Unrest flares across Sweden's suburbs

By Richard Orange

Week-long riots causing bewilderment and dismay in one of Europe's most immigrant-friendly nations.

Masked men are lined up against a wall by riot police (above) and firemen extinguish a burning car in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby. Photo / AP
Masked men are lined up against a wall by riot police (above) and firemen extinguish a burning car in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby. Photo / AP

The pace of the neighbourhood watch suddenly picks up. "Here's the fire we've been waiting for," grins Samiy, an Iraqi in a bulky jacket.

It's 2.30am and Samiy, along with dozens of others from local Islamic groups and community organisations, has spent the night patrolling the streets of Husby, Stockholm's centre of riots.

Soon there's an acrid stench of burning plastic, and flickers become visible around the footbridge that the group is now jogging towards. A dumper truck on the road below is burning as a crowd of young men look on. Most claim to be watchmen.

But as soon as a fire engine arrives, 10 or more rush to the bridge and begin pelting a firefighter who runs up.

"It's enough. It's enough," cries Jamil Hakim, from a group called Safe Husby. "Two nights was fun. But it's enough. It's not fun any more."

The crowd turns to see a phalanx of police in full riot gear marching up a ramp to the bridge, protected by a wall of transparent shields. Immediately, the stone throwers - most barely more than children - sprint into the darkness, while Hakim confronts the police.

"Get lost! Please, just disappear," he says.

By yesterday, the usually calm Swedish capital had been rocked by a week of disorder, with up to 200 cars set ablaze, fires in schools, police stations and restaurants, and about a dozen police officers injured. Police estimate more than 300 young people have been directly involved, of whom 30 have been arrested.

What began in Husby last Monday has spread to more than a dozen of the city's other suburbs. And on Saturday, while police reported a quieter night in the capital, fires and stone-throwing were also reported in Uppsala, Sodertalje, and even further afield in Linkoping and Orebro, in central Sweden.

The morning after the truck-burning, however, Husby seems idyllic.

There's a busy vegetable stall in the main square and a group of elderly men sipping beer in the sun. The rows of seven-storey blocks, built in the 1960s and 1970s as part of Sweden's "million homes" project, are all freshly painted, the gardens and playgrounds well-tended.

Outside the new library, which opened last month, another ethnically Swedish handyman is busy painting. "This place behind me, they've just spent 40 million kronor [$7.5 million] on it," he grumbles. "They don't talk about that when they talk to the TV. These people, they should integrate in this society and just try a little bit more to be like Swedish citizens."

This is a sentiment shared by many in a country that arguably has the world's most generous asylum policies. Sweden has taken in more than 11,000 refugees from Syria since 2012, more per head than any other European country. It has absorbed more than 100,000 Iraqis and 40,000 Somalis over the past two decades. About 1.8 million of its 9.5 million people are first- or second-generation immigrants.

"This is one of the countries that treats immigrants the best," says Mohammed Hassan, a Bangladeshi studying in Husby's new library, who previously lived in Brick Lane in east London. "It's much, much better than any other European country in which I've travelled."

So it has come as a shock for many Swedes to discover the scale of resentment. It's not hard to find it. Aleks, whose parents came from Kosovo, says: "I hate the police. I hate the cops. I think setting fire to cars in the neighbourhood should stop, but I don't think throwing rocks at the cops should stop."

The trigger for the riots - police shooting dead a 69-year-old Portuguese man called Lenine Relvas-Martins - has been dismissed as an excuse. But his neighbours are still incensed.

"They had a bastard-load of police here. You would have thought there was a huge group of terrorists, not a man with a little knife," complains Milos, 73, Relvas-Martins' neighbour since 1984.

"If he was Swedish they never would have shot him. I'm sure about that."

Martins had been brandishing a knife on his balcony, angry after a confrontation with local youths. Police then broke into his house and shot him in front of his Finnish wife. They say she was at risk. She denies it.

The police then inflamed the situation last Monday, reportedly calling young people causing a disturbance "monkeys" and "negroes".

"The politicians are thinking the wrong way. They want to help people, but you never help people when you put 30,000 to 50,000 in one place," complains the man painting at the library.

Camila Salazar, who works for Fryshuset, a Stockholm youth organisation, says: "For a lot of people who live in segregated areas, the only Swedes they meet are social workers or police officers. It's amazing how many have never had a Swedish friend."

A third of the 2500 white, ethnic Swedes who lived in Husby 10 years ago have left. "My children say: 'Why don't you leave there? All the Swedish have gone,"' complains Milos. "There's only three Swedish families left in this whole block."

Inequality has also grown faster in Sweden over the past decade than in any other developed country, according to think-tank the OECD, which puts the blame partly on tax cuts paid for by reductions in welfare spending.

According to official statistics, more than 10 per cent of those aged 25 to 55 in Husby are unemployed, compared with 3.5 per cent in Stockholm as a whole. Esmail Jamshidi, a 23-year-old medical student born and educated in Husby, says young people don't lack opportunities.

"It's a very recent development, this ghetto mentality," he says.

The older generation of immigrants seems as puzzled by the anger as Swedes. Ali, the owner of Cafe Unic, a Persian cafe in Husby's main square, says he tried living in America but came back. "I love this country. I mean it," he says. "I'm telling my kids every day to remember that you are born here, in Sweden.

- Observer

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