“Leaving Eritrea was the biggest mistake of my life.”
Convicted for fatally stabbing a mother and her child in a Swedish IKEA store, Abraham Ukbagabir is seeking to serve out his life sentence in his native country, Eritrea. But efforts to secure Abraham’s extradition have foundered, despite pleas from the Eritrean government. Sweden is concerned about Eritrea’s human rights record and the likelihood that Abraham will be tortured if he is returned. But Abraham is adamant about going home. “Whatever happens to me in Eritrea, I’ll accept it 100 percent,” Abraham said in the first interview he has granted to a journalist since committing murder three years ago. Would an extradition improve relations between the two countries and possibly pave the way for Sweden to secure the release of a Swedish journalist who has been held captive in Eritrea for more than a decade?
Av Martin Schibbye 16 mars, 2018
The maximum security Tidaholm Correctional Facility opened in 1959 and has since been expanded several times. Taller walls, more fences.
The icy road that from the Tidaholm bus station leads me to the maximum security prison with yellow walls and a red roof. Since its opening in 1959, Tidaholm Correctional Facility has been expanded several times as the government built taller walls and erected more fencing to better ensure that none of the hundreds of dangerous inmates that reside here can escape.
I get off the bus and walk up to the prison’s outer gate. I show my identification card and the gates buzz open. After I pass through all of the different levels of security, a prison guard leads me into a small visiting room with green walls, a window made of bullet-proof glass and a small bathroom. I sit down on a blue sofa with plastic covers.
“If you’re attacked, here’s the alarm,” the prison guard tells me, pointing at a button next to the floor. “We’ll be here quickly, a lot of us.”
The door slams shut.
I look out the window at the snow-covered ground outside. The first fence is a few meters away. A few meters beyond that is a gray inner wall. While I’m waiting, I think about all the news coverage that I saw about Abraham Ukbagabir after he, on Aug. 10, 2015, walked into the IKEA just outside of Västerås. He found the home goods department and picked up two sets of knives and pried the packaging open. The security cameras caught him struggling with the plastic while several customers strolled by, seemingly aloof to what he was doing. It took him nearly two minutes to get any of the knives out. Once he did, he darted toward a 58-year-old mother who was standing in an aisle with her 28-year-old son. Abraham stabbed her so hard in her stomach that the knife split a vertebra. As she bled out, Abraham stabbed her son, too. With both victims dead, Abraham tried to gut himself but was stopped and survived, though he spent several weeks at a hospital and in critical condition.
Suddenly, footsteps echo through the chamber outside the visiting room, followed by the sound of jangling keys. The door opens and Abraham steps into the room wearing grey overalls and green slippers. He looks healthier than the photos I saw of him during the trial. His hair is short and his face is freshly shaven. We shake hands and sit down.
Two months earlier, I was riding in the backseat of a car headed out of the Eritrean capital of Asmara with Abraham’s brother, Rober Berhene.
“In all honesty, I’m surprised that he’s alive,” Rober says. “Considering what he did, I was sure they’d beat him to death in prison. Europe seems so be different.” Rober continued, adding that “he (Abraham) told me he was very sorry for everything, but that I shouldn’t be worried.” Swedish prisons are like hotels compared to Eritrean ones. In Sweden, Abraham can work and has his own TV. “Unbelievable!” Rober says.
The cafés and bistros in Asmara are full of people. Palm trees line the broad boulevards leading out of the city. The streets we drive down are clean and orderly, but the malfunctioning traffic lights have caused bumper-to-bumper traffic in both directions.
Eritrea, a former Italian colony that ranks as one of the top origin countries for political asylum seekers in Sweden, is ruled by a totalitarian regime notorious for imprisoning journalists and critics of the government. One Swedish journalist, Dawit Isaak, has been imprisoned there without trial since 2001. Over the last 17 years, the Swedish government has tried unsuccessfully to extradite Dawit, but it’s not even clear that he’s alive.
Our car stops at an intersection. I look at the building facades around us and notice that the clocks on them have all stopped working. Plaster and paint flake off the walls and roofs and shutters hang slant.
“My brother Abraham left Eritrea when I was 12 years old; I remember it like it was yesterday,” Rober says as he drops his cell phone in his lap. He had been trying to dial his mother but the network was down, a common occurrence here.
As we leave suburban Asmara and roll further into the countryside, the roads get worse. A few days ago, I had tried to go south, to the Ethiopian border, to see where Abraham grew up, but was denied permission to travel there.
Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a brutal border war in the 1990s. The fighting resulted in as many as 100,000 casualties and spawned an exodus of refugees. One of them was Abraham’s father, who disappeared without any warning, leaving his family without its primary breadwinner.
“He either died in the war, or he left mother and all of us children and started a new life somewhere,” Rober says. “We don’t know.”
Rober wanted to think that his father was a matyr. “After our father disappeared everything was about surviving,” Rober says. “Abraham was the oldest son. Nobody had to tell him anything. Everyone knew what was expected of him.”
Abraham fled the Horn of Africa for Europe in the mid 2000s, soon after the last grenades exploded and the war came to an end. Rober was 12 years old.
“I remember that I was proud of my older brother,” Rober says. “We put all of our hopes in him.”
Dirt and branches scrape underneath the chassis as the car rolls down narrower and narrower roads. The driver slows down in front of a metal gate and a dog immediately starts to bark. Curious children fling open their gates and run outside to see who has arrived.
“Of course, people are going to talk,” Rober says. “My mother fell ill when she heard the news of my brother’s imprisonment. His actions have had an impact on the whole family, all of our relatives. It’s been hard.” He goes on, adding, “But that’s nothing compared to what the families of the victims must feel. It has to be horrible.”
Boher leads me into a stone courtyard. Shrubs grow out of the walls, on which someone has hung out wet clothing to dry. A fireplace is tucked into one corner. The dog, Goffy, is locked in a crate; he barks incessantly. Everywhere are buckets of water.
The courtyard leads up to a small house consisting of two rooms and a kitchen. Abraham’s mother, Okubit Tewerde, comes out to introduce herself and then invites me inside. More relatives show up. We sit down on a soft couch and chairs arranged around a small table. The sun peaks through the window.
When I first mention Abraham’s name, Okubit starts crying. After a few minutes, she collects herself, and begins to tell her story, starting with the war against Ethiopia and how, after her husband disappeared, she took a job as a maid in order to provide for her children.
“He [Abraham] became our hero when he fled to Europe. With the money he sent, we could survive,” she says. “He didn’t save anything for himself, but sent all his money to us. He took his responsibility.”
But Okubit thinks Europe was difficult for her son. He spent 10 years unsuccessfully trying to get asylum. Each denial caused him to sink further into despair.
“He did earn money, but he was never accepted in Europe,” Okubit says.
When she learned that her son had been arrested, she broke down. Abraham’s paternal grandfather, Teweide Zeme, is sitting next to her and nods.
“It was the worst day of my life. I ended up in the hospital,” she says. “The doctor tells me I need to get treatment abroad in order to get well, but the government won’t allow me to leave.”
Then she asks what it is her son has done. Why is he in prison?
After his application for asylum was declined, he fatally stabbed two people at a department store.
“So he didn’t know them?”
“Then it was an accident?”
Not exactly, it was…murder.
“Is it true that he was sentenced to 20 years in prison? That’s what people say here in the village.”
We don’t have such long sentences in Sweden. For murder, a
Person usually serves about eight years, or so. Twenty sounds very
“They were innocent people,” Okubit says. “I will pray for them day and night, I am ashamed and feel an enormous sorrow.”
Everyone in the room looks at Okubit. The tension becomes palpable, with everyone on the edge of their seats waiting to see what she will say next.
“I can’t find the words,” she finally says. “I am thinking of the families who have been affected much worse than my own child. God bless them!”
Three months before, Abraham had called his mother and told her he hoped to serve out his prison sentence in Eritrea.
“I will feel better if he comes here,” Okubit says. “I will find some consolation, happiness in that.”
But aren’t you worried about what could happen if he returned? The prisons are in such poor condition here. What if he gets tortured?
“So you mean Sweden cares more about him than Eritrea?” Rober asks.
Yes, that’s one way of looking at it.
“I will accept whatever happens to him if he comes back here,” Okubit says. “To see his face is worth everything. I just want to see him,” She looks down at the table. “I really appreciate that the Swedish government take care of my son as if it was their own child.”
The Swedish National Border Police have a list of countries that it will not deport people to. Eritrea is at the top of that list. In any case, should Abraham’s fortunes change and he is successfully transferred to a prison in Eritrea, he will likely serve much more prison time, under harsher conditions, than if he stays in Sweden. In Sweden he can also appeal for a shorter sentence.
“At this point, it is impossible to speculate what the situation will look like down the road, or when his life sentence will be changed. Based on this background the decision about deportation should be made now, and be re-tried at a later time, if there are obstacles in carrying the deportation.”
Abraham is widely believed to be one of the first Swedish inmates who actually wants to be transferred back to Eritrea. Usually, inmates who immigrated want to stay in Sweden because the prisons are better and safer, and they are afraid of what might happen to them if they are returned.
Abraham’s extradition is further complicated by the European Convention on Human rights, which states that it may be inhumane to send someone to a country where they could be killed or subjected to political persecution. Sweden encountered such a problem in the early 2000s when it deported two men to Egypt. Despite promises from the Egyptian authorities that the men would be treated humanely, they were both tortured. The National Border Police have said, however, that because Abraham’s deportation would be “voluntary,” his move back to Eritrea is a possibility.
Eritrea’s Minister of Justice, Fozia Hashim, says a transfer is possible if an agreement is signed with Sweden.
“In order for that to happen, we have to have an agreement with Sweden in place, and as of now, we don’t have one,” she says. “But it’s not impossible that we will get one soon.”
But hammering out that agreement is no easy task for several reasons, not least of which is because of the uneasy relationship between Sweden and Eritrea over the latter’s detention of Isaak, the journalist who has been held without trial for 6,000 days. Some wonder whether yielding to Eritrean demands to extradite Abraham would be a step toward reconciliation that could yield results in Sweden’s bid to free Isaak.
For the last few years, the Swedish government has tried to create common ground between the two nations. But Sweden’s efforts have been a delicate balancing act, trying to force Eritrea to admit that it has violated human rights without focusing so much international criticism on the country that government officials clam up and refuse to come to the negotiating table.
Extraditing Abraham would have two advantages. First, it would spare Sweden the costs of imprisoning him. Second, it would signal Sweden’s faith in the Eritrean judicial system and improve relations between the countries, increasing Sweden’s leverage over a regime that has so far bucked international standards for human rights.
Back in the Tidaholm visitation room, the water boiler comes on. I pour the hot water into two cups, stir in instant coffee powder and try to hand one of the cups to Abraham, but he shakes his head.
Abraham misses the coffee in Eritrea. He also misses the watermelon and the traditional spongy, injery bread. While he spends most of his time in his cell, he does get out to work in the prison packaging sandwiches and to exercise on a stationary bike.
“A day when I am sweating is a good day,” he says. “I think it’s good for me to work out as much as I can; sweating a lot makes me feel good.”
Last year, the prison guards at Hall Correctional Facility, another maximum security prison, where Abraham was being held at the time, found a sharpened toothbrush amongst the inmates. Suspecting that the weapon was to be used to kill Abraham, they stuck him in isolation. When I ask him about this, Abraham brushes it off.
“I am fine here. I’ve been thrown some punches a couple of times, but that’s how life is in prison,” he says. “I got beat up as a soldier in Eritrea, too.”
Outside, the outer wall blocks so much of the view that you’d almost have to press your nose against the window to make out the graying clouds that are starting to fill the sky. Abraham’s fidgets in his chair as he tells me about how growing up with a single mother was hard on him. But he doesn’t want to sound as if he’s complaining.
“Life was tough for everyone in Eritrea in the years after the war with Ethiopia,” he says. “We weren’t rich, but we didn’t starve either.”
The village Abraham grew up in is located close to the Ethiopian border, a couple of kilometers from Adi Begio, the cliff where the toughest battles played out in the two-year-long war that ended in 2000. He finished school in 1999 and was placed in the Navy. The pay was barely enough to support him, and definitely not enough to support his whole family. Life became increasingly difficult for him and his siblings, and the thought of fleeing to Europe took root.
“One day another soldier told me about Sweden,” Abraham says, straightening out his gray prison garb.
Abraham went first to Sudan with a friend, making sure to leave his weapons and other military-issued items at the base.
“I’m not a thief,” Abraham says. “I didn’t want to steal anything. I fled in order to support my family. I thought my superiors would understand.”
Several days passed before Abraham and his friend reached the border and crossed into Sudan. Several more days went by before they came across any hint of civilization. They avoided populated areas and even looped around a large UN refugee camp to be on the safe side.
“Our goal wasn’t to become refugees in a camp,” Abraham says. “The destination was Europe.”
They walked all day. At night, they talked about what life would be like once they reached Europe. Abraham’s friend had a sister with a store in Sweden. Maybe they could work there. Would she hire them both? Either way it was, if not a plan, a thought that gave them hope.
Once they made it to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, Abraham figured they had two choices. One was to buy a plane ticket; the other was to trudge through the Sahara Desert and Libya, and then across the Mediterranean by boat. After Abraham’s friend got a visa and left by plane, Abraham, who couldn’t afford the expensive travel option, decided to make the journey across the desert.
“I hesitated for a long time; I didn’t want to travel through the desert,” Abraham remembers. “I had heard the tales, heard about those who had died.”
During his murder trial, Abraham’s lawyer argued that he was suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder, a diagnosis that court-ordered psychological evaluations had apparently missed.
“What he has done is completely crazy,” one of his lawyers told the court. “He has to be suffering from something. He has been talking about peace and peacefulness and about dying in order to get to paradise. You don’t have to be an amateur psychologist to establish that doesn’t sound logical and sane.”
Abraham and I know that the prison allows limited visiting hours and that soon I will ask about something other than Abraham’s long journey to Sweden. But we’re not there just yet.
“We were 180 people on the boat across the Mediterranean, but I wasn’t scared,” Abraham says. “Libya was by far more dangerous, and when I saw the African shores fading into the distance, I focused. I stood a chance at making it to Europe. Maybe I wouldn’t make it, maybe I’d die on this journey, but that was in the hands of God. I was really on my way. That was the important part — to be moving.”
Eventually Abraham arrived in Italy, but decided to keep going. “There were so many rumors,” Abraham says. “I had heard that Italy wasn’t a good place for us refugees, and I wanted to head on.”
Before the Italian border patrol let him through, they took his fingerprints. Abraham didn’t think much about it then, but the information logged into that database went on to mold his life for the subsequent decade. The journey continued to England, where Abraham had a distant relative. At first, everything was going great, and Abraham found a job.
“Under the table, of course,” he says. “But I sucked it up and started sending money to my mother.”
During the first transfer, Abraham imagined what his mother might do with the money once it arrived. She could repair the house. She could buy food for his sister’s wedding.
The first time Abraham was arrested, in England, he realized that the fingerprints the border police had taken in Italy showed up in other law enforcement databases around Europe. Deportation was a fact. There was a second time, even if he was more cautious, he got caught again. The controls were intensifying. The third time he made it back to England, and tried to burn off his fingerprints with a lighter. But the pain was excruciating so he had to stop.
“I just couldn’t do it.”
Abraham fled to Norway and was sent back to Italy. He fled to Denmark and was sent back to Italy. Every time he cursed his hands. The years passed by. It became increasingly difficult to send money home. The thought of giving up and going back to Eritrea gnawed at him. The fact that he did not take his military-issued equipment could help prove that his reasons for fleeing were economical, and there was a chance that the Eritrean government would welcome him back.
“I know that if I apologize [for fleeing] they may accept me,” Abraham says. “The leadership knows how hard life can be.” He went on, adding, “I wasn’t politically active. I’ve never said anything bad about my country. I’m sure they’d accept it if I send a formal written apology.”
But when he told his family back in Eritrea about his plans to return, they urged him to stay in Sweden.
“’No, don’t come back. Stick it out! You have to stick it out!’” Abraham recalls them saying. “But I really wanted to go back home. I regretted leaving. It was a mistake. Europe was too hard. It was too hard to make it.”
Abraham hasn’t touched his coffee mug. We hear footsteps in the corridor outside. There are eight other inmates in his wing, all of whom are serving long prison terms. Abraham stretches his arms.
Some of the people he met during his journey from Eritrea to Europe had been allowed to stay in Germany and Holland. They were reunited with their families. Their children got to go to school. They got legal jobs. Abraham, meanwhile, spent that time running, always afraid of being deported yet again. His debt grew. Despite the hardship, he decided to give Europe on more chance. He headed for Sweden.
“I was the oldest,” Abraham says. “I had to accept my responsibility and try my best.”
In 2013, Abraham applied for asylum with the Swedish Migration Agency in Norrköping. He was optimistic about his chances after the interviews went well and he was placed in asylum housing.
“I started learning the language, took classes, got some small jobs,” Abraham says. “Waited.”
But he started watching in dismay as other Eritreans got asylum — seemingly immediately. Eritrea is considered such a repressive country that Sweden rarely requires refugees to prove that they have been threatened before granting asylum. So Abraham was all the more taken aback when his first denial arrived.
“When I got the first denial, I hid,” Abraham says. “I knew if I could stay underground for a while, I could reapply.”
While in hiding he couldn’t help but be afraid of being deported again, and he didn’t know how he would cope in the face of another denial for asylum. He had been denied asylum seven times in three countries. He thought about driving to Malta.
“There was a rumor that work was possible there,” Abraham says. “But it was an island down in the Mediterranean, far away, and I couldn’t afford to get there.”
On the morning of August 10, 2015, Abraham’s worst fears were realized. He was summoned to the Swedish Migration Agency’s office in Västerås and told he had to leave Sweden and return to Italy, where he had a permit to live temporarily. Later that day, Abraham went to IKEA and stabbed the mother and her son to death.
So what you did that day, why did you do it?
“I don’t know, the lack of a way out.”
But you murdered two completely innocent people. What are your
thoughts about that today?
“Shit happens! I understand it’s not a good thing, but I am trying to forget all of this.”
It’s not so easy for the victim’s families and others to forget. Many are
wondering why you did what you did?
“What can I say to them or do for them now? It’s done, and it cannot be undone. It is history.”
Some people speculate you did it because you wanted to stay in
Sweden, and now you are—in a prison. What would you tell them?
“That’s not how it is. That’s not good. It’s a misunderstanding. I didn’t understand the consequences. Today, I never would have done it. But now it is something I live with. It just is. That’s what happened.”
When we talk, I recognize the somewhat incoherent answers from the news coverage of the trial. He confessed to everything without excuses, but seemed confused and said strange things.
When Abraham was asked during the trial why he randomly attacked two strangers, he said “the idea was that they too would go to heaven and meet God.”
He also said, “When everyone else got to stay, but not me, then I felt like a crime was committed against me. To show that I was unfairly treated, and to get peace, I attacked someone.”
The district court that first handled Abraham’s case chose to give a psychiatric evaluation. The test found that Abraham did not suffer from a serious mental disorder, meaning could be sent to prison instead of a mental health facility.
Abraham was convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison. But because of Swedish law, Abraham will likely be paroled after several years, even though the court acknowledged that his crimes “must have caused extraordinary agony for the victims.”
Our visit is winding to an end. It has started snowing outside. I tell Abraham that the UN Commission on Human Rights has described Eritrean prisons as completely unacceptable, lawless even. Witnesses have spoken of food shortages, shoddy healthcare and long periods of isolation. Prisoners have reportedly been locked into shipping containers and put out in the sun to bake. But Abraham shrugs.
“I’m not afraid of being a prisoner in Eritrea. I know my country,” Abraham says. “Whatever happens there, I will accept it. God will decide.”
The Swedish Justice Department for Criminal Matters and International Judicial Cooperation (BIRS) is handling Abraham’s request to serve out the remainder of his sentence in Eritrea, but has so far refused to grant his request. Abraham wants the department to reconsider.
“It is simple: I just need a temporary passport,” Abraham says. “I can pay for the airline ticket myself. It is no problem. I have to get home, just have to.” He goes on, adding, “Whatever happens to me in Eritrea, I will accept it one hundred percent. Tell that you your government.”
I hear steps in the corridor.
“Leaving Eritrea was the biggest mistake of my life,” he says, looking out the window for the first time. “This country isn’t for me. I’ve done everything to get to stay, but now I have come to the realization that I don’t belong here. My place on this Earth is Eritrea.”
Introductory photo by Albin Olsson. Translation by Majsan Boström.