Nordic noir turns dark reality in Iceland as vanished girl found dead in rare crime

 23 Jan 2017 - 22:10

Nordic noir turns dark reality in Iceland as vanished girl found dead in rare crime
This undated handout photo released by the Reykjavik Metropolitan Police shows the 20-year-old missing woman Birna Brjansdottir. The auburn-haired young woman was last seen around 5:00 am on January 14, 2017 after a night of drinking and partying in Reykjavik's bars

By Haukur Holm / AFP

Reykjavik:  Iceland was in mourning on Sunday after a young woman missing for eight days was found dead on a beach, in a rare crime that gripped the nation.

Police said in a statement on Sunday they were treating the case as murder, although "currently it is not possible to determine the cause of death".

But 20-year-old Birna Brjansdottir was found dead on a beach south of Reykjavik after more than 725 volunteers took part in the biggest search and rescue operation in Icelandic history, according to media.

Two Greenlandic sailors aged 25 and 30 have been held in connection with her disappearance, which happened on January 14 after a night of drinking in Reykjavik's bars.

Video surveillance footage around 5:00 am showed her stumbling through snowy and foggy streets by herself as she bought a kebab.

Her shoes were later found in the port of Hafnarfjordur, south of Reykjavik, not far from the dock where a Greenlandic trawler, the Polar Nanoq, was moored.

Video surveillance cameras also showed a small red car, a Kia Rio, parked near the vessel around 6:30 am -- identical to a vehicle observed near the spot where Brjansdottir was last seen.

The Polar Nanoq had lifted anchor just hours after the girl went missing but members of Iceland's elite police force, known as the Viking Squad, flew out to the ship by helicopter to question the crew.

The ship returned to Reykjavik and two sailors were taken into custody.

Traces of Bransdottir's blood were later found in the red car, which had been rented by the sailors.

A country of just 330,000 people, Iceland has registered an average of just 1.8 murders per year since 2001, according to police statistics. The killers are often under the influence of alcohol, or mentally unstable.

On this tranquil North Atlantic island, home to medieval stories of murders and barbaric beatings, the police patrol the streets unarmed and homicides are extremely rare.

"It's a really safe country, no war or anything like that. The crime rate is low," says Tomas Kjartansson, a 26-year-old salesman in a men's clothing shop.

And so the disappearance of 20-year-old Birna Brjansdottir captivated the country.

The media reported on little else in recent days, and a solemn march in her honour, tracing her last known steps, was held in Reykjavik on Wednesday.

Her shoes are found in the port of Hafnarfjordur, south of Reykjavik, not far from the dock where a Greenlandic trawler, the Polar Nanoq, is moored.

Her cell phone signal is later tracked to that area, where someone has turned it off.

Video surveillance cameras also show a small red car, a Kia Rio, parked near the vessel around 6:30 am -- identical to a vehicle observed near the spot where Brjansdottir was last seen.

The Polar Nanoq lifts anchor the same day.

The death will certainly go down in Iceland's crime annals, where police are better known for the selfies they post on Instagram than for their riveting investigations.

Crime, and especially violent crime, is extremely rare in Iceland.

The first time a police officer ever fired on a suspect was in December 2013, injuring him fatally.

A country of just 330,000 people, Iceland has registered an average of 1.8 murders per year since 2001, according to police statistics. The killers are often under the influence of alcohol, or mentally unstable.

And still: 2002 was particularly macabre with four homicides, while in 2003, 2006 and 2008 none were registered.

"We have always been a homogenous society and egalitarian," sociologist Helgi Gunnlaugsson explains to AFP.

"We are all one family and we all need each other. We have to stick together to survive on this island," he says.

Ironically, one of the world's top-selling crime writers is Iceland's own Arnaldur Indridason.

So does he have a wild imagination? Not really, according to his French translator, Eric Boury.

Iceland is "a society that... suppresses death. You have the feeling in Iceland that you can't die (violently) and yet you know that the wilderness is dangerous, that a volcano could suddenly destroy everything," he notes.

And, he adds, "this society is not really as pacific as it seems. There are problems with drugs and alcohol, serious alcohol problems. The social noir definitely has its place here."