One night in September, teacher Thomas Cervin was awakened by gunshots in his apartment building in Uppsala. His neighbor had just become the latest target in Sweden’s terrifying gang wars.
Execution-style shootings carried out by “child soldiers,” apartment buildings rocked by bombings, innocent relatives targeted in vendettas and the morning news summarizing the night’s death toll — all have become disturbingly routine in the normally quiet country.
“No other country in Europe is seeing anything like this,” Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said, as he vowed to defeat the gangs.
“Swedish legislation was not designed for gang wars and child soldiers, but we’re changing that now,” he said.
Sweden’s gang wars have smoldered for a decade over control of the drugs market. However, they took a drastic turn early this year, when an internal feud led to gang members’ families and loved ones also becoming targets.
The Sept. 13 shooting in Cervin’s building in Uppsala, 70km north of Stockholm, was aimed at the mother-in-law of Rawa Majid, the “Kurdish Fox,” and head of the notorious Foxtrot gang.
She escaped unharmed.
“I had no idea she was related to him,” Cervin said. “That’s what makes so many people scared — the people involved have friends and relatives all over the place.”
“This new generation [of criminals] is ruthless,” said Garip Gunes, who started a youth soccer team to keep children in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby out of trouble.
“Many parents are worried about their kids and don’t let them go out except to go to school or football practice. They’re worried they’ll end up in the line of fire,” he said.
Criminology professor Felipe Estrada Dorner of Stockholm University said the situation “has gotten totally out of control: They’ve started attacking loved ones and those who have nothing to do with these conflicts.”
“This is a big change from the violence that has prevailed until now,” he said.
Forty-seven people have been killed in 314 shootings so far this year, police said, compared with only seven deaths in 2016.
The victims and the perpetrators are increasingly young.
Police last year investigated 336 15 to 17-year-olds for having illegal firearms, eight times more than a decade ago, the National Council for Crime Prevention said this month.
Gangs now recruit children to carry out contract killings — some younger than 15 — knowing they cannot be jailed.
“Children are contacting criminal gangs” offering to commit murders, Swedish National Police Commissioner Anders Thornberg said.
These children “just don’t know how to handle these weapons,” often leading to innocent bystanders being wounded or killed, Estrada Dorner said.
In Gottsunda, a suburb near Uppsala, Ebtesam Abowarrad agreed, and said people were scared.
“The difference nowadays is that they shoot all over the place,” Abowarrad said.
“I never see anyone out in the streets anymore,” she said.
Most young gang members have been on social services’ radar for years, said Evin Cetin, a former lawyer who has written a book of interviews with young gang members, Mitt ibland oss (In Our Midst).
“These kids have been trained by criminals — they live, eat and breathe a culture of violence,” she said.
Kristersson has blamed the rise in organized crime on “naivety” over immigration.
“An irresponsible immigration policy and failed integration led us here,” the conservative leader said.
However, Cetin argued that the integration problem has a lot to do with the segregation immigrant communities face.
“How is it possible that young Swedes in one of the richest countries in the world have gotten to the point where they’re willing to kill, and kill their best friend to boot?” she asked.
“It says a lot about segregation, the conditions in which they grow up and the exclusion they experience,” she added.
Sakariya Hirsi, 26, who hails from Tensta, a heavily immigrant suburb north of Stockholm, has seen several of his friends die in the violence.
In 2020, he founded the Kollektiv Sorg group (Collective Grief) to help families cope with their loss and lobby for change.
At a recent meeting of the group at a church in the suburb of Botkyrka, Alexander Zadruzny, 23, said he has “lost count” of how many of his friends have died.
“I used to say that our kids grow up too fast, but ... our kids don’t even live long enough to become adults,” he said.
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