain about”
Coal mining in the Hambach opencast mine began in 1978 and is scheduled to be completed by 2030. The area still resembles a lunar landscape.
A part of the Hambach Forest used to be here. In 2018 there were protests by German environmental activists, who demanded that the RWE Group stop opencast mining and preserve the forest. However, part of the forest could not be saved, as could several villages around the opencast mine. Morschenich and Manheim are two of the remaining “ghost villages” that are actually supposed to be dredged.
When you come to Manheim, you see entire rows of houses with shutters down and windows boarded up. The asphalt of the streets is cracked and the lamps along the street are broken. There is a Catholic church in the center of the village, and its windows are also covered with plywood panels.
Some of the well-preserved houses are fenced off with barbed wire. A sign indicates that it is the property of the RWE Group. On the outskirts, however, there are now only a few ruins. A rabbit runs across the street and a pheasant strolls imposingly through the high grass next to what used to be a bus stop.
People are not to be found here, theoretically there shouldn’t be any more – like in neighboring Morschenich. Here, too, rows of houses stand empty, their windows are also boarded up and there is tall grass in the front yards. You can see a bus stop, but without a timetable. At first glance, you might think this is another “ghost village”.
A Ukrainian family from Donbass and refugees from Syria live in Morschenich
But if you look closely, you can see that white sheets of paper are stuck to the doors of several houses. One has Ukrainian surnames, the other Arabic. A young Ukrainian couple who do not wish to be named lives in one of these houses.
They say they have been in Morschenich since December 2022. The original single-family home is now occupied by several people – it’s a small dormitory for refugees, so to speak. A Ukrainian family from Donbass and refugees from Syria live here.
“We don’t complain about anything – we have electricity, water, heating, even internet and mobile communications,” says Denis (name changed). “We can call home to Ukraine. City officials come every week to help us with the paperwork. We regularly receive social benefits, but so far we haven’t received any language courses,” he continues.
“We were under fire for three months at home in Ukraine”
The couple doesn’t mind that there are no shops, pharmacies or doctors in town. Denis’ wife Julia (name changed) says she drives her own car to the neighboring village to buy groceries. A car with a Ukrainian license plate is parked next to the house.
“When we first got here, nothing was clear to us. Later we were told what kind of place this is. But at home in Ukraine we were under fire for three months and here we have peace,” the two say, pointing to the forest that begins on the other side of the field behind a fence.
“Environmental activists live there, they have built houses in the trees, sometimes we see them. But they don’t bother us,” says Denis. According to him, the police regularly come to the place to check on things.
Several Ukrainian families now live in Morschenich. They usually meet Denis and Julia when officials come or when they go for a walk. There is only one way that leads to the field or forest where you can collect blackberries. “Of course it’s boring here at first glance, but we’re going to pick berries,” says Julia. “Sometimes we go to the city, but it’s so noisy there that we’re glad to go back to the country,” Denis continues.
“We will stay here until we are resettled”
They admit that they don’t know how long they will stay in this place. “The word is that this village will not be demolished. The city administration sent us here, but first we were in a refugee camp in Bochum, so we will stay here until we are resettled,” says Julia.
According to the latest plans, Morschenich should actually not disappear, because the open-cast mine is to be closed due to the coal phase-out. This was also confirmed by the RWE Group when asked by Deutsche Welle.
“The places mentioned are no longer intended for excavation. On request, we made the houses and apartments in question, which we had bought from resettling families, available to the respective municipalities for the temporary accommodation of people for whom they were desperately looking for a roof over their heads,” says RWE.
Former school as a refugee home
The villages of Kuckum and Keyenberg are close to another opencast mine – Garzweiler II. Here, too, the residents were resettled in exchange for compensation. These places will soon be gone. Next door is Lützerath. The place became known in the course of the protests involving the Swedish climate protection activist Greta Thunberg. Lützerath should still be dredged in 2023. All roads there are closed. The place may no longer exist.
However, you can drive to neighboring Keyenberg. There too, at first glance, it looks like the villages that have already been resettled. It’s the same narrow streets, rows of solid but empty houses, and a Catholic church. You can also see a kindergarten with a playground that is overgrown with weeds.
A few meters away is the school building, from which suddenly several people come. They carry out chairs and place them directly in the school yard. It’s hot outside and a man says, before quickly disappearing, “We live here. We come from Syria.” It is unclear whether he lives in the school or not. None of the people engage in a conversation, everyone goes back into the building, slightly frightened.
Next to the school there is a bus stop with a timetable, because the place is still served by local public transport. And on the door of a bakery in the town center opposite the church there is also a map – these are the opening hours.
“About 15 to 20 percent of the people are still there”
However, the shop is only open for a few hours on a few days of the week. There are no longer any real shops or pharmacies here. Almost all shops are empty. But there is a working fire station. And as you can see from several parked cars, some of the houses in the village are even inhabited.
“Yes, there are still residents in Keyenberg, but about 80 percent moved away after receiving compensation. About 15 to 20 percent are still there,” says Irina Becker from the CDU-Bochum, member of the NRW state committee “Integration and Diversity”, and adds: “Refugees for whom the old school was prepared are also living here at the moment. Several houses also serve as accommodation – some are used individually, others in the form of shared accommodation. There is electricity, water and heating. The infrastructure is still preserved because it was unclear what should happen to the place because of the coal phase-out. Language and integration courses have been organized for the refugees living here, and the children go to kindergarten”.
According to her, after the flood disaster in the summer of 2021, an agreement was reached between RWE and the municipalities in North Rhine-Westphalia, especially with the municipality of Erkelenz, which also includes Kuckum and Keyenberg. Accordingly, part of the empty residential buildings in the “ghost villages” should be used as temporary accommodation for people who had become victims of the water masses.
When asked by DW, an RWE spokesman confirmed this: “We were happy to help the community of Merzenich and the city of Erkelenz so that they could help.” And today, according to its website, the community of Erkelenz is still looking for housing, but now for Ukrainian refugees.
Who sends the refugees to the abandoned places?
A family with a child from the Ukraine also lives in Keyenberg. They don’t want to give their names either, but say that they “have been in Poland for a long time” and have learned from social networks that you can drive to Bochum to get to a big city from there – for example to Düsseldorf or Cologne. But in the end they were sent to Erkelenz by the state initial reception (LEA) in Bochum and finally ended up in Keyenberg.
The distribution of the refugees to the federal states and municipalities takes place automatically according to quotas. A LEA employee never knows where a person or family is going until the name of a place appears on the computer screen, Irina Becker tells Deutsche Welle.
The press office of the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia has not yet responded to DW’s inquiry about refugees in the resettled villages. And the press office of the Ministry for Children, Youth, Family, Equality, Flight and Integration of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia forwarded the DW request to the municipalities of Erkelenz and Merzenich, who are currently unavailable for comment due to the summer holidays.
“It’s better here than anywhere in a gym”
According to a Ukrainian refugee family from Keyenberg, they like everything there. They still live alone in a house, but soon another family from the Ukraine will join them. They admit that they were initially shocked by Keyenberg.
“But it’s better here than somewhere in a gym on a lounger,” they say, thinking of acquaintances who have been accommodated accordingly. As long as there is war in Ukraine, they do not want to return to their homeland. Perhaps they will remain in Germany after the war is over. “Let’s see, everything is fine at the moment. The village won’t be demolished, maybe we’ll stay here if we can,” say the Ukrainians.
The towns of Keyenberg and Kuckum should actually no longer disappear, RWE confirmed to Deutsche Welle – due to the coal phase-out and the closure of the Garzweiler opencast mine in 2030. After the opencast mines have been recultivated, the places should become part of a future recreation area.
According to Irina Becker from the CDU parliamentary group in the Bochum city council, only individual houses are to be demolished there, since most of the housing stock is in good condition. The houses are on average 50 years old.
Keyenberg and Kuckum have the potential to develop from “ghost villages” into “villages of the future”. Many of the former owners are now even trying to buy back their houses. But refugees still live in them.