'We saw her as one of us, a family person. We shall not see someone like her again'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

By the railway station bike rack where Anna Lindh used to leave her cycle, the face of the murdered Swedish foreign minister still looks out from a poster appealing for votes in today's referendum on euro membership.

Her death, and the wave of sympathy it has aroused, has suddenly given hope to the pro-euro cause for which she battled so hard. But in her home town of Nykoping the grief is personal, as the neat, picturesque community struggles to come to terms with the loss of a figure familiar not just from the TV but everyday life.

If ever there were a symbol of Sweden's open, egalitarian society, it was Ms Lindh. Most foreign ministers are chauffeured to work but Ms Lindh walked or cycled to the station to make the hour-long journey to her ministry in Stockholm. She carried a backpack rather than a briefcase.

Everywhere in Nykoping people have their own stories about her. One man says a friend once stopped to give the foreign minister a lift in his car as she ran for the station. Another recounts how Ms Lindh was ejected from her seat on the train because another passenger had pre-booked it; she sat on the floor and resumed work on her cabinet papers.

Lars Goran Bergman, a council spokesman, explains that Ms Lindh seemed to blend her roles of international personality and working mother.

"I saw her once in the supermarket on a Saturday afternoon," he said. "In a way it was astonishing to see a foreign minister there. Then the next day I turned on my television and there she was, meeting President Bush. She must have finished her shopping and got on a plane almost immediately." Although Ms Lindh's husband, former cabinet minister Bo Holmberg, is governor of the county of Sodermanland and entitled to an official residence, the family lives in an unostentatious detached house in Lilla Bergsgrand. Her two sons go to the local school (and Ms Lindh had a good record of attending parents' meetings).

Lena Larsen never spoke to Ms Lindh, but, as she laid a rose in the town's cobbled square, she said: "We really felt that we knew her. You would see her walking on her way back home or on her way to work. When people die, others usually speak well of them, but in the case of Anna Lindh it is all true; she was a good person."

Around 3,000 people have already queued to sign a book of condolence, many laying flowers or candles by the town hall. But the grief is greatest for family friends like Lasse Hedlund, a senior council official who worked closely with the foreign minister and her husband. Sitting in the town hall he fights tears as he says: "Every time I had the opportunity to meet her it was like taking a vitamin injection because she spread so much energy around her. She was the same person when talking to ordinary people or foreign ministers.

"I saw her as a hope for Sweden, she was someone for young people to look up to, and for young women in particular. I think all the people of Nykoping loved Anna irrespective of which political party they belong to."

Nykoping was, indeed, proud of Ms Lindh, who moved there in 1996 when her husband took over as governor. But she returned the compliment, recognising that the 800-year-old town, which lies at the confluence of a river and the Baltic Sea, is a good place to live.

So keen was Ms Lindh to promote Nykoping that she put it briefly on Europe's diplomatic map during Sweden's six-month presidency of the EU two years ago. Ms Lindh insisted on holding an informal meeting of Europe's foreign ministers there, overriding scepticism from foreign ministry colleagues that a sleepy town of 30,000 inhabitants could cope.

The gathering was a success and the informal atmosphere infected her guests including Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, who appeared at the photocall in a jumper.

In keeping with the Lindh style, the formal lunch for 28 ministers was held not in a restaurant but in the town's catering college, the Restaurangskola, for which the event in May 2001 was its "greatest day", according to the college's director, Siu Wallin. It was, she says, typical of Ms Lindh that she wanted to give an opportunity to teenage students to be involved in the town's big event.

Ms Lindh's brutal murder leaves Nykoping mourning the death both of its popular first citizen and of its belief that extraordinary jobs can be done by people who have ordinary lives.

"Anna wanted to be a normal person in Nykoping," said Ms Wallin, "and here we saw her as one of the inhabitants, a family person. Both for Sweden and for Nykoping it is a very great loss and we will not see someone like her again."