How Manchester Is Responding to Tragedy
Abdikail Geele hasn't slept much since the attack on the Manchester Arena which killed 22 people on Monday night. The 47-year-old taxi driver is haunted by the fact he had ferried people to what would become the site of a mass slaughter. "Somehow you feel, man, you were near there, you dropped people there, those people could die, you know? Although it's not my fault – I'm a taxi driver – you feel: why did you take these people there?" he said.
"I dropped 16 people there – four times. But the last four girls that I took, they were just like 16 years, 17 years… They sang a song for me by the singer. They were singing until we reached the place. So I remember these four young girls' faces – the smile, because we were chatting and joking until we reached the station. I dropped them there – exactly where they're saying the bomb happened… I was shocked. I couldn't sleep all night, man. And I remember these four girls, their faces in front of me, up to now. I was crying… It was a nightmare."
Now Abdikail was back at work, talking to me near a line of police tape at the latest incident. About quarter of an hour before a minute's silence was due to take place in St Anne's Square on Thursday morning, local media reported on a lockdown of Mancunian Way, Limby Street and Jackson Crescent, as a bomb disposal squad had been called to deal with a suspicious package at a college in Hulme.
"There were so many police cars. The helicopter woke me up," said Jacob Grigg, a 20-year-old student. "I'm kind of used to it now – they're everywhere."
The suspicious package was later deemed safe and the police cordon lifted. A man was arrested for cannabis possession.
An American journalist walked past me, talking to a colleague about pictures which showed "SWAT teams" near the scene. A local woman who didn't want to be named told me, "It's a lovely community. There's no racism or nothing – everyone's the same. Very down to earth… people are close… We won't look at people differently, will we?"
"No," said her neighbour, shaking her head. "You can't do that." People I spoke to tended to agree, bar one local, who had a different interpretation: "Fucking dirty, smelly, trampy Muslim cunts… we just need to stab all of them."
People hung around trying to work out what was happening, joking about being celebrities after making a statement to a camera crew.
This strange form of chaos has popped up in different parts of Manchester a few times since Monday night. The city has felt somewhat on edge as police raid buildings, vigils are held and people try to just "get on with it" while their communities are placed under an intense spotlight.
On Tuesday, 59-year-old Angela Barry – who lives on the corner of a cul-de-sac near Elsmore Road, Fallowfield, South Manchester – was shocked by the controlled explosion as armed police blew the doors off killer Salman Abedi's nearby house and raided it.
"There was a big loud bang and I just thought it was a crash, but when I walked out everybody came out of their houses at the same time, so I knew there was something up, and obviously I seen all this carry on down here," she said. "I looked at my grandson and said, 'What the hell was that?' He was like, 'It's a bomb, nana, it's a bomb, nana.' It affected everything – everything went off." Her kitchen floor caved in, she said.
I asked Angela about the area she'd lived in for 20-odd years, and where the Abedi family had reportedly lived for over a decade. "It's quiet. You don't get any problems round here. I've had no problems, anyway," she said. "[I'm] very surprised he came from this area. You don't expect it on your own doorstep, simple as."
On Wednesday, Elsmore Road and the surrounding area was a warren of activity. Journalists roamed the streets, collaring whichever locals they could find to glean some insight into the horrific murders of 22 innocent people at Monday's Ariana Grande concert, by a man trying to make a deranged political point. As police announced they were looking for a "network" behind the attack (eight arrests had been made by Thursday morning), Abedi's old haunts became the sites of frenzied interpretation. While there's still a sense of shock, people want answers.
Both ends of Elsmore Road – where Abedi lived – were marked off with police tape and blocked by rows of TV crews. A note on the door of a house immediately next to the police line told would-be doorsteppers: "STOP KNOCKING ON THIS DOOR! WE KNOW NOTHING ABOUT THE FAMILY!"
On Thelwall Avenue, Maryanne Jaha, 18, was eager to get her beef with the press off her chest. "[The article] has been taken down, but they said how my friend was saying [the Abedi family] only speak Arabic and they only dress in traditional clothes. They were making them out to be quite racist and stuff. But that was never the case," she said. "She clearly told them she's not seen it before – she's seen them walk by a few times but that was it. They made it look like something it wasn't, really."
It wasn't the first criticism to be made of a rapacious media. Dan Hett tweeted that he'd had to deal with over 50 journalists online while still trying to find out where his bother was. Two found his number and one dropped a note and business card through his letterbox. Martyn Hett was found dead on Tuesday night.
Didsbury Mosque, too, was the scene of a media scrum as the world's press gathered on Wednesday afternoon to hear from the leaders at the place where Abedi worshipped.
Journalists slowly burned in the sun in anticipation of a press statement, as push notifications from a news app buzzed on my phone, updating with the identities of the dead as they were confirmed. We were occasionally relieved by people from the mosque offering dates, bananas and water. The red-brick building used to be a church – something which was noted in a tweet that went viral with clear "gates of Vienna" overtones – but it's been a mosque since 1967 and is attended by members of the Libyan diaspora, among others. The "Libyan connection" in this case is a focus of the police investigation, as the chaos following the overthrowing of Gaddafi has turned the country into a recruiting ground for extremists.
Abedi's parents fled to the UK as opponents of Gaddafi. Salman's father and younger brother have now been arrested in Libya, while his older brother was arrested in Manchester. Libyan authorities have alleged that 20-year-old Hashem Abedi was planning an attack in Tripoli. Before his arrest, the father, Ramadan Abedi, denied his son's involvement in the attack.
Eventually, Fawzi Haffar, a trustee of the centre, read a prepared press statement. He said the attack had "shocked us all". The prayers of the centre were with the victims, he said, before thanking the police and emergency services, "as well as ordinary people… who provided assistance in the immediate aftermath of this atrocity".
"We welcome thousands of attendees – Muslims and non-Muslims. Every week this is happening," he said. He had assured everyone that Salman Abedi never worked at the mosque, as reported by "a very small section of the media [who] are manufacturing stories". In short, the mosque wished to distance itself from the heinous crime.
Haffar had been clear from the start that he wouldn't be taking further questions, but as he finished his speech a few gave it a shot. "Did he pray here?" a couple of journalists shouted. "Sir, why did you not report concerns about his extremism?" Haffar disappeared. No further questions. The press pack muttered in annoyance.
A few locals were hanging back from the scrum. Seventy-two-year-old Iqbal Sayeed, an attendee at the mosque, said, "The Imam and others are always speaking against ISIS – all the time, you know."
So he was surprised to hear the killer came from here? "Very much so. I don't think that anything of that kind happens in this place."
"Let me tell you something, I walk past this mosque every single day," said Adaobi Eachor, 34, a producer working at Media City, and a Christian. "I interact with my neighbours every single day. This is a mosque that has regular open days. They invite people who aren't even Muslims to come in and understand what it's all about so that there isn't an 'us' and 'them'."
Alice Cradduck, 22, lives just up the road. "I've been in this mosque before. The door's always open," she said. "You can get food and just speak to people – it's a real surprise because it's a really nice community, but then everyone's surprised, aren't they?"
Perhaps not everyone. Members of the Libyan diaspora claim to have been warning the authorities about extremist recruitment for years. Five times, Counter Terrorism agencies had been warned about Abedi. Two friends separately phoned the government's terrorism hotline after he said "being a suicide bomber was OK". Security services are now facing questions of their own. Concerns were reported. Why weren't they acted upon?
As people search for answers, some have their script prepared. Idiots on the right could barely wait to ascribe a "clash of civilisations" storyline to the attack. These malevolent screams are impacting people's lives already.
In his press statement, Mr Haffar noted: "We are concerned about reports we are receiving about anti-Muslim acts… ranging from verbal abuse to acts of criminal damage to mosques." Shortly after the Manchester atrocity, a mosque in Oldham was targeted by arsonists, in what's being reported as a revenge attack.
On Wednesday I spoke to student Najib Khan, 20, who was on his way through Whalley Range to a biology exam. "I am angry at what these Muslims have done… What they're doing has no basis in our religion," he said. "In the Muslim community, among the youth there's a lot of fear already. It's completely understandable, but it shouldn't be blind hatred – they should feel angry at the right people instead of innocent Muslims." He said he'd heard tell of a pregnant Muslim woman who had been kicked in the stomach by a racist and lost her baby. (The incident happened in September, but sentencing was on Wednesday.)
In Rusholme, an area of Manchester with a large Muslim community, recent graduate Sam Hussein, 23, described the Arena attack as "a disgrace to humanity", and said he had already noticed some backlash.
"You get a few dirty looks and people whisper stuff under their breath. Just now, as we were driving in the car, there was a guy in a truck who was looking over and shaking his head and stuff," he said. "And I was looking at him like, 'I've got the same view as you, I don't know why you're…?' Do you know what I mean? It's saddening that we have to try and defend [Islam]. 99.9 percent of people are against that because it's a crime against humanity."
Flipping burgers in a nearby van, Abid Hussain, 29, was dismissive of the idea of a backlash. "It's only a minority of people who would think like that," he said. "I've been serving customers for three years, I've worked in rough areas of London – people don't think like that. My dad came in the 1960s, everyone knows him in the area, they know how we're like… we all bleed the same, break the stereotype."
But as Britain raises its terror threat level to "critical" and soldiers are deployed to the streets for the first time in a decade under Operation Temperer, it's worth asking if any backlash is limited to enraged members of the public. While the failings of the security services have been noted, the current question is whether or not Theresa May will turn a temporary change to the threat level into a French style "security theatre". We can hope that troops on the streets – a measure that's mainly for show – or sub-machine-gun toting cops on trains won't become normalised.
In Rusholme I asked Sam if he had any concerns about security being ramped up. "I think it's a good thing," he said. "If you can prevent it happening in future you should. We all should. It should be a communal obligation."
So no worries about being profiled? "I think the racial profiling has been a problem for a while. It's a bit prejudiced," he said matter-of-factly. But at the same time, "It's good, to be fair, even if there's one in a million chance or one in a thousand chance that it does stop it, it's better than something going off."
His friend, Tahir Amir, 27, a worker at a shisha joint, butted in. "Are you saying it's alright?"
"We already get stopped anyway," replied Sam.
"Yeah, but why should we get stopped?"
"No we shouldn't, but…"
"Always. Sometimes you look at someone and you can already tell they've made their mind up about you, know what I mean? And we feel like we're not on that side – we were born here, they say we're not from here. They already think you're that type of person, which you're nothing like… We don't condone [the attack], it's wrong."
Prevent, the government's anti-extremism programme, has been criticised by a UN special rapporteur for "dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population" in a way that could actually be promoting extremism. When Prevent was introduced, funding was allocated based on the numbers of Muslims in an area. Official government responses to terrorism have framed terrorism as a Muslim thing. Any lurch to authoritarianism is likely to have consequences for minorities.
Most people I've spoken to over the last few days have had a different take: that, in Manchester, their communities are too strong to be sucked into hate. Let's hope the city sets an example for others to follow.