13 maj, 2018 Ann Törnkvist

Follow Fucking Orders

Swedish true-crime author Ann Törnkvist had just finished her book ”Follow fucking orders” when the mafia boss threatened to have her shot.

WINTER 2016.

Standing up in bed I sway and rip open the window to air out the smoke. It’s minus 20 degrees Celcius outside. For a few seconds I bare the cold, then start to close the window, knocking over an orchid on the windowsill. When it falls onto the crumpled sheets, ice-cold water from the plant pot spills over my feet and wood chips scatter across my bed. There’s smoke everywhere, it woke me up. The alcoholic friend-of-friend whom I’m renting a room from has again been burning scraps of wood that he scavenges from building sites.

How did I get here? Will I die of smoke inhalation rather than being shot in the head by the mafia?

That’s why I’m here, I’ve been threatened by the leader of the notorious Södertälje Mafia, which is responsible for three murders. I’m in hiding. To stay out of harm’s way, I’ve moved from one apartment to the next. Four weeks, four new beds, 31 days of living off others’ hospitality. A month of paranoia.

A month ago, a few days before New Year’s, I was just a radio reporter in the small town Södertälje, just south of the Swedish capital Stockholm. But while my day job was ordinary, I’d gotten the job thanks to the research for my true-crime novel ”Follow fucking orders,” which chronicles the town’s free fall, six years ago, when loan sharking, kidnappings, threats, assaults and not least three murders made Södertälje synonymous with the mafia – not least when they used a Kalashnikov to murder a local soccer star in front of a dozen witnesses.

Usually, gang members kill each other under the cover of darkness when there are no witnesses. That minimizes the risk of getting caught. But the murder of the soccer star was different, that murder was brazen and executed in front of a dozen witnesses. Someone was making a statement. And has done so again by threatening to have me shot for getting too close.

“I OWN SÖDERTÄLJE”

That someone is Bernard Khouri, born in Lebanon in 1980, who has called Södertälje his home since early childhood. More than his home, actually, he has referred to the town as his, often telling his victims ”I own Södertälje”.

He has become the leader of ”The Network”, the police nickname for a band of friends who are almost all “syrianer” (Assyrian/Aramean), and whose Orthodox Christian families fled to Sweden from Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq to escape religious persecution. Criminologists say ”The Network” is a textbook example of ”an ethnically-defined gang”, but also a “neighbourhood gang” where codes of loyalty are built on friendships that date back to childhood.

There’s a dark irony at play. Their parents fled persecution in the Middle East, but many in the town have felt that Khouri and his friends took on the role of persecutors with their violence and loan sharking.

Khouri’s a riddle. His friends adore him, the rest of town detests him. He’s not handsome, but his charm is enthralling. He apologizes to me for his poor Swedish, but he is among the smartest people I’ve met.

When we met three years ago, he was awaiting trial. I wanted to ask him about a key quote from the extensive police wiretaps, when he’s heard bellowing to an underling: ”When I give you orders, you listen to fucking orders.” That has inspired the title of my book: “Följ fucking order” (Follow fucking orders). I asked him about the wiretap. Khouri said the quote had been taken out of context, that he was furious at his friend for other reasons, and that the gang uses jargon often interpreted as aggressive by outsiders.

Despite his defence, that quote was one of many quoted in court, and as the evidence mounted he and more than a dozen associates went down for the three murders, among many other crimes. Khouri was sentenced to life in prison.

“HE’S ANGRY AT YOU”

I have been following this case for years, writing a book that focuses more on the town and the victims of crime, rather than focus too much on Khouri – not wanting to glamorize criminals despite my own fascination with his fate and with the question whether he had to grow up to become the man he did. What made him? What shaped him?

December 2016. In three months’ time, my book will hit the shelves, so I’m tying up loose ends, doing a final factcheck and informing my interviewees that the book is on its way.

Word spreads in the small town of 90,000 people and one afternoon I get the first of three odd phone calls.

”What book?” Khouri’s aunt asks me.

”He’s angry at you,” one of his friends tells me the day after.

”Why? He’s always known that am writing a book,” I say with true confusion.

”Just write to him in prison, okay?”

I say sure.

Those phone calls rattle me, but then I see them as an invitation to communicate with the gang leader one last time. One problem though, the calls scare the hell out of my publisher, who pulls our deal. It’s a setback but I don’t falter, I’m going to fix this situation with Khouri. And find a new publisher.

When I write to him in prison, I include the chapter names. One sticks out, it’s about his childhood. Not altogether unsurprisingly, that chapter appears to set him off as he responds with a long letter about ”family honor”.

It’s very clear to me what I’ve done wrong and what needs to be erased to keep myself safe – Khouri is a dangerous man. There’s a new dark irony at play: I too am now following fucking orders, like the title of the book, despite having tracked down victims of crime who refused to follow orders – those that took years to find because they gave up everything and now live new lives thanks to the police’s witness protection program. They testified against him, and paid the price by having to leave their friends and relatives behind. I lose only a chapter. I’m acutely aware that my loss is nothing in comparison to theirs.

“SERIOUSLY, IS HE STUPID?”

There’s a black folder on my desk where I keep Khouri’s letters, and I add this last one to them. I think, with that communiqué from the maximum-security wing of Kumla Prison, that the problem has been solved.

So I go about my work as usual. I may be an expert of sorts on the town’s dark underbelly, but nowadays I cover everything from town hall politics to housing.

One day, my phone starts to vibrate in my back pocket. I look at the screen and realise that I’ve never seen this odd regional dialing code. Turns out it belongs to Sweden’s Prison Services. It’s Kumla Prison. The prison warden on the other side of the line cuts to the chase.

”I’m calling to inform you that we have reported Khouri to the police for threatening you,” he tells me. ”Khouri instructed a visitor to send people to speak with you about the book. Then he held his hand up in a way that could be interpreted as a gun.”

”Seriously, is he stupid?” I ask.

”I can’t comment on that,” the prison warden replies.

I’m not scared, I’m confused. Having always considered Khouri a creature driven by profit – the mafia is after all a business that weighs risk against reward – I wonder what’s in it for him to threaten a journalist when he is still hoping that his case will be overturned? The hours he has spent scouring the evidence for gaps and contradictions.

The rest of my afternoon is spent on the phone. My boss at Sweden’s equivalent to NPR and our head of security tell me to go back to the office and wait.

“SWEDEN SHOULD REINSTATE THE DEATH PENALTY”

At my office, I gather my things. I sort through papers, throw some out, keep others. Like a normal workday, but it’s so far from normal.

A friend shows up to keep me company. I give him more details. He gives me a speech about how Sweden needs to reinstate the death penalty because people like Khouri don’t deserve to live, telling me twice that ”you Swedes” need to realise that ”us Arameans” need tougher rules.

I’m used to this jargon. First- and even second-generation Christians from the Middle East, who have made this small Swedish town their diaspora capital city, often give voice to such opinions, clashing with the Swedish tradition of benevolence.

Tougher rules… Some miss Saddam Hussein’s iron-clad rule, others praise Bashir al-Assad’s fight against Islamist terrorism. Many express a longing for longer prison sentences – the dead soccer player’s sister tells me that the Swedish justice system is ”sick”, as she complained that only Khouri, not his associates, was given life.

At my office, a private security contractor, whom we’ll call Laurent, shows up and we’re off. The van with tinted windows carries me across the canal. I gaze down at the offices of drugs giant AstraZeneca, one of the many industries that have defined this town for decades. But nowadays, this town is associated more with the mafia than anything else, which I’ve been so abruptly reminded of with one phone call.

And I’m reminded of what all those crime victims told me about being forced into witness protection, about leaving their homes. This is what they all meant about seeing things for the last, and thus almost for the first, time. How everything looks new.

I wonder if it’s the last time I will see this town.

We join the traffic on the motorway towards Stockholm, towards safety. One way to kill me, I realise, would be to drive straight into us, but they wouldn’t risk their own lives, I reckon. Any attempt on my life is unlikely, but my mind races, sorts through scenarios. And regardless, I start to take stock.

What am I wearing? A long-sleeved thermal t-shirt, a sweater, skinny jeans, curling boots. Standard reporter uniform to survive the Swedish winter. And large gray underwear with polka dots in black.

”Great, I’m gonna die with polka dot underwear on,” I think. ”And they’re big too, big like the ones in Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

“STOCKHOLM FEELS LIKE GROZNY”

At home, I pack a bag, then we leave for a hotel. My thoughts are elsewhere, on Lars Vilks, the Swedish artist who has lived with bodyguards for many years now thanks to the violent reactions to his cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. I think of Salman Rushdie. And I realize that the worst might not be the fear, but the endless hours of day when your movement is curtailed.

As we drive into town, all the roadworks confuse the GPS. Central Stockholm’s a mess. We pass under a bridge, turn right to avoid the cement road blocks at a building site.

”It feels like Grozny,” says Laurent, a half-French, half-Swedish veteran.

”But surely you didn’t fight there?” I say.

”Of course not, but I’ve fought against many Chechens.”

”Ah, the mujahideen, of course. You said you were in Afghanistan, with the French, where were you? Helmand?”

”Yes. And you know, we follow orders,” Laurent says as we pull up to the hotel. ”But none of us thought we’d be able to stay long enough to make any difference.”

I think of the parallels to Södertälje. That the second-largest police investigation in Swedish history locked up more than a dozen gang members, but that the cash economy and loan sharking that fed them live on, that old habits, like following the mafia’s orders, die hard.

“PLEASE BUY FIREWOOD”

The security department at work won’t let me go home. So after a weekend in the hotel, I move from apartment to apartment. I walk to work each morning, pulsing through snow to Broadcasting House’s rear entrance where armed guards meet me.

A normal life eludes me right now, but I keep going. One day I spend a frightful amount of money on a trenchcoat. I should be saving money rather than spending it, just in case I have to flee abroad, but then a voice in my head objects: ”If they’re gonna shoot me in the head, I’m gonna die in nice clothes.”

Back at my own flat, where my Christmas tree has been left to wilt, the security department puts up motion sensors to see whether anyone tries to break in. They stake the place out one evening, just in case. They see nothing. No one’s there.

Yet I stay away for a couple of weeks more. At one point, I move in with a friend. He’s great, when he’s not drunk or high. When he gets too messed up, he starts to collect scraps of wood from nearby building sites. I beg him to buy real firewood, telling him that it’s dangerous to burn wood impregnated with god knows what, but he says he’s broke and can’t afford to.

That’s why I end up standing naked in a freezing bedroom to air out the smoke, with water and wood chips from the knocked-down orchid spreading across my bed. Despite having begged my temporary landlord to buy clean firewood from the store. Soon I’ll have to move on. Move home.

”THEY’RE BADMOUTHING MY FAMILY”

Every morning, I go to work and keep up appearances. I don’t cry until one morning when I get a panicked email from one of my interviewees. She’s always been adamant that people have to stand up against Khouri, whom needs to be taught ”proper manners”, but now she is too scared to be quoted in the book.

She tells me that Khouri’s friends are badmouthing her relatives because word’s out that they have spoken to me. Her email causes me to crack. Out on the parking lot at work, I kick at the snow and curse Khouri and all his friends. I find myself slipping into an ”us and them” rhetoric that doesn’t befit a journalist who should remain neutral at all costs, listening to all parties’ side of the story.

”Seriously,” I snarl as one of our armed guards looks on. ”We spent hundreds of millions of kronor locking them up, why do they still have so much power?”

My boss sends me to a crisis therapist.

”That they come after me is one thing, but trying to intimidate my interviewees is unacceptable,” I hiss in our first session.

“HE’S SUCH A POMPOUS PSYCHOPATH”

The police assign me a contact person with the personal protection unit. He’s an ex-Södertälje cop and knows Khouri well. He might just be the most coppy cop I’ve ever met. When he offers me coffee, he apologizes for not having any doughnuts.

We speak several times and whenever he calls again to check up on me, he barks his last name instead of a hello. Seriously, I think they teach that in Police Academy.

At one point, he rereads the police report from Kumla Prison. One detail had escaped me. I already knew that Khouri held up his hand ”in a way that could be interpreted as a gun,” but I assumed he’d done it at chest height to conceal it from the prison guards. But no, Khouri had held his hand up under his chin. To be seen and send a message, in all likelihood.

I feel a stab of panic, but as usual I pretend to be bad-ass.

”What a loser!” I blurt out.

”I know! He’s just so pompous even for a psychopath!” the police officer replies with bemusement.

Khouri, meanwhile, sends me a letter and denies he ever threatened me. He reminds me that I had wanted to interview the people he was ”sending to me”. That’s true. The cynic in me thinks he has covered his tracks well. Bravo, Khouri.

I don’t want to be scared but I’m wary. Accept that I have to be streetwise. Khouri has made it very clear what cannot go in the book, so my publisher and I decide to keep the text but cover it in thick black lines – to make a point about press freedom.

But one thought plays on repeat in mind.

”I too am following fucking orders.”

This book excerpt was first published by the British true-crime magazine Foul Play. Följ fucking order was published in Swedish by Mondial in spring 2018.