Kerstin Söderström was considering which frying pan to buy when she heard the screams.
Söderström and her neighbour, Eivy Albinsson, had just finished eating lunch in the cafeteria of an Ikea store in Västerås, Sweden, when they headed downstairs to shop. Söderström stopped to admire the big box store’s flower selection. Then the two friends walked to the kitchenware department.
That’s when they heard it.
“A shriek-like sound,” Albinsson would recall later. “Heart-rending screams,” according to another Ikea shopper. Screams so piercing Söderström couldn’t tell whether they belonged to a man or a woman.
They belonged to both.
Just a few metres away from the two women, a mother and her son lay lifelessly in pools of blood. A severed finger lay on the floor.
Nearby lay another man, also injured: Abraham Ukbagabir, 35, an Eritrean man who had arrived in Sweden five months earlier. Next to him lay a bloodied knife.
As Söderström and Albinsson screamed for the police, a third man walked past them, toward the exit.
“Stop him,” the women yelled but he disappeared into the crowd.
The attack on August 10 would prove to be one of the most scandalous in Swedish history. The mother and son, both Swedes, died from their stab wounds. The two suspects, Ukbagabir and a fellow Eritrean named Yohannes Mahari, were quickly arrested for murder. They were both asylum-seekers.
The killings could not have come at a more fraught time, for Sweden and for Europe. The continent and the country are scrambling to deal with an influx of millions of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East. Apart from Germany, Sweden has taken in more refugees – 75 000 in the first six months of this year – than any other country in Europe. But that policy has also fuelled criticism, along with the meteoric rise of the far-right political party, Sweden Democrats.
In the days after the Ikea attack, rumours and outrage swirled on nationalist Swedish websites. Bloggers claimed that the two Eritreans were Muslims who had screamed “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), in Arabic, and beheaded their white victims in an act of terrorism.
“Time to wake up, Swedish people,” wrote Björn Söder, a top Sweden Democrats official, in a Facebook post blaming the attack on pro-immigration policies.
The reality of the Ikea incident is much more complicated, however, from the true identity of the killer to the motivation for the attack.
It’s the story of two migrants thrust together by fate and united by a mistaken media. And it’s a story of desperation, perhaps madness, but not Islam.
The murders and the misinformation surrounding them shed light on the very real fear that shakes Sweden, Europe and – to a lesser extent – the US, as millions of migrants flee from Syria and seek asylum in the west.
“This happened at a time when there is a very weak government, when immigration is what everyone is talking about, when we have a radical nationalist party, the Sweden Democrats, becoming almost the biggest party in Sweden,” said Daniel Poohl, editor-in-chief of Swedish investigative magazine Expo. “So there are a lot of things happening in Sweden that create the feeling of ‘What the f*** is going on?’ This killing became the epicentre of that kind of feeling.”
When Ukbagabir arrived in Sweden, he hoped he had put Eritrea and his painful journey behind him forever. The refugee shelter in Arboga, a small town near Västerås, was little more than a low-slung motel made of corrugated metal and cinder blocks. But for Ukbagabir, it was a new beginning.
Even here, in the middle of the Scandinavian countryside, however, he was still surrounded by men like him. More than 80 other migrants lived in the shelter, most of them young men eager for a better life. Among them was at least one other Eritrean: 23-year-old Mahari, who had been in Arboga for a year.
The two exchanged numbers and made small talk in their native language of tigrinya. But they quickly realised they were separated by something more powerful than their shared provenance.
Whereas Mahari had managed to arrive in Sweden without being apprehended elsewhere in Europe, Ukbagabir had been stopped in Italy. “He was the subject of some altercation in Italy, and he had had to provide his fingerprints there,” a police report said. According to EU immigration rules, Ukbagabir would have to return to Italy to claim asylum.
On the morning of August 10, Ukbagabir took the train from Arboga into Västerås, where officials at the immigration office delivered the news: he was going to be deported.
“He was very disappointed to hear that,” according to an interview he later gave to police.
As Ukbagabir walked out of the immigration office, however, he bumped into Mahari, who had received permission to stay in Sweden two months earlier. Now he was at the office to obtain a personal identity number, which would allow him to work and receive welfare benefits.
“Mahari asked (Ukbagabir) what the purpose of his visit there was all about,” according to a police report. “Abraham just laughed.”
Then Ukbagabir suggested Mahari accompany him to Ikea to buy a cellphone. He even bought him a bus ticket. Mahari had never been to Ikea before. He had lived in Sweden for 16 months but with no Swedish, English or money, his life was narrowly circumscribed. When Ukbagabir used his limited English to guide them to the big box store, the younger Eritrean witnessed his adopted country’s full cultural and consumerist power for the first time.
For several minutes, Mahari followed Ukbagabir around the store, as if overwhelmed. But he didn’t see any cellphones. As they walked through the kitchenware department, Ukbagabir began picking up items and mumbling about needing to buy them. First it was a pot. Then it was two razor-sharp kitchen knives.
When Ukbagabir began opening their plastic protective packaging, Mahari got nervous. He asked him whether he was going to buy the knives, but Ukbagabir didn’t answer.
Instead, he attacked.
Carola Herlin, 55, and her son Emil, 28, were across the kitchenware section when Ukbagabir came at them with a knife in each hand. It’s unclear which one he attacked first, but it was Emil’s finger that was sliced off as he tried to defend himself. Their screams filled the store, startling Söderström and Albinsson.
As Ukbagabir slashed at the two strangers, Mahari fled.
“Mahari claims Abraham did not give him any hint as to what was about to happen,” according to his interview with police.
“Mahari believes Abraham possibly was also planning to attack Mahari. Mahari states he saw the knife, and became frightened. He repeats that he was shocked, became afraid, and everything happened too fast. He states he doesn’t know anything. He adds a crowd of people gathered, and that he just ran from there.
“Mahari ran away from there, heading for the bus stop as he was ‘scared to death’,” the report said.
“The police came to (the bus stop), at which time he couldn’t speak for himself due to his limited language capacity.” So, the cops tackled him to the ground, injuring his right knee.
When Västerås police interrogated him about what had happened inside Ikea, Mahari said – through a translator – he felt “betrayed” by his fellow Eritrean, who had “lured” him there. “He murdered them,” Mahari said.
When police arrived at Ikea, however, Mahari was the only man they arrested. Witnesses, including Söderström and Albinsson, had seen him fleeing from the scene.
Ukbagabir, meanwhile, was lying on the floor, “severely injured but still alive”, police said. Paramedics whisked what they thought was a third victim to the hospital. As cops interviewed other witnesses and reviewed security footage, it became clear Ukbagabir wasn’t a victim, but the culprit. When they were finally able to interview him three days later, he admitted as much.
“Abraham is asked… how and why he was found injured at Ikea, whereupon he again says that all he wants is peace,” the report says. “Abraham is asked thereafter if he had become involved in a conflict, or had attacked people inside the store, and he says he attacked two individuals, using a knife.”
Ukbagabir said he “just lost control” after learning he was going to be sent back to Italy.
“That’s why he committed the acts against these two individuals… to make people understand him.”
He said he wasn’t even sure who he attacked, “they were just nearby”.
“Abraham states… that the individuals he attacked with a knife were innocent, and he hoped they would reach paradise.”
Ukbagabir also told the investigators that after killing Carola and Emil Herlin, he turned his weapon on himself. “His desire is that God will receive him.”
Police say the attacks were not religiously motivated. Eva Morén, assistant prosecutor for the Västmanland District Court, told The Washington Post Ukbagabir and Mahari were Christian.
Finally, Ukbagabir told police Mahari had nothing to do with what had happened.
By the time police dropped the murder charges against Mahari, however, it was already too late. Swedish and international media had reported his arrest. But the real problem was the wild speculation spreading on blogs and websites.
Some claimed that Ukbagabir and Mahari were Muslim. Others said they shouted “Allahu Akbar” as they targeted two white Christians. And some insisted the two had beheaded their victims.
A grainy photo posted on Swedish and American websites claimed to show one of the decapitated victims inside the store.
“Maybe the murder scene was not random, but rather a deliberately selected scene for a bloodbath on the Swedes at the most… symbolic place of all, Ikea” wrote right-wing Swedish blogger Percy Rosengren. “I hope that rage burns like a welding flame,” he added. “Sweden is in a state of war.”
Sweden Democrats, a right-wing party that has risen rapidly from obscurity to become the third most powerful party in government thanks to an anti-immigration platform, sought to exploit the attack to its advantage.
“In times like these, it may be time to recall how (former prime minister and political opponent) Fredrik Reinfeldt wanted us to ‘open our hearts’ and how he thanked us ‘for choosing Sweden’,” Björn Söder, one of Sweden Democrats’ top officials, wrote on Facebook.
With anti-immigrant rumours and rhetoric spreading online, police sent officers to protect refugee shelters in Arboga and elsewhere. But it wasn’t enough. Four days after the Ikea attack, protesters pelted the Arboga shelter with eggs. The next night, an anonymous tip led police to discover two bags of flammable liquid near the home in what cops called a suspected arson attempt.
The same night, another shelter was firebombed, although no one was hurt, according to local media.
When Mahari was released four days after the incident, he found himself the subject of death threats, his lawyer said. “Considering the threats and what is being written on websites, he needs protection,” said Maria Wilhelmsson.
The aftershocks of the Ikea attack are still lingering in Sweden and across Europe. In many ways, the case shook the Scandinavian country to its core, said Poohl, editor-in-chief of Expo, the investigative magazine where late novelist Stieg Larsson once worked.
“Ikea is the symbol of Sweden. It’s the company that built Sweden. You go into a Swedish home and you’ll find furniture from Ikea,” he told The Post. “You go to Ikea with your family. Everyone has a relationship of what it means to go to Ikea. You can build jokes around it. It’s an iconic thing. So when this really strange killing happens from nowhere it is really (disturbing).
“This was a case that dominated the press at least for a couple of days,” Poohl said. “First you had this kind of spectacular killing, and then you also had a debate around how the killings were reported, which made it even bigger.”
In Sweden, mainstream media rarely report suspects’ ethnicity, he said. But in this case, it seemed relevant to reveal that the suspects were asylum-seekers from Eritrea. Moreover, right-wing, nationalistic websites – considered by some in Sweden to be “hate sites” – were piling pressure on the media by inaccurately claiming the attack was the work of Islamist terrorists.
Meanwhile, the government was giving out little information.
“The media really didn’t know what had happened… so it created a space for speculation,” Poohl said. “In the end, the media started to realise that there was one killer, not two. So you have this guy who kind of followed the killer to Ikea and suddenly saw him commit horrific crimes and… his name was all over the place, described as a killer… when he ended up being innocent.”
Poohl doubted the Ikea attack had driven people to the right or into the hands of the Sweden Democrats. Instead, he thought the incident had simply hardened people’s pre-existing views on asylum-seekers, for and against.
But the slayings have exposed this deepening polarisation, not only in Sweden but also across Europe as the influx of millions of migrants strains patience and resources. Far-right political parties are resurgent, and anti-immigrant message boards are alive with accounts – often inaccurate or exaggerated – of incidents like the one in Västerås.
Morén told The Post she would have to tune out the din of the broader debate over the millions of refugees knocking on Europe’s doorstep when the case goes to trial next month. First, Ukbagabir must be found mentally fit to stand trial.
“The case will be tried as a murder,” she said, “as any murder.”