Somethind died with Silje: Does the killing of five-year-old Silje Marie Redergaard by her own playmates mark the end of Norway's innocence? Imre Karacs reports from Trondheim

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CANDLES burn day and night at Silje's icy shrine. Ringed by knee-high banks of snow to protect them from the wind, the flames flicker in seven circles on the spot where the five-year-old Norwegian girl met her death last Saturday.

Murdered or simply bullied to death by her playmates - two boys aged six and one aged five - Silje Marie Redergaard's tragic fate has stunned Norway's placid society. A country that exults in its orderly ways, child-centric attitudes and minimal crime rate is mourning its lost innocence.

The response to the killing has been sweeping. Norway's famed welfare state has mobilised its vast resources to contain what is being treated almost as a natural catastrophe. Schools have been told to warn pupils of the dangers of bullying; helplines have been set up for parents concerned that their own children may be potential murderers. The Lutheran Church weighed in yesterday with a 'solidarity service'.

The agony is felt most deeply in Silje's home town. Proud Trondheim - the former capital of the Vikings - is aggrieved by comparisons with the murder in Liverpool of James Bulger, who died at the hands of two young boys.

Trondheim resents finding itself twinned by fate with Liverpool.

The town wants to close in on itself. The customary polite indifference accorded to outsiders turns to hostility when the townspeople are questioned about Silje's death. A mother of two confesses she has stopped reading the newspapers and watching television. 'It's so horrible we don't want to know it happened,' she says.

But it did happen. Silje's last journey began at about 3 o'clock last Saturday afternoon. As the ground vanished beneath winter's first snow, she set out alone for the copse of pine trees behind her home in the dormitory village of Rosten on the edge of Trondheim.

Her parents had no cause to worry. Rosten's wooden terraced houses and apartment blocks for lower-middle class families with small children were built next to the forest. Crime was virtually unknown. Cars coming off the main road are slowed down first by signs ordaining a 30 kilometre-per-hour (18mph) speed limit, then by humps, and, finally, they are forced to a halt by a barrier. The dangers that lurk in Europe's urban jungles are almost unheard of in Norway.

Silje walked about 100 yards from her block of flats, climbed a steep ridge covered with pines and jumped across a ditch towards the football field. Her three best friends, living in the neighbourhood in families as stable and ordinary as her own, were already there, playing in the snow.

What followed will never be fully known, because the only witnesses are also the perpetrators and they are too young to provide a coherent picture. What seems to have happened is that they were play-acting a fight which stopped being a game and turned violent.

Silje took off in fright but was tripped up by one of the boys. She fell into a puddle, lost her boots, and her coat was pulled off as she got up.

Again she tried to run away but at least one of the boys caught up with her and, ignoring her screams, kept kicking and hitting her. When she faded out of consciousness, the boys left her and raced back to their homes.

One of the boys eventually alerted his mother, describing the crime in vivid detail but projecting it on to unknown teenagers. By the time the ambulance arrived, Silje was dead. Only several days later did the autopsy reveal that she had died not of her injuries, but of exposure.

One could almost hear a collective sigh of relief in Trondheim as the headline 'Silje froze to death' flashed across the nation's television screens. The Norwegian press, which had never used the word 'murder' in its reports, felt vindicated. So did the head of the criminal investigations department of Trondheim police, Harald Moholt, who maintained throughout that his force was investigating an 'accident between friends'. 'There are no suspects in this case, only victims,' he told the Independent.

'This is a peaceful town,' Mr Moholt continued. 'I have heard about the Bulger case and similar cases in the United States, but such a thing could never happen here in Scandinavia - not even in Sweden. These boys don't understand what they have done. When we try to interrogate them they are easily distracted. They sing children's songs and talk about all sorts of other things.'

If Trondheim's police feel relieved that its enviable crime rate - two murders in six years for a town of 135,000 - has remained untarnished, that sentiment is not shared by politicians in Oslo. In efficient Norway there had to be a rational reason why well-brought-up children would behave in such a way. Inevitably, the focus fell on television - especially foreign television. As early as Monday, before the viewing habits of the three boys could have been known, Norway's Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, was blaming violent programmes. After demonstrations in Sweden the Scandinavian commercial channel TV3, which beams its programmes from London, pulled the cartoon series Power Rangers from its schedules. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are next in line.

'It's not good that small children watch all that television,' says Nina Heilmann, of Rosten social services. 'They are too young to understand the difference. The hero gets up and walks away after being shot. It's not like that in real life.'

The Norwegian media have latched on to another convenient explanation for Silje's violent death. Newspapers have suggested that the ringleader in the attack may suffer from a condition known as 'minimal-brain-dysfunction', which may explain his aggression. But this is contested by social workers and psychologists.

Everyone is closing ranks. No one is prepared to argue that there may be something rotten in Trondheim. They may be right. Despite its reluctance to discuss the little girl's death with outsiders, the town's response to this killing is more considered, sympathetic and balanced than the moral outcry that followed James Bulger's murder. The town is dripping with warmth; this tragic death was not an incarnation of evil. That perhaps makes it all the more difficult to explain why it happened.

Whatever caused the tragedy, it is Ms Heilmann's task now to pick up the pieces. The four families have each been assigned a counsellor; Silje's parents, submerged in a torrent of sympathetic outpourings, have been supplied with a telephone answering machine; for the neighbourhood there are daily discussions and group therapy sessions.

The three boys must endure their guilt for the rest of their lives. They will receive psychiatric help but will not be tried or locked up. According to Norwegian law children under 15 cannot be prosecuted for criminal offences. There is talk of giving them free places in the local kindergarten until they start school at seven.

'I can forgive the children who killed my daughter,' Silje's mother told the Norwegian daily Dagbladet. 'It's not possible to hate small children. They can't understand the gravity of what they have done . . . We have no plans to move. We like living in this area.'

Every afternoon the children of Rosten amble up to the clearing in groups of two or three as they return from school. Some kneel in front of the dug-outs, gazing vacantly at the flames or reading the numerous letters and poems from friends and family. Others arrive with poems of their own - poems about their sadness, their anger and their love for a little girl they had barely noticed before. There are roses, carnations and crayon sketches drawn by tiny unsteady hands. Soon they will have to excavate more holes in the snow to accommodate all the offerings.

'We don't play there any more,' says Axel, a 13-year-old boy. As he speaks, two six-year-olds, oblivious to the sadness all around them, crash down the slope, their shrieks of joy piercing the silence. They are too young to understand grief.

(Photograph omitted)

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