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A Tale of Two Swedens


Falun, Sweden.

The attack came at the afternoon’s end, this making the fourth I would report to the local police.  I was on the phone when the sickeningly familiar odor made itself known, known in a way that only nightmares that are real can, its presence followed within minutes by the strong kidney pain accompanying such attacks.  And while a toxic agent was responsible for the fumes I was enduring, the most remarkable thing was that I was in my apartment in Falun, Sweden, not some distant battle zone.

Of course, history demonstrates that there are times, places, where some have felt free to abuse minorities and particularly ‘outsiders’.  Whether it was the legendary good ol’ boys of America’s Deep South of another era, or European Fascists in the 1930s, from time to time, place to place, there have long existed those where only the passage of time demonstrates to a community its capacity for the monstrous.

Not to be misunderstood, some of those I’ve met in Sweden are among the finest people one might ever encounter; but, others would seem unquestionably among their opposite.  For some here, it seems that foreigners, ‘outsiders’, living in Sweden are committing a crime, one demanding ‘punishment’, or at least a bit of abuse, with this seeming particularly true of any victims that might actually object to such ‘special attention’.

Keeping ‘the rabble’ in their place is also an old story, regardless of how ‘the rabble’ is defined and those providing the definition.  And in all fairness to the many good folks that do exist here, perhaps the reasons for such changes are similar to those that caused Swedish Radio (SR) to headline this June, “Åtta av tio kommuner misstänker corruption” (Eight of ten municipalities suspect corruption).

While most of the ordinary Swedes I’ve met are quite decent, assorted scandals have been making news.  On the local level there have been a number of sordid affairs regarding the privatization of healthcare and education, plus the usual municipal scandals involving officials caught pursuing some difficult to explain ways.

In example, Falun found some of its respected officials had taken trips at the expense of a construction firm, a firm that was awarded a sizable contract for a new ski jump.  One local headline read “Peab fick tiomiljonersjobb utan upphandling” (Peab received a ten million job without procurement).  But such once unheard of headlines have become a part of today’s life.

As just this June The Local (Sweden’s leading English-language news site) headlined “Man charged for running down refugee boy”, it isn’t hard to imagine how some blame ‘outsiders’ for deteriorating circumstances, the genuine pain that many common people suffer.  And, such scapegoating was perhaps even more vividly seen in the recent trial of Peter Mangs.

“Mangs was arrested in November 2010 after a massive manhunt following a string of shootings against people of immigrant origin”, according to The Local Malmö sniper Peter Mangs found guilty ), with Mangs convicted in July of two murder counts and four counts of attempted murder.  Of course, such troubling conduct may help put the abuse this journalist has suffered in perspective.

The police hadn’t come the first two occasions that someone had previously ‘scented’ my home, the perpetrator entering my apartment in the process on both of those occasions.  I actually had to begin to carry anything I couldn’t risk being vandalized with me.  The ‘calling card’ left with these ‘unauthorized visits’ smelled noxious, the same sharp odor marking the final three attacks.  The quite nasty physical effects became too well known.

It seemed someone felt the need for an ‘upgrade’ after the first assault.

Since the police hadn’t come on the first two occasions, I did invite a medical chemist to visit the flat after the second.  There’s no substitute for first-hand experience, not to mention a witness statement.

The fellow was properly surprised when he arrived, the smell of the toxin evident even though I had succeeded in cleaning away most of it.  He wrote that its smell reminded one of trichloroethylene, and when the third incident occurred, police did eventually come by to take samples.  Earlier, they had first simply suggested I contact my landlord.  Following that, they said they were too busy to come for months, again suggesting I contact my landlord (Falun’s municipally owned housing company, Kopparstaden); but, following the witness statement from the chemist, the third time they did come.

It was months later when I contacted forensic chemist Jan Andrasko of  Statens kriminaltekniska laboratorium – SKL (The Swedish National Laboratory of Forensic Science), almost his first words to me being, “I thought that they contact you from our Poison Group”.  But the Poison Group never had contacted me, though Andrasko had found “acetic acid”, a solvent, in the samples he received.  Notably, he also emphasized there there were problems with the samples.

When SKL received the material to be analyzed from Falun’s police, “they are placed in just paper bags”, Andrasko complained, adding that due to the improper packaging, if the samples contained volatile compounds “they are away, of course”.  So much for the kind of effective crime-fighting shown on TV and in Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels.

What’s particularly remarkable is that at the time of the final attack, I was scheduled to leave the flat the very next day (though very few knew so), my landlord having earlier petitioned the local court to force my removal, the Court finding it was not a ‘hardship’ (translated from the Swedish) to immediately move me.  Of course, the flat which Falun’s District Court saw no hardship in my relocation to is documented as contaminated by ‘powerfully elevated’ levels of mold, with ‘unusually high levels’ of some nasty chemicals as well.  As to what that means, two environmental consultants testified under oath that they had become ill in the apartment after but a brief period – one became ill in twenty minutes, and for only the second time in his career.  A third witness noted that he was ill for three to four days following just hours there; yet, the Falun court’s decision was that my living in such an apartment would not be a ‘hardship’.

I find myself repeatedly thinking of how the courts in some small towns in Mississippi during the 1950s must have been, how the legal system worked there and then.

Equally noteworthy, despite the fact that I called police four times in the hours following the last attack, emphasizing that I would be leaving the apartment the next morning and that any evidence would be lost accordingly, no officer ever came.  Apparently, my poisoning wasn’t a priority, though the police report did term it assault (misshandel).

If these events sound far from what one would think appropriate, it should be added that a medical certificate from a local ‘chief physician’ mentioned the ‘furthest negative’ consequences that my health could face from exposure to mold or toxic chemicals.  Given this, does the Court’s action, in itself, arguably raise a question of state-sanctioned abuse?  As justice system discrimination against those of foreign origins has been documented by governmental reports here, does the failure of those authorities charged with protecting the most basic of rights arguably suggest a further question upon state-sanction of wrongful conduct?

It is small wonder that Julian Assange prefers the confines of London’s Ecuadorian Embassy to Stockholm.  It is also small wonder that, with an honest evaluation of Assange’s circumstances, Ecuador courageously awarded him asylum.  However, while reports and events have highlighted problems within the Swedish justice system, this is not to say that such problems are all-encompassing within it.

On 18 June, a criminal investigation was opened by a Stockholm-based environmental prosecutor that I had sent documentation regarding a flooring practice my now ex-landlord, Kopparstaden, stated it uses.  The prosecutor in question, Anders Gustafsson, sent me an email observing: “it is my opinion that at this stage there is reason to believe that a miljöbrott (environmental crime) has been committed.”  In replying to my query as regards what suspects are being investigated, Gustafsson said “the company being investigated is, of course, Kopparstaden primarily.”

As for my circumstances, I terminated my tenancy with Kopparstaden rather than try and survive in the troubled flat which Falun’s Court found wouldn’t be a ‘hardship’.  If it was not for the courage of some of those here, the simple decency of others, I seriously wonder if I would be alive to write this.  But, what is it that such extreme circumstances say?

At a time when so many people in so many supposedly civilized places suffer silently, I cannot but recall Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the comments upon the events surrounding the French Revolution which it so eloquently made.  To my eyes, today there seem two Swedens – that of those that exemplify the best of the Progressive state so many yet consider this country, and that of those that recall something far different.  As for the latter, Dickens wrote: “’Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend,’ observed the Marquis, ‘will keep the dogs obedient to the whip…’”.

Ongoing events have left me with a new appreciation of Dickens, the words he chose to begin his novel … “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.  And, given this, as some in the US and UK hold up Sweden as a model to follow, it perhaps doesn’t seem the best of times to do so.

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden.  His work has appeared fairly widely, including in America’s Christian Science Monitor, Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, Spain’s El Mundo, Sweden’s Aftonbladet, Austria’s Wiener Zeitung, Hong Kong’s Asia Times, and a number of other global media outlets.


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Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden.

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