How Sweden’s ‘most wanted man’ brought a town together
When an Iraqi asylum seeker was wrongly accused of plotting an attack, he decided to host a party for his neighbours.
Boliden, Sweden – Moder Mothanna Magid had been famous – or infamous – for days before he even realised it. The 22-year-old Iraqi asylum seeker hadn’t seen the newspapers with his picture on the front page. And when the police did turn up, they told him it was to check that his asylum papers were in order.
It was only a little later, as he was being questioned at the police station, that he realised he was suspected of planning a terrorist attack.
“I was shaken by the accusations and fervently tried to deny them,” he remembered.
He still doesn’t understand how he briefly came to be Sweden’s ‘most wanted man’.
“When they moved me to Stockholm, they first said a person had given them my name. Later they said a country had given them my name,” Moder said. “I still, to this day, don’t quite understand what happened, how this mistake was made.”
“I’m famous for the wrong reason,” he added, quietly.
When he was released without charge after three days of questioning, the authorities offered to house him somewhere away from the tiny Swedish town of Boliden that he had come to call home during the two months he had so far spent in Sweden, presumably because the false accusations against him were now so well known that they feared it might make his life difficult there.
But Moder refused and instead invited all of the residents of the town to a party to “apologise for the hassle” caused to them by his arrest.
Partying with Sweden’s ‘most wanted man’
“And we want to send a message to the Swedish people that we’re not here to terrorise you, we’re here to live side by side with you in peace and harmony.”
The manhunt for Sweden’s first “terrorist” since the failed suicide attack in Stockholm in 2010 had taken the residents of this mining town of 1,500 people, lying 800km north of the capital, by surprise.
“I was at home having dinner when my son called and said the police were in town. You see we live just around the corner from [Moder],” said 80-year-old Laila Marinder, who called the party invitation a “fantastic gesture”, and added that “it was a relief that Moder came back to Boliden”.
Jan Bjorkstrand, a 59-year-old IT teacher from a nearby town, shared Marinder’s admiration. “When you get an invite from a guy who’s turned this kind of situation around, a situation that most people and definitely most Swedes would find traumatic, you have to show up and show love,” he said.
Bjorkstrand hadn’t felt alarmed when the police had picked up the man who had been branded Sweden’s ‘most wanted’ so close to his own hometown, he said, explaining that it’s simply not in the nature of “norrlanningar” – Swedes from the north – to get upset about things.
“We aren’t scared of terrorism but we are realistic, we know it can affect us. The flip side of having an open society is being vulnerable,” Bjorkstrand added. “I wasn’t surprised when the security service let him go, but I respect the security service and respect that they can’t release the information about why he was detained.”
A rubber dinghy from Turkey
When Moder, who had spent all night baking in preparation for the party, finally sat down before the guests arrived, he started to share his story.
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“The party was my friends’ idea,” Moder said. “They wanted to celebrate my innocence and my return to Boliden.
“And then we wanted to apologise to Boliden for all the hassle and attention my arrest caused.
He had arrived in Europe from Turkey on a large rubber dinghy just a few months ago, he explained. “I know how to swim, I wasn’t afraid,” he said. Then he headed north with a cousin, who went on to Finland while Moder stayed in Sweden.
“I picked Sweden because of its reputation worldwide. And because it’s a safe and good country that values knowledge and human rights. In Sweden, people are valued and that’s something you can tell as soon as you get here.”
He is pondering whether to continue with his agricultural studies, or to study medicine instead. But it is difficult to look to the future, he said, while waiting for his asylum status to be settled. “Time blurs” in such circumstances, he said.
But the most difficult part is being away from his mother, who he hasn’t seen in 10 months.
“I don’t have the words to describe what she means to me,” he said. “I’m used to seeing her every day. I love her above everything. I pray to God that we will be reunited soon.”
Locals blame journalists
Moder is wearing light grey sweat pants that are too thin for winter temperatures hovering near freezing.
But this December has been unusually warm for the north, and surprisingly cold for the south, which has been shut down by a snow storm.
It’s upside down, say locals, who know that the north is supposed to be frozen at this time of the year, while southerners are usually left hoping for a white Christmas.
A billboard on the road from the airport shows a man swimming in the river in the dead of winter: it highlights the stark contrast between locals who swim in the hazardous waters for sport, and the refugees who brave the Mediterranean in order to flee war.
As Moder and his friends continued their preparations for the party, the sky turned dark outside. The mood of the locals towards the gathering journalists was barely any brighter. Outside a food store, residents refused to speak to the media.
“You have no one to blame except yourself for exaggerating things,” a middle-aged man said over his shoulder as he walked away. “Why don’t you journalists check facts before you go reporting stuff?”
The newspapers had published Moder’s name and picture, which is unusual in Sweden where the press usually stick to the principle of innocent until proven guilty. One tabloid’s decision to celebrate Moder’s arrest with the headline “Ladies and Gentlemen – We got him!” has also been widely criticised.
“Go speak with some other poor bugger,” said an older man. Then he added with a smile: “I just want to know why they never clear the pavements when it starts snowing. I tell you, I’m going to call the local paper and complain, because I can’t be walking in the middle of the street now, can I?”
Moder’s party for Boliden
Residents navigating the town on wooden kicksleds wobbled past the community hall that Moder and his friends had borrowed free of charge for the event.
As party time approached, they unloaded baskets of bread. They had prepared around 50kg of dough, said Moder’s friend Mohammed as he set other friends to work in the small kitchen. “The bread with zatar goes here, the spinach pirogues there,” he could be heard saying.
A timid woman was the first guest to arrive, handing a wrapped flower to Moder and shyly hugging him. There was only a trickle of people at first, but by the end of the night 80 had turned up – from a six-year-old boy clutching a box of chocolates for Moder, to Laila Marinder and her 79-year-old husband Lars-Erik.
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Most of the partygoers expressed admiration for Moder for choosing to return to Boliden rather than to go into hiding elsewhere.
“It was brave yet understandable as he has his friends here, he likes it here. Where else in Sweden was he supposed to go?” said Pernilla Bostrom, 29, who showed up with a group of friends not only to support Moder, but also because it’s so rare that anything happens in the town. “It’s always fun to go to a party, and [Moder] needs to feel that he hasn’t done anything wrong.”
“I was surprised that he wanted to return here when he’d been hung out to dry with his name and picture. Although it would be nice if Boliden was known for more things than Moder and gold,” said Maria Brunstrom, 43, an assistant nurse, referring to the gold mine that lay the foundations of the town.
Brunstrom’s two-year-old daughter Sibelle may have turned her nose up at the foreign food, but the Arabic music was more to her liking, and the toddler danced around the tables and chairs.
After dinner, the tables were pushed to one side to make room for the dancing. Some guests fished out their smartphones to film the performance, capturing the joyful ululation in process.
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It took at a good 10 minutes for the first Swedes to join in. Moder, who had been serving food all night, was also persuaded to participate. His friends surrounded him on the dance floor, one lifting him on to his shoulders for the finale.
But while Brunstrom praised the party as an example of integration in practice, she admitted to being relieved that the government was now trying to stem the flow of refugees, with the total predicted number of new arrivals at 190,000 for 2015.
“There are no jobs, no houses. Neither the government nor the parliament have paid any thought to the consequences,” she said.
“Swedes are good at welcoming newcomers, but there are few opportunities to meet each other, such as this party.”