“Sweden is Under Attack”

On Friday, April 7, An Uzbek suspect hijacked a delivery truck and ran over at least 19 people along Drottninggatan in Stockholm, Sweden. 4 of them died, and 15 have injuries. Is this attack special in how the number of casualties does not reflect the real impact?  Or did it just hit closest to “home”?

The truck rammed into the Åhlens City department store on Drottninggatan, a busy, crowded, partially pedestrian street in Stockholm.

Åhlens City

Drottninggatan – Towards Åhlens

One of the pedestrian segments is lined by lion sculptures on either side. When my siblings and their children came over to Stockholm, one of my nephews loved the lions and would stop by each one of them.

With the lions

We walked up the street to a cafe. As you look up from there, the street goes straight as far as you can see. That’s the way the attacker came from.

He hijacked a brewery’s truck that was making a delivery to a nearby restaurant. On his way, he crossed Kungsgatan (King’s Street) and passed by the office of my oldest client. I have spent several mornings and afternoons there, looking over Drottninggatan. As the attacker cowarded through, people at that office looked over.

Drottninggatan/Kungsgatan

A witness was buying flowers at Hötorget, where I once went to work. Coincidentally, the office was right above one of the entrances to the Hötorget metro station, and my desk looked over a flower shop from the first floor. Was it the same flower shop? I don’t know. The witness reported people running and screaming, not knowing where they were going. Another witness at Sveavägen (another major street nearby)  reported that the police told everyone to go to the other side of the street (away from the attacker). Stockholm School of Economics is on this street and I often walk between there and the location of the incident, as do many other Stockholmers. Since the day I came to Stockholm to study at SSE, these are the streets I have frequented most.

The Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said “Sweden is under attack” and that may not be inaccurate. The last time Sweden had an attempted terrorist attack, it was also close to Drottninggatan but the attacker killed only himself in a rather anti-climactic fashion. The country has been at peace for more than 200 years and stayed neutral in both world wars. It was one of the pioneers when it comes to social equality, gender equality, clinical research, health care, innovation, technology, sustainability, and more.  It remains a generous host to a disproportionately large number of refugees compared to its own population and opposed the Iraq war.

I have lived here since 2010 and during these years, Sweden has won my love and affection. It is one of those places where you find most people beautiful in character. They are the kind of people who want sunshine, but not the kind you get from a warming planet. They are the kind of people who do not measure how wide their arms can stretch, but choose instead to figure it out in the course of the embrace.

I received a Master’s degree without paying a single dime in tuition fees, because Sweden believed education should be free, even for non-citizens*. I studied abroad across Europe after my first year in Sweden, and could sustain myself well because my part-time employer allowed me to work remotely after only a few months of working there. Upon my return and subsequent graduation, on the sincere recommendation of one of my closest friends, I was interviewed and later employed by a technology start-up. Most of the employees were Swedes, with a handful of foreigners, but it was one of the most open-hearted and welcoming group of people. I cannot remember feeling left out a single time for not speaking Swedish. Instead, we had Swedish lessons over lunch, taught by a charming old Swedish woman called Bibi. At times, she would refer to an incident relating to terrorism or violence against women in Pakistan and question me about it as if I was responsible for it. When I had visas issues, the same client that looked over Drottninggatan today stood by me and remained supportive throughout. Sweden did not just give me Master’s education; Sweden has itself been my teacher, my mentor, my friend.

Rainbows over Stockholm from Roslagstull

The Sweden that I know and love can be under attack, but not over powered. Despite the shock and fear from a mad man’s actions, local law enforcement came in full swing, already well-prepared for the scenario. Swedish people too, have been measured and calm. After the incidents in London, Brussels and Paris in recent memory, they seem somewhat prepared too, possibly preventing an opportunistic resort to anti-immigrant fear-mongering. But if hate does rear its ugly head, Sweden will be prepared the way it always seems to be.

The attack triggered a campaign of misinformation and fake news on social media led by the Sweden Democrats, a nationalist anti-immigrant political party. However, in conversations with colleagues in Stockholm, it became clear that the fact that such attacks are ideal breeding grounds for venomous political rhetoric is not lost in Sweden. Local newspapers were also quick to debunk such attempts. Finally, thousands gathered in Central Stockholm on April 9, not just to stand in solidarity with the victims but also to show strength against fear.  They realise that it could have been much worse and fear what policy changes might come as a result. In the words of one of my close friends and former colleagues, “we all know what fear can do with a society”.

April 9, 2017 – Stockholm Strikes Back

* While tuition fees are now placed for international students at Swedish universities, the government has made available a greater number of merit scholarships for meritorious foreign students.

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