Kerstin Söderström was considering which frying pan to purchase when she heard the screams.
Söderström and her next-door neighbor, Eivy Albinsson, had just finished eating lunch in the cafeteria of an Ikea in Västerås, Sweden, when they headed downstairs to shop. Söderström, a middle-aged woman with glasses and a green thumb, 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 yards away from the two women, a mother and her son lay lifelessly in rapidly expanding pools of blood. A severed finger lay on the store’s linoleum floor.
Nearby lay another man, also injured: Abraham Ukbagabir, a 35-year-old Eritrean man who had arrived in Sweden only five months earlier.
Next to him lay a bloody knife.
As Söderström and Albinsson screamed for the police, a third man — like Ukbagabir, young and thin — walked past them and toward the exit.
“Stop him,” the women yelled but the man disappeared up the stairs and into the crowd of frightened customers.
The Aug. 10 attack — described in detail in police reports obtained by The Washington Post — would prove to be one of the most scandalous in recent 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 both scrambling to deal with an influx of millions of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East. Aside from Germany, Sweden has taken in more refugees — 75,000 in the first six months of 2015 — than any other country in Europe. But that policy has also fueled fierce criticism, along with the meteoric rise of the far-right political party Sweden Democrats.
In the days after the Ikea attack, rumors and outrage swirled on nationalist Swedish Web sites. Bloggers claimed that the two Eritreans were Muslims who had screamed “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great” in Arabic, and beheaded their white victims in an act of overt terrorism.
“Time to wake up, Swedish people,” wrote Björn Söder, a top Sweden Democrats official, in a Facebook post blaming the Ikea attack on the country’s 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 are instructive, however. They shed light on the very real fear that shakes Sweden, Europe and — to a lesser extent — the United States 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 everybody 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 epicenter of that kind of feeling.”
Migrants from the same country, but worlds apart
When Abraham Ukbagabir arrived in Sweden sometime this spring, 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, a handsome 35-year-old, 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: a lanky 23-year-old with curly hair and skinny jeans named Yohannes Mahari. By the time Ukbagabir arrived in April or May, Mahari had already been in Arboga for a year.
The two Eritreans exchanged numbers and made small talk in their native language of tigrinja. But they quickly realized they were separated by something more powerful than their shared provenance.
Whereas Mahari had somehow managed to arrive in Sweden without being apprehended elsewhere in Europe, Ukbagabir had been initially stopped in Italy. “He was the subject of some altercation in Italy, and he had had to provide his fingerprints there,” according to a police report. According to European Union’s immigration rules, dubbed the Dublin Regulation, Ukbagabir would have to return to Italy to claim asylum.
On the morning of Aug. 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. The younger man had received permission to stay in Sweden two months earlier. Now he was at the immigration office to obtain a personal identity number, which would allow him to work and receive welfare benefits. The two men’s lives were headed in different directions.
“Mahari asked [Ukbagabir] what the purpose of his visit there was all about,” according to Mahari’s interview with police. “Abraham just laughed.”
Then Ukbagabir had an idea: He suggested Mahari accompany him to Ikea to buy a cellphone. He even bought the younger man a bus ticket.
Ikea, the symbol of Sweden
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. And 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 the older man if he was going to buy the knives, but Ukbagabir didn’t answer.
Instead, he attacked.
Carola Herlin, 55, and her 28-year-old son Emil were across the kitchenware section when Ukbagabir suddenly 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 Ikea, startling Kerstin Söderström and Eivy Albinsson as they looked at frying pans nearby.
As Ukbagabir slashed at the two strangers, Mahari fled.
“Mahari claims that Abraham did not give him any hint as to what was about to happen,” according to his interview with police. “Mahari believes that Abraham very possibly was also planning to attack Mahari also.”
“Yohannes states that he saw the knife, and that he became very frightened,” the report continued. “He repeats that he was shocked, became afraid, and that everything happened too fast. He states that he doesn’t know anything. He adds that a crowd of people gathered, and that he just ran from there.”
“Yohannes ran away from there, heading for the bus stop as he was ‘scared to death,'” according to the report. “The police came to [the bus stop], at which time he couldn’t speak for himself due to his limited language capacity,” so cops tackled him to the ground, injuring his right knee.
When Västerås police investigators interrogated him about what happened inside the Ikea, Mahari said — through a translator — that he felt “betrayed” by his fellow Eritrean, who had “lured” him there.
“He murdered them,” Mahari said.
Chaos and confusion
When police arrived at the Ikea, however, Mahari was the only man they arrested. Witnesses including Söderström and Albinsson had spotted him fleeing from the scene of the crime.
Ukbagabir, meanwhile, was lying on the floor of the kitchenware department, “severely injured but still alive,” according to a police report. Paramedics whisked what they thought was a third victim to the hospital.
As cops interviewed other witnesses and reviewed security footage, however, it quickly became clear that 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 by the interrogation leader how and why he was found injured at Ikea in Västerås, whereupon he again says that all he wants is peace,” according to the interview report. “Abraham is asked thereafter if he had become involved in a conflict, or had attacked some people inside the store, and Abraham states that he attacked two individuals, and that he used a knife.”
Ukbagabir explained that he “just lost control” after learning that he was going to be sent back to Italy, according to his interview. “That’s why he committed the acts inside Ikea against these two individuals … to make people understand him.”
He said he wasn’t even sure who he attacked, but “they were just nearby, in the vicinity, and that it was just mere chance that these two individuals were struck,” according to the report. “Abraham states at the interrogation proceeding that the individuals that he attacked with a knife were innocent, and that 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 wrote in their interview report.
Police say the attacks were not religiously motivated, however. Both Ukbagabir and Mahari are Christian, Eva Morén, assistant prosecutor for the Västmanland District Court, told The Washington Post in a phone interview.
Finally, Ukbagabir told police that Mahari had “nothing to do with the event.”
Time to wake up
By the time police dropped the murder charges against Mahari, however, it was already too late. Swedish and international media — including The Washington Post — had reported his arrest. But the real problem was the wild speculation spreading on blogs and Web sites, especially Flashback, a kind of Swedish version of reddit.
Some commenters claimed that Ukbagabir and Mahari were Muslim. Others said they shouted “Allahu Akbar” as they deliberately targeted two white Christians. And some went so far as to insist that the two Eritreans had beheaded their victims.
A grainy photo posted on Swedish and American Web sites 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 people terribly 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,'” wrote Björn Söder, one of Sweden Democrats’ top officials, on Facebook.
“Do not think that the murdered mother and son at Ikea in Västerås would stick with the ex-Prime Minister,” Söder said. “Time to wake up, Swedish people, and consign [Sweden’s pro-immigration] policy where it belongs! On the trash heap.”
With anti-immigrant rumors 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 in southern Sweden was firebombed, although no one was hurt, according to local media.
When Mahari was released four days after the incident, he left jail only to find himself the subject of death threats, his lawyer told Radio Sweden. “Considering the threats and what is being written on several websites, I think he needs protection,” Maria Wilhelmsson said.
A worrying legacy for Sweden, and Europe
Six weeks later, 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, according to Poohl, editor-in-chief of Expo, the investigative magazine where late novelist Stieg Larsson once worked.
“You have to understand, Ikea is the symbol of Sweden. It’s the company that built Sweden. You go into a Swedish home and you’ll find the furniture is from Ikea,” he told The Post. “You go to Ikea with your family. Everybody has a relationship of what it means to go to Ikea. You can build jokes around it. It’s an iconic thing. So when suddenly this really strange killing happens from nowhere it was 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 the ethnicity of suspects, Poohl said. But in this case, it seemed relevant to reveal that the suspects were asylum-seekers from Eritrea. Moreover, right-wing, nationalistic Web sites — considered by some in Sweden to be “hate sites,” Poohl pointed out — were piling added pressure on mainstream media by inaccurately claiming the attack was the work of Islamist terrorists.
Meanwhile, the government was giving out little information on the case.
“The media really didn’t know what had happened … so it kind of created a space for speculation,” Poohl said. “In the end, the media started to realize that there was one killer, not two. So you have this guy who kind of followed the killer to Ikea and suddenly saw this guy commit horrific crimes and … his name was all over the place, described as a killer as well when he ended up being totally innocent.”
Poohl doubted that the Ikea attack had driven people to the right or into the hands of the Sweden Democrats. Instead, he thought the incident simply hardened people’s preexisting views on asylum-seekers, both for and against.
But the Ikea slayings have exposed this ever-deepening polarization, 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 across the continent, and anti-immigrant message boards are alive with accounts — often inaccurate or exaggerated — of incidents like the one in Västerås.
Eva Morén, the assistant prosecutor handling the Ikea killings, told The Post that 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 in November. First, Ukbagabir must be found mentally fit to stand trial.
“The case will be tried as a murder,” Morén said, “as any murder.”