Afloat but in despair

When the Estonia sank a year ago, one Swedish town lost 60 elderly people. Annika Savill finds out how it survived
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In tranquil Norrkoping, with its stone houses painted a soothing yellow, lies visible the healing process of a nation. A year ago today, part of a generation was wiped out when 60 of the town's older citizens perished in the icy Baltic, the largest single group of passengers to die in the wreck of the Estonia.

The recovery has been remarkable, but the wounds still open all too easily. Tonight the wounds will feel raw again, as Norrkoping, which once made snuff and textiles, unveils the nearest thing to a grave its shipwrecked citizens will ever have. On the broad Motala Canal, which runs to the sea in which 900 lost their lives, will stand a monument with a plaque bearing 61 names, nearly all of them parents and grandparents of people in this typical Swedish town.

Annell Nordin lost both her parents. Her father was a pensioner, her mother an assistant nurse still in her fifties. Annell was their only child. She was expecting her first baby less than two weeks after the disaster. "At times, it feels like only three months have passed," she says. "But I've learnt that instead of talking about one year of mourning, we may be talking about two or three, or more.

"I'm not looking forward to the unveiling of the monument," she admits. "You work yourself into a state before each of these milestone occasions, so that the days leading up to them are worse than the event itself. And then the fact that it's one year ago is, in itself, painful."

That Annell and others will never physically bury their dead is now a certainty. Last week the government confirmed that the wreck of the ferry, which was returning to Stockholm after a routine pleasure cruise to Talinn in Estonia, is to be encased in a dome of concrete on the ocean floor. It is the most affordable and efficient way to preserve the wreck in sanctity from souvenir collectors and opportunistic divers.

The bereaved of Norrkoping have accepted the decision with grace and realism. This prompted bitterness from groups of relatives in the rest of Sweden who believe that the town has had an easier time because their dead were old people anyway.

"You could say that we in Norrkoping had a different kind of dead, in that they might well have died within a foreseeable future. But - that Mum and Dad should go away on a Monday and then simply never come home - I mean, parents are simply not supposed to do things like that.

"At first I was angry and determined that they should recover them," she says. "The prime minister had practically promised. Even if they only got one of them up, I felt they should at least make an honest attempt. I think we all felt that way.

"But I then started feeling that to retrieve the bodies so long afterwards would mean an entirely new and different grieving process all over again, with individual burials and so on."

It might have been expected that a nation built on Viking and Hanseatic seafaring should have borne with stoicism the loss of its people at sea without a burial. But two centuries of peace, and more than 50 years of security under social democratic rule, have led the Swedes to expect the hand of the welfare state to protect them.

Across the water in the nation of Estonia, from where the second largest group of victims came, demands for a recovery of the dead were far more muted. "They still have the tradition that what the sea takes away, it should keep," says Annell.

What seems to be a key to the recovery in Norrkoping is the remarkably solid support network of counsellors, social services, clergy, and not least, the pensioners' own organisation, the PRO. Its Norrkoping chapter organised the outing that took the lives of Annell's parents and some 50 others. They went for fun, tax-free goods and a glimpse behind the former iron curtain in Estonia.

A pillar of the group is Karin, a lively septuagenarian, who lost her best friend in the disaster. Karin was to have gone on the journey, too, but cancelled at the last moment because of an optician's appointment. Last year she bore the brunt of the work at the PRO crisis centre set up as news of the disaster hit home. There was anger as relatives absorbed the shock and sought guidance from social workers and police.

Karin is still to be found at the PRO offices, but does not want to talk about the disaster. She gives me a kindly smile when I arrive, but leaves almost immediately.

"It is still with us today, there is always something to remind us." says Erland Jonsson, chairman of the chapter. "The constant media reminders have been extremely trying. Our travel programme crashed entirely. Nobody wanted to travel any more, not just ferries but buses, too. Travel was our main activity, and our main source of income. It's been a very hard year."

Although Norrkoping is now starting to travel again, people are still cautious about ferries and often wary when asked to reflect on their feelings about the disaster.

A retired engine-driver, Erland, joins the quiet consensus in favour of encasing the mass tomb: "It's a good thing. I think we all feel that way. We have to have a full stop and a grave somewhere, an end to it. To raise the whole thing would have been impossible and dangerous."

Norrkoping's 27-person contact group of counsellors, social workers and clergy, has ensured that nobody has been allowed to fall through the net. The most difficult periods, Christmas and summer holidays when families would otherwise have been together, prompted a redoubling of efforts.

Annell attended one-to-one counselling, as well as group sessions led by the church, where participants have been encouraged to "relive each phase - the night itself, the first week after, the first memorial service".

"After the first weeks and months, you've exhausted all your nearest friends and relatives. People stop asking how you are - or if they do, they want to hear that you're all right. And you feel that you want to have recovered sufficiently not to bother them. Yet that is in a way when you most need help - the summer holidays when you have so much time, and then my mother's birthday was in May and my father's in August.

That experience seems almost universal. "For the first few months, I didn't have to do my cooking or laundry because the neighbours were intent on doing it for me," said another bereaved woman. "But by April or May, they weren't offering any more."

Harrowing mental pictures of a loved one trapped in a virtual city of a boat turned on its side in the dark, or drowning in icy waters, still form the enemy to be kept at bay. "What you think about is how they felt: if they were awake, or struck unconscious so they didn't have to experience the nightmare," says Annell. "I am still caught up in those thoughts."

What people have had to do is create a picture of their relatives' deaths that they can live with. "Many want the dead to remain undisturbed so they keep imagining how they wanted it to be - Mum and Dad lying peacefully in the cabin holding hands, for instance," says Mats Swahn, a social service co-ordinator.

Yet there is no escape from the awful reality. A recent newspaper report carried admissions from captains of boats that stood by on the scene that night, refusing to lower lifeboats to the drowning because of the risk to their crews. Eyewitness accounts of "the whole sea screaming" at 1am would provide almost unbearable reading for anyone, let alone people such as Annell.

Her daughter was born five weeks after the tragedy, and by the beginning of this year she had become strong enough to convene a core group of bereaved for regular meetings. It has since flourished into the town's more than 100-strong association of relatives, of which she is chairman.

Her life appears to be coming together, but the organisation often seems only to be skin deep. Before the tragedy, she had just started a year's study to become a schoolteacher, and is completing the course on schedule. She and her husband are about to move for the second time in a year, to make room for the family belongings she inherited and does not want to sell.

A good dose of gallows humour forms part of her armoury to fend off depression. "I told my uncle that Dad didn't die alone as he used to fear - he died at summer camp with his mates. My uncle didn't like that, but I feel that as I'm the one who is `most affected' I am entitled to joke about it."

As we walk amid still, lush greenery along the canal, she quips: "I can pose holding on to this lifebuoy if you like." And for a strange moment, it is as though the words from St John's Revelations come to life: and the leaves of the trees on either side of the river were indeed for the healing of the nation.

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