Andrew Osborn








Knife that cut through to a country's heart

The Observer, 14th September 2003 09:57

By Andrew Osborn in Stockholm and Ed Vulliamy

The first punch to her face dazed her, the second floored her and then came the knife slicing into her liver, slashing her arms and puncturing her abdomen. Within 56 frenzied seconds, Sweden's beloved Foreign Minister and mother of two young boys had been brutally, and fatally, attacked.

Anna Lindh had taken a break from campaigning for today's referendum on the euro, planning to buy herself a new outfit for a TV debate that same evening. Like most of Sweden's leaders, she was going about her daily business without bodyguards.

One shopper, Hanna Sundberg, ran to the wounded Minister, who cried out: 'God, he's stabbed me in the stomach!' Another screamed for help, imploring the store's absent security guards to stop the fleeing attacker. But it was too late. The assassin, a tall, powerfully built man, had calmly walked down the escalator. He tossed the bloody knife aside, passing beneath Nordiska Kompaniet's shimmering art deco crystal chandelier, and broke into a run.

Nobody challenged him. Later police would find his blue baseball cap and his blood spattered jacket. But they would not find him.

Lindh would stop breathing some 13 hours later. Although her condition was initially thought not to be life threatening the craftsman's knife used in the attack had gone deeper than first thought. Her liver, her aorta and her abdomen had all been badly damaged and the 46-year-old had lost far too much blood - the surgeons at Stockholm's Karolinska hospital pumped tens of litres of blood into her body.

Flowers and cards have now taken the place of designer clothing in the Filippa K boutique where Lindh had lain in a pool of her own blood. Mourners, many of them young girls who looked up to Lindh as a role model, ride the same escalator as the one up which Lindh was chased by her assailant, to stand and stare at the flower-laden shelves, their faces creased with tears and incomprehension. Red roses, the symbol of Lindh's Social Democratic Party, are piled waist high forming an enormous oval shaped shrine.

In the middle, children's hand-drawn pictures jostle for space with newspaper clippings, dedications, flickering candles and teddy bears. A smiling picture of Lindh, her bold but warm expression framed by the trademark rectangular glasses, stares back at the throngs of tearful mourners.

'I just can't understand it,' said Veronika Sundi, a sobbing pensioner who came to pay tribute to Lindh. 'Sweden has become a harsher place to live in. I'm very angry.' Violent crime had, she added, become a terrible problem. 'This is very special for me because I lost my husband in the same way. He was robbed and stabbed to death and they never caught anyone.'

A watching security guard looked on, distinctly uncomfortable. 'People keep coming up to me and saying where were you when it happened, and ask me what use I am. There's not much I can say to that.' He didn't want to give his name. 'There was a communication problem. At first we thought that someone had had their handbag stolen at knifepoint. It was all over in 56 seconds.'

Anna Lindh's political style was universally admired, even by her opponents and those cynical about the political process, for not only epitomising those things most admired about Sweden - transparency, integrity and intelligence - but also infusing them with a blend of motherly commitment and tough political flare. Plus those rarest of political commodities: sincerity and honesty.

According to her colleague Anders Mellbourn, director of the Institute of International Affairs: 'She was still on her way up in her professional life but she also had small children. There was a very strong identity factor with her because in Sweden women work almost full time and still have children, and she was living that ideal.'

Lindh won friends and support for her interventions: criticism of war in Iraq and of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. Her passionate support for the euro was the strongest asset of Sweden's 'Yes' campaign, in a vote too close to call.

It was not, however, without controversy. Her decision to co-author a newspaper article with the head of mobile phone firm Ericsson and her alliance with Carl Bildt, the former conservative Prime Minister, offended many on the Left, and was also attacked from the far Right. Police now disclose that Lindh had received six threatening emails, one calling her 'a power hungry bitch sitting in the lap of big business'. They were ignored by the security services, and left unread by the Minister.

But those three cuts of an assassin's blade sliced not only into the body of a uniquely admired politician, but also into the heart of the country that loved her.

The carpets of flowers and candles that line the streets around government buildings, the NK shop where she was stabbed, the Karolinska hospital where she died, and her home town of Nykoping, were laid in grief and stupefaction by citizens of a country that feels its entire social - as well as political fabric - to have been abused and attacked.

The Swedes are respected for signature cliches which are in the main true, and earned: traditions of tolerance and enlightenment, a welfare system - albeit now under strain - that entwines capitalism and socialism; rigorous media and academia; open doors to the desperate from Bosnia, Kurdistan or wherever.

And what better way to articulate the seamlessness between politics and the people than to have the Foreign Minister slip away from her duties to shop, unguarded, among her public?

This was the limit of discourse in the immediate aftermath of the murder: how could the authorities have allowed such vulnerability? And even now, the Swedish political class is determined to retain this kind of intimacy, 'even if it means paying the ultimate price'.

Such is the enviable but vulnerable way in which Sweden conducts its life - laudable almost to the point of naivety. For there lurks within this breezy, confident society a nether world, which it chooses to deny rather than confront.

There is the stark fact that following the murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986, Europe's most 'civilised' country now overtakes Italy as the continent's foremost arena for top-level political assassination. Unknown to most Swedes is the fact that their country has the highest number of homicides per capita of any in Europe (1.94 per 100,000) and is second only to the US (6.26 per 100,000) among those countries keeping accurate records.

There is a notion that Sweden does not know where to draw the line: just as super-tolerance of the young has spawned a crisis in teenage alcoholism, violence and drug abuse, so Sweden's political civility has now given rise to an assassination marked for its unusual relish of the kill itself, not just the result. There was an especially bloody brutality in the murder Anna Lindh, in an age when politicians are more likely to be assasinated by remote means, with bombs or bullets, than with the cold steel of a knife. And there was a singular brutality in the fact that this was a burly man stabbing a woman, and a woman of that kind.

So where did Anna Linh's killer come from? 'I only hope it's a case of a madman,' said Ola Baechstroem, preparing a children's orchestra to play in tribute to Lindh and 'against all forms of senseless violence'.

And that is Sweden's hope too, as the police scramble for answers. The police play down the notion that Lindh's murder was politically motivated, as do most Swedes. 'It's almost certainly the work of someone insane,' Matti Molin, a businessman, said.

In the 1990s the then Conservative government closed down many of Sweden's mental homes , privatising the sector and turning many disturbed people out onto the street, he said, adding that the country had seen a wave of appalling crimes committed by the mentally ill.

'The same day as Lindh was murdered a mentally ill man stabbed a five-year-old girl to death. In May a mentally ill guy went berserk with an iron bar and killed an old woman. He thought he was fighting trolls. Another crazy guy chopped someone's ear off with a samurai sword recently and a couple of years ago we had "laser man" who shot at anyone who looked foreign.

'We never used to have this but there are more homeless people and mentally disturbed people on the streets than ever before. At the beginning of the nineteenth century we had space for 2,000 [mentally ill patients]. Now we have room for just 600 and many have been released onto the streets.'

It may well be that Lindh's killer is a lone lunatic with no political motive. But a less convenient figure could be responsible: that of the extreme right-wing. While almost no one believes that this was an ordered 'hit job', those who monitor Sweden's far Right wonder whether the assassin may not have soaked in the Europhobia of Sweden's neo-Nazi movement.

Sweden's referendum on the euro has accelerated a revival of the ultra Right. Over the past three years, neo-fascists have killed two policemen, a number of civilians and failed to murder a journalist and a policeman with car bombs in 1999.

'There seems to be a return of an atmosphere in the discourse over nationhood or immigration, perhaps leading to that of the late Eighties, early Nineties when there was a wave of violence from the far Right,' said Robert Hardh, secretary general of the Swedish Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.

Steig Larsson and his group Expo have monitored the far Right for three decades. 'These people campaign on this message,' he said. 'That a democratically elected politician of whatever party is not to be trusted, and is betraying the country. There has been this tidal wave of appalling material, and now they have been campaigning like mad dogs over the euro. The message is that the European Union erodes the Swedish people and makes it easier for people with dark skin to come into Sweden.'

The attack on Lindh was immediately hailed by the ultra Right. A website called 'Exilen' (the exiles) run by members of the National Democrats lamented, before the Minister actually died, that it was 'too bad the injuries were not worse, or fatal'. The Minister was abused in language similar to that in the hate mail: 'selfish whore', 'power-hungry bitch'. Another right-wing site called 'Info14' announced that 'the traitor has been stabbed'.

Investigators say they have used the department store's CCTV footage to identify a man they believe might be the attacker.

The fact that after 18 years, the police have still failed to solve Palme's murder means that they are under intense pressure to get their man this time. They have opted to appoint the same lead investigator who presided over the bungled Palme case. 'The police are in deep trouble here,' Mellbourn said.

The impact of Lindh's death on today's vote - considered of pivotal importance to Britain's decision on whether to join the euro - is unpredictable. The 'No' camp had been heading for a comfortable victory, some 10 points clear, but one poll taken on the day Lindh died put the two camps level. Lindh's murder may solicit a wave of solidarity and sympathy with the assassinated Minister. Alternatively, it could create a sudden desire for safety and security, a nostalgia for something lost in Sweden, making the krona something familiar, something Swedish, with which to remain during the country's moment of anguish.

Additional reporting by Caroline Haux and Nicole Mowbray.

Sweden in figures

200 - Years that have passed since Sweden was last involved in an armed conflict.

0 - Amount students must pay for education and books.

591 - Number of people killed in road accidents in 2002, showing Sweden has some of the safest roads in the world.

7.1 - Government education expenditure as percentage

of GDP between 1990-1999 (UK: 4.7).

43 - Percentage of women elected to parliament

(UK: 18).

8,878,085 - Population.

1.54 - Children per woman.

3,300 - HIV/Aids sufferers.

4 - Marriages per 1,000 people.

65 - Percentage of all marriages ending in divorce.

3 - Number of attacks on women per hour.

25-30 - Number of women beaten to death every year.

5,000-7,000 - Number of Swedes dying yearly from illnesses or injuries connected with alcohol.

45,000 - Number of police detentions for public drunkenness in 2001.

1998 - Year that possession of child pornography was made illegal.

60,000 - Estimated number of women forcibly sterilised between 1935 and 1976.

Michèle Sinner