In March, Sweden's National Forensic Centre estimated that since 2012, the number of shootings in the country classified as murder or attempted murder had increased by almost 100 percent. (Image source: iStock)
In 2018, Sweden experienced a record number of lethal shootings, 306 in all. Forty-five people were killed and 135 injured nationwide, most deaths occurring in Region South, where Malmö is located. In March, the Swedish National Forensic Centre estimated that since 2012, the number of shootings classified as murder or attempted murder has increased by almost 100 percent. The Centre also found that the most popular weapon used in the shootings is the Kalashnikov assault rifle. "It is one of the world's most manufactured weapons and used in many wars," said the Centre's team manager, Mikael Högfors. "When they are no longer needed... they are smuggled into Sweden".
In the first six months of 2018, according to the police, almost every other shooting took place in a "vulnerable area", also known as no-go zones. In 2017, a Swedish police report, "Utsatta områden 2017" ("Vulnerable Areas 2017") disclosed that there are 61 such areas in Sweden. They encompass 200 criminal networks, consisting of an estimated 5,000 criminals. Most of the inhabitants are non-Western immigrants and their descendants.
The police wrote in the 2017 report that global ethnic conflicts are replicated in the vulnerable areas:
"... the [Swedish] judiciary and the rest of [Swedish] society do not understand these conflicts or have answers to how they can be solved. The police therefore need to have a better knowledge of the world and understanding of events in order to interpret what is happening in the areas. The presence of returnees, sympathizers for terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, al Qaeda and al-Shabaab, and representatives of Salafist-oriented mosques, contribute to tensions between these groups and other residents in the vulnerable areas. Since the summer of 2014, when a Caliphate was proclaimed in Syria and Iraq, sectarian contradictions have increased, especially between Sunnis, Shiites, Levantine Christians, and nationalists of Kurdish origin". (p 13)
On June 3, the police released a new list revealing that there are now 60 such areas, instead of the previous 61. That does not mean, however, that much has improved. On the contrary.
In 2019, shootings still continue apace. In Malmö -- a city of more than 300,000 inhabitants, one third of whom were "born abroad" according to the city's statistics -- a 25-year-old man was shot dead outside a social services office on June 10, while on the same day, at Malmö Central Station, police shot a man who said he had a bomb in his bag and was alleged to have behaved in a threatening way. That evening, two men were shot in the Lorensborg area of Malmö. Later that night, two explosions shook the city.
Because of the increased number of shootings, city employees are now apparently so uncomfortable about working in the city that the Malmö municipality has released guidelines on how municipal workers -- especially those who work in home care, rehabilitation and short-term housing -- can remain safe in the city as they go about their jobs.
Under the heading, "Personal safety - tips and advice on how to avoid getting into unwanted situations", the municipality advises its employees to "Plan your itinerary - know your area...try to minimize the time from when you park your bike / car until you enter [the destination]". Also, "Before leaving a building, look out first and make an assessment of the surroundings to avoid getting into an unwanted situation... keep away from people who are considered potentially threatening or dangerous and increase the distance if there are no other people nearby".
One city employee, who received the guidelines, accused the municipality of hypocrisy: "To the media, the municipality says that everything is fine, even though it is not. Then they send this type of mail to their employees".
The municipal government's guidelines on safety seem appropriate for a civil war zone, such as Beirut once was, rather than for the once-peaceful city of Malmö.
Beirut also comes to mind in the Swedish city of Linköping, where in early June an explosion blasted through a residential building, until it looked as if it had been pounded in a war. Miraculously, no one was killed in the blast, but 20 people were injured. The police suspect that the incident was gang-related. A few weeks later, two men were shot in the Linköping district of Skäggetorp -- on the police list of "vulnerable areas" or "no-go zones".
After that, on June 30, in more gang related incidents, three shootings took place in three different suburbs in Stockholm. Two people, one of whom had been shot in the head, died. One of the murdered men, a rapper named Rozh Shamal, had earlier been convicted of assault, robbery and drug offenses, among other things. This year, just in Stockholm, eleven people have already been shot to death -- the same number as for all of 2018. This year in Sweden, more than twenty people have so far been shot to death.
"The development is unacceptable," said the head of the police's national operational department (Noa), Mats Löfving. "In many cases, military automatic weapons are used. We see a reduction in the number of those injured in firearm violence, but the number of killings does not go down".
On July 1, National Police Chief Anders Thornberg said that the situation is "extraordinarily serious". He claimed , however, that the police have not lost control of the gangs and that the main task is to stop the growth in the number of young criminals. "For every young man who gets shot, there are 10-15 new ones ready to step in," he said. Only a few days later, however, he added that Swedes will have to get used to the shootings for the foreseeable future:
"We think this [the shootings and the extreme violence] might continue for five to ten years in the particularly vulnerable areas," Thornberg said. "It is also about drugs. Drugs are established in society, and ordinary people buy them. There is a market that the gangs will continue to fight over".
The leader of the opposition party Moderaterna, Ulf Kristersson, called the situation, "extreme for a country that is not at war".
Bombed buildings and shootings are not all that is plaguing Sweden. In addition, cars are regularly set on fire. The small picturesque university town of Lund, close to Malmö, has recently been suffering from extensive car fires. The police have not yet identified the suspects. "We see an increase in car fires right now, it is clearly worrying", said Patrik Isacsson, local police area manager in Lund. He noted that car fires usually increase during the summer months, but have also been increasing over the years. "We do not know yet who the perpetrators are, so I can only speculate, but this type of arson is usually set by young people. That it happens during summertime can be because young people are unemployed and out there a lot".
"I definitely think that these are young people who have not found their place in society, who know they are not accepted," commented a sociologist of law at Malmö University, Ingela Kolfjord, "that the climate has hardened and that they are constantly seen as 'the other'. Car fires are not just a way of showing their displeasure but a way of showing that they are frustrated, desperate and angry."
Swedish author Björn Ranelid disagreed. "Sweden is at war and it is the politicians who are responsible" he wrote in Expressen.
"Five nights in a row, cars have been set on fire in the university town of Lund. Such insane acts have occurred on hundreds of occasions in various places in Sweden over the past fifteen years. From 1955 to 1985, not a single car was torched in Malmö, Gothenburg, Stockholm or Lund. ...When a female sociologist at Malmö University explains the crimes [as a consequence] of youths being frustrated... she speaks nonsense... She repeats things that could have been said by a parrot. None of these criminals is starving or lacking in access to clean water. They have a roof over their heads and they have been offered free schooling for nine or twelve years. They do not live in dilapidated houses. All of them... have had a higher material standard in their homes than several thousands of the children and young people who grew up at Ellstorp in Malmö where I lived with my parents and two siblings, in 47 square meters in two small rooms and a kitchen from 1949 to 1966".
"It is called upbringing and this is missing for thousands of girls and boys in Swedish homes today. It's not about money or where you happen to be born in the world. It has nothing to do with politics or ideology. It is about ethics, morality and co-existence between people".
Car fires, frequent and widespread, are just one of the new aspects of living in the formerly idyllic city of Lund. In January, a so-called unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan, Sadeq Nadir, sought to murder several people in the city by ramming into them with a stolen car. Although he claimed to have converted to Christianity, material found in his apartment showed that he wanted to wage jihad and become a martyr. He told the police that his intention had been to kill. The event was initially classified as an attempt at a terrorist crime but then changed to a charge of ten attempted murders. Although Sadeq had admitted that his intention was to kill, the Swedish district court did not find that Sadeq could be convicted for either terrorism or attempted murder. The court argued that he had not been driving "fast enough" to cause a concrete risk of death. In the same vein, although Sadeq was found to have written texts about jihad and martyrdom and claimed to be acting for Allah, the court did not find that he had acted from any religious terrorist motives. He was convicted of merely causing danger to others and threatening them.
What is the Swedish government's assessment of the violent and volatile situation? Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, condemned the recent shootings:
"We have tightened several penalties considerably, including the punishment for illegally possessing weapons and explosives such as hand grenades. We have also given the police increased powers for... camera surveillance and information collection".
On July 2, the government presented proposals for combating gun violence, including harsher penalties for improper possession of explosive materials and new powers for customs officials to block packages suspected of containing weapons or explosives. According to the opposition, the proposals have come too late. "This could have been done a year ago, too. There have never been so many shootings in Sweden. I think it is obvious to most people that what the government has done is not enough", said Johan Forssell from the opposition party, Moderaterna.
As late as June 6, on Sweden's National Day, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, while acknowledging that Sweden "still has serious societal problems" remarked, "Very few things were better in Sweden" before:
"But even though we can think of old times as an idyll with red cottages and green meadows, very few things were better before. During a national day celebration, I think we should celebrate just that, how much we have achieved as a country. We have built a strong country, where we take care of each other. Where society takes responsibility and no man is left alone".
Sadly, many Swedes probably feel terribly left alone in a country that increasingly resembles a war zone.
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.