A young woman vanishes in the Arctic night, elite police chase down a trawler at sea and three sailors are jailed: Iceland, with one of the world’s lowest crime rates, is fearing a tragic outcome to a rare crime.
On this tranquil North Atlantic island, home to medieval stories of murders and barbaric beatings, the police patrol the streets unarmed and homicides are rare.
“It’s a really safe country, no war or anything like that. The crime rate is low,” says Tomas Kjartansson, a 26-year-old salesman in a men’s clothing shop.
So the disappearance of 20-year-old Birna Brjansdottir has captivated the nation.
The media have reported on little else in recent days, and a solemn march in her honor, tracing her last known steps, was held in Reykjavik on Wednesday.
The auburn-haired young woman was last seen at about 5am on Saturday last week after a night of drinking and partying in Reykjavik’s bars.
Dressed in black trousers, a hooded parka and black Dr Martens shoes, Brjansdottir was captured on video surveillance cameras at dawn, stumbling in the snowy and foggy streets as she bought herself a kebab, struggling to stay on her feet.
Then, all trace of her is lost. She fails to show up for work a few hours later in the clothing boutique where she is employed.
Her shoes are found in the port of Hafnarfjordur, south of Reykjavik, not far from the dock where a Greenlandic trawler, the Polar Nanoq, is moored.
Her cell phone signal is later tracked to that area, where someone has turned it off. Video surveillance cameras also show a small red car, a Kia Rio, parked near the vessel at about 6:30am — identical to a vehicle observed near the spot where Brjansdottir was last seen.
The Polar Nanoq lifts anchor the same day.
It is later summoned at sea to turn back to Iceland, and, escorted by the Danish coast guard, returns to Reykjavik on Wednesday.
Three sailors end up arrested, “suspected of possessing information about the disappearance,” Icelandic police wrote on Twitter.
Crime scene technicians have searched the vessel with a fine-toothed comb, but police officials quoted in the Icelandic media said they doubt the young woman was ever brought aboard the ship.
If the disappearance is indeed confirmed to be criminal, it will certainly go down in Iceland’s crime annals, where police are better known for the selfies they post on Instagram than for their riveting investigations.
Crime, and especially violent crime, is rare in Iceland. The first time a police officer ever fired on a suspect was in December 2013, injuring him fatally.
A nation of just 330,000 people, Iceland has registered an average of 1.8 murders per year since 2001, according to police statistics. The killers are often under the influence of alcohol or mentally unstable.
And still: 2002 was particularly macabre, with four homicides, while in 2003, 2006 and 2008 none were registered.
“We have always been a homogenous society and egalitarian,” sociologist Helgi Gunnlaugsson said. “We are all one family and we all need each other. We have to stick together to survive on this island.”
Ironically, one of the world’s top-selling crime writers is Iceland’s own Arnaldur Indridason.
So does he have a wild imagination?
Not really, according to his French translator, Eric Boury.
Iceland is “a society that ... suppresses death. You have the feeling in Iceland that you can’t die [violently] and yet you know that the wilderness is dangerous, that a volcano could suddenly destroy everything,” Boury said.
“This society is not really as pacific as it seems,” he said. “There are problems with drugs and alcohol... The social noir definitely has its place here.”
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