Tide of loss overwhelms Sweden's sense of paradise

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The great wave, which wreaked disaster around the Indian Ocean 10 days ago, brought its first cargo of death to the northern shores of Europe last night.

The great wave, which wreaked disaster around the Indian Ocean 10 days ago, brought its first cargo of death to the northern shores of Europe last night.

The first of what may be hundreds of coffins were being flown to Sweden from Thailand to be greeted at Stockholm's Arlanda airport early this morning with desperate, private grief and solemn, public mourning.

A Swedish military transport aircraft, carrying six coffins draped in blue and yellow flags, was due to be met by Prime Minister Goran Persson, King Carl Gustaf and Queen Silvia.

"We have just seen the beginning of a road of pain and sorrow," Mr Persson said. "We don't dare to think how many of those confirmed Swedish missing are dead."

Sweden faces a toll of at least 1,000 dead, and possibly more than 2,000 - at least half of whom are thought to be children. It looks likely to pay by far the largest price of any country outside the immediate region. A nation which once saw itself as a coddled sanctuary from misery is facing - not for the first time in recent years - the realisation that Swedes do not enjoy a charmed immunity from the perils and evils of the world.

Although the list of Swedish dead and missing remains confidential, press reports suggest that the tsunami will have torn a gaping hole in the professional and business classes of Sweden and their families. It emerged yesterday that one of Sweden's most successful businessmen, Mats Sävstam, of the Manpower company, died in hospital in Thailand three days after the disaster from pneumonia and exhaustion after searching in vain for his two missing teenage children. His 15-year-old son and his wife survived.

Other heart-rending stories have been surfacing every day.

"We have children who have been obliged to come home without their parents, who have no idea what has happened to their parents. We have parents who have had to come home without their children," said Vibeke Eriksson, 52, director of three schools in the pleasant suburb of Bromma, west of Stockholm city centre.

"We know that there are at least five or six families, or parts of families, missing from the Bromma district alone. That might mean 12 to 15 children. But there may be more. We just don't know."

The disaster has brought the best out of the Swedes - and the worst. There has been an impressive outpouring of solidarity, expressed not just in cash but in a determination that every grieving Swede, adult or child, should not have to grieve alone.

Despite the calamitous toll of Swedish known dead (52), missing presumed dead (827) and unaccounted for (1,495), there has also been enormous sympathy for Asian victims.

But there have been attacks on the government for reacting too slowly. It is almost as if Swedes, brought up to rely on a benevolent, all-seeing state, believe the government should have prevented the tsunami. At the very least, "they" should have foreseen the dangers of allowing a staggering 20,000 Swedes (from a population of 8,000,000) to abandon the traditional Christmas at home for the warmth of south-east Asia.

There has also been the startling admission by the Swedish authorities in recent days that they "dare not" publish the list of the dead and missing. If they did so, officials say, the homes of victims might be burgled and looted, as happened after the Estonia Baltic ferry disaster, which killed 551 Swedes in 1994.

As the Prime Minister suggested yesterday, the worst of Sweden's grief, and the worst of the recriminations, may be yet to come.

At Olofslund's primary school in Bromma yesterday children played ice hockey on a frozen playground. "We have a plan that all schools must adopt in situations of this kind," said Ms Eriksson, gently tapping with her finger a large black and yellow folder marked "Katastrophe".

"We will place lit candles and beautiful coverings on the desks of missing or dead children. We will talk to the pupils and explain what has happened. We will say poems and play music.

"There is a problem, however. This plan was devised to cope with the death of children, not with missing children. Will their bodies ever be found? It will be very hard. There is no closure."

Churches, offices, factories and community centres have reached out to the bereaved - or the probably bereaved - to make sure that individuals, or even families, do not grieve alone.

Sweden's sense of immunity - its belief that it had found the route to a rational, secular paradise - has been shaken in recent decades. There have been the assassinations of two leading politicians; there have been corruption scandals; there was the Estonia disaster. The welfare state has been rolled back and a sometimes harsh market economy has been unleashed.

"I think many of these people - my neighbours - went to Thailand believing that somehow Sweden still surrounded them and that they faced no danger. The magnitude of this catastrophe may change that," said Anders Mellbourn, 58, a resident of Bromma, who recently stepped down as president of Sweden's institute of international affairs.

The fact that many government officials were away from their desks explains the sometimes clumsy initial reaction to the calamity. There has been savage criticism of the foreign minister, Laila Freivalds, who went to the theatre in Stockholm, saying that she would keep her mobile phone switched on.

After a stumbling start - in which Sweden was not alone - there is no proof that Stockholm's reaction has been less efficient than those of other governments. They are organising, and paying for, the repatriation of victims.

Swedes, however, weaned on public service and lulled by a sense of private immunity, expect the state to deliver miracles, even in a faraway ocean on the other side of the globe.