1 juli, 2018 Ann Törnkvist

Follow fucking orders

– “Follow Fucking Orders” –

Life and death in the shadow of the Swedish mafia

 

In 2016,  a Swedish mafia boss threatened to kill crime reporter
Ann Törnkvist (Columbia Journalism Alumna 2006).

 

The crime she had committed against him?
Her book ”Follow Fucking Orders” had trespassed on his “family honour”.

 

The Stockholm Police quickly erased all public records of Törnkvist’s name and address in order to make her impossible to find.

 

Citing security concerns, her publisher pulled out of the deal, a breach of contract that came under heavy fire from press freedom organisations.

 

Citing labour law, her employer terminated her job as a beat reporter in the mafia boss’ hometown.

Unhappy with her replacement job, Törnkvist resigned.
“It’s cruel to lock a reporter up in a studio.”

 

In 2018, her new publisher Mondial released  “Follow Fucking Orders”.
It sold out within ten days.

 

Törnkvist’s book soon became the most popular title at the library at the maximum-security prison where the mafia boss is serving his life sentence.

 

Armed police officers still accompany her to all public speaking events.

 

In October 2018, Törnkvist was awarded the Swedish Investigative Journalist Association’s first scholarship to work with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in Sarajevo.

 

She aims to uncover the networks that smuggle drugs into Sweden.

 

“BUY FUCKING FIREWOOD”

Winter 2016. Standing up in bed, I sway and rip open the window to air out the smoke. It’s minus 20 degrees Celsius outside – what the Swedes call a “wolf winter”. For a few seconds, I bare the cold, then start to close the window, knocking over an orchid from the windowsill; spilling ice-cold water and wood chips onto the crumpled sheets.

Yet more misery, when I need none more: I’m only sleeping here because I am in hiding from the maffia, having been threatened by the leader of the murderous “Södertälje Network”. I’ve moved from one apartment to the next. Four beds in four weeks of paranoia.

A month ago, I was just a radio reporter in the small town of Södertälje, just south of the Swedish capital Stockholm. But while my day job was ordinary – covering housing, healthcare and city hall – I was soon to publish my true-crime novel ”Follow fucking orders.”

The novel chronicled the free fall, six years earlier, when loan sharking, usury, threats and kidnappings made Södertälje synonymous with organized crime – not least when a drive-by shooting set off the spark leading to a murder so unusually brutal for Sweden that it felt more Nicaraguan than Nordic: A local soccer star being torn to shreds in the bullet hail from a Kalashnikov. And picking a place with a dozen witnesses broke the mafia business-savvy tradition of discretion.

Usually, gang members kill each other under the cover of darkness. This was different. Someone was making a statement. And has made yet another statement by threatening to have me shot. I had gotten too close for his comfort.

 

“I OWN THIS TOWN”

That someone is Bernard Khouri, born in Lebanon in 1980, who has called Södertälje his home since early childhood. More than his home, his realm: leaning over victims beaten to a pulp to tell them ”I own this town” upheld the omertà. No one dared to call the police to report him, nor his gang, known as ”The Network”.

Despite witnessed too terrified to talk, the police arrest Khouri some months after the murder of the soccer star. He’s allowed a Bible in his cell. And a rosary.

Swedish criminologists call ”The Network” a textbook example of ”an ethnically-defined gang” – almost all its members are Orthodox Christians whose parents fled to Sweden to escape religious persecution.

When Khouri was at long last charged, the justice system referred to ethnicity to explain the loyalty that had upheld omertà; their choice broke with tradition as Sweden rarely talks of the links between ethnicity and crime, and has thus been criticized for its “politically correct naivité”.

Their focus on ethnicity forced the community to look from one horror – Khouri – to another: having their proud heritage cited as corroborating evidence in the biggest mafia trial in the country’s history.

At the same time, they had welcomed the police investigation because Khouri had come to rival even the most blood-thirsty persecutors in their home countries.

 

“PLEASE EXCUSE MY POOR SWEDISH”

Khouri’s a riddle. His friends adore him, his neighbours detest him. He may not be handsome, just charming to the point of enthralling.

He apologizes to me for speaking Swedish poorly, but he doesn’t. And had he done so, it still wouldn’t conceal his intelligence; Khouri is eloquent in all his fury at being locked up, and among the smartest people I’ve met.

The trial is about to start when we meet. There’s a quote I want to ask him about, taken from the thousands upon thousands calls picked up by the police wiretaps. In one, he bellows to an underling: ”When I give you orders, you listen to fucking orders.” – which in the end inspires the title of my book: “Följ fucking order” (Follow fucking orders).

Khouri claims that the quote has been taken out of context, that he was furious at his friend for other reasons, and that The Network often uses language so course that many an outsider perceives it as aggressive. He wasn’t giving orders.

His claim falls on deaf ears. The court sentences him to life in prison, which is a rare punishment in Sweden’s lenient justice system, with its faith in rehabilitation – and redemption.

 

“HE’S ANGRY AT YOU”

The years have gone by from the murder in 2010 to the guilty verdict in 2014. Two years later, I sign a book contract with a legendary publisher who gushes “I haven’t been so captivated by a manuscript for years”.

Despite my fascination with Khouri – having been like so many others before me seduced by his charisma – I focus the book on the victims of crime. They, like I do, wonder why he became the man that he did.

Last edits are under way in December 2016. Ticking of the list of final fact checks, I inform the victims – who all went into witness protection to be able to testify – that the book is on its way.

Word spreads in the small town and one afternoon I get the first of three phone calls.

”What book?” Khouri’s aunt asks me.

”He’s angry at you,” Khouri’s friend tells me the day after.

“My son is very annoyed,” Khouri’s father tells me.

”Why? He’s always known that am writing a book,” I tell each one of them.

”Just write to him in prison, okay?” all three reply in turn.

The calls rattle me, but perhaps I should check in with Khouri. The calls rattle my publisher even more, and they pull the deal. I protest, I cite the freedom of the press. My protests means nothing.

Khouri, just focus on him, quell that conflict, then find a new publisher: that’s my new to-do list. When I send a letter to prison and show him the name of the chapters, he warns me not to trespass, not to insult his family honor.

“Honour is a code that must not be broken”, he writes to me.

 

“SERIOUSLY, IS HE STUPID?”

I have kept Khouri’s letters in a black folder, and at this latest one. I’ll have to tone down the chapter about his childhood. I don’t want to but Khouri’s a dangerous man.

Problem solved. I’ve followed his orders. And I return to my day job, where I’m used to spotting Khouri’s friends from time to time.

It’s freezing, it’s the start of wolf winter and out on the street I see people shivering. Then my phone vibrates in my jeans pocket. The number confuses me, as I’ve never before seen the odd regional dialing code. Turns out it belongs to the maximum-security prison that Khouri now calls his home.

The prison wardens cuts to the chase.

”We have reported Khouri to the police for threatening you. Khouri gave a visitor instructions to send people after you, and then 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 warden replies in true civil-servant fashion.

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? Why threaten a journalist if he wants to ever get probation?

The rest of my afternoon is spent on the phone. The head of security at work, Sweden’s equivalent to NPR, orders me back to the office.

“Wait for the guards to pick you up.”

 

“SWEDEN SHOULD REINSTATE THE DEATH PENALTY”

At the office, I sort and gather my things. It’s like any normal workday, yet it’s so far from normal.

When a friend shows up to keep me company, I give him more details.

“Seriously, what value to society does Khouri have,” he says, shaking his head.

A speech follows: Khouri don’t deserve to live, Sweden should reinstate the death penalty, execute him. Having himself moved here from the Middle East, my friends brings culture into it.

“You Swedes need to realise that people in my community need tough rules.”

I’m used to this line of argument, because first- and even second-generation Orthodox Christians often give voice to such opinions. Some miss Saddam Hussein’s iron-clad rule, others praise Bashir al-Assad’s fight against Islamist terrorism. Almost all want Sweden to toughen up and give longer prison sentences.

“At home in Lebanon,” the slain soccer star’s sister once told me, “Khouri and all his friends would be locked up forever – THAT would have been justice.”

At last, the bodyguards show up. As we live in their van with tinted windows, I start to tally the risks. An actual attempt to kill me? Unlikely, I know it’s unlikely because a death threat is to Khouri what an exclamation mark is to a writer – emphasis.

 

“I’M GONNA DIE IN BRIDGET JONES UNDERWEAR”

Yet my mind races. Could I die today? And if I do… it’s an odd thought, perhaps, but that old saying “Always wears nice underwear, just in case you’re hit by a bus” pops up in my mind. And I realise – Fuck! – that I should have followed that advice.

”Great! I’m gonna die wearing polka-dot underwear. ”And they’re big too, enormous like the ones in Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

After a weekend in a hotel, work advises me not to return home – they’re staking out my apartment and putting up motion detectors. I have to use Broadcasting House’s back entrance where armed guards meet me.

I can’t return to Södertälje, it’s too risky. I haven’t cried yet, but when the radio advertises my job I locked myself into a studio, sobbing as I crouch in a corner – I love my job, love being a beat reporter.

 

“I’M GONNA DIE IN NICE CLOTHES”

One afternoon, I spend a frightful amount of money on a designer coat. I should be saving money rather than spending it, just in case I have to flee abroad, but a voice in my head objects:

”If they’re gonna shoot me in the head, I’m gonna die in nice clothes.”

I move from one apartment to the next. I end up living with the alcoholic, who, when he’s also high, collect scraps of wood from nearby building sites. He says he can’t afford to buy real firewood, yet finds the money to buy gallons of red wine.

And that’s how I end up standing naked in a freezing bedroom to air out the toxic smoke, with water and wood chips spilled over my bed.

“I’m  not gonna die from smoke inhalation,” I think, and I move home. Learn the code to turn off the burglar alarm. Have nightmares about Khouri’s friends showing up, or shooting the people I’ve interviewed in the book. I dream that they find me, that my small panic-button device falls out of my hands, that I’m cornered.

 

”THEY’RE BAD MOUTHING MY FAMILY”

Every morning, I go to work and keep up appearances. And one day my nightmares start to materialise in a a panicked email from one of Khouri’s victims. She can’t sleep either.

She was always adamant that Khouri “needs to be taught proper manners”, but now she is too scared to be quoted in the book. Khouri’s friends are bad mouthing her family. Word’s out that they have spoken to me. Her email makes me crack. This time my crying is so violent that my boss sends me to a crisis therapist, to whom I snarl:

”That they come after me is one thing, but trying to intimidate my interviewees is unacceptable!”

Khouri, meanwhile, sends me a letter and denies he ever threatened me. He reminds me that I had wanted to interview his friends, that’s why he was ”sending them to you”.

That’s true. He has covered his tracks well. Bravo, Khouri, bravo.

While I’ve become to become wary rather than frightened, I need to be streetwise. Khouri has made it very clear what cannot go in the book, so my new publisher and I decide to keep the bit about Khouri’s childhood, but cross it out with black lines – to make a point about press freedom.

One thought plays on repeat. ”I too am following fucking orders.”

 

“Följ Fucking Order” was published by Mondial in spring 2018.