Published February 7, 2017
Last month, a young woman who was last seen walking down Laugavegur early one Saturday morning disappeared without a trace. CCTV footage of her last known whereabouts depict a scene familiar to all Icelanders: she was walking downtown eating take-out after an evening on the town. What unfolded in the subsequent investigation was a nightmare that’s still gripping the whole country.
Here’s what we know: at some point on her walk along Laugavegur, Birna either got into or was taken into a red Kia Rio. Her mobile phone continued to produce a signal until it got to Hafnarfjörður, where the signal than switched off. Her boots were found near the harbour, and the largest search-and-rescue operation in Icelandic history was initiated. Of immediate interest to the police was the Greenlandic trawler Polar Nanoq, which had been docked in Hafnarfjörður that evening. A red Kia Rio had been rented by one of the ship’s crew, and subsequent surveillance footage of the area would show two crew members exit the car at the harbour, with one boarding the ship and another driving away. Traces of Birna’s blood were found in the car, and her ID was later found in a trash can on the ship. Days later, her body was discovered in a cove at Selvogsvita, west of Þorlákshöfn in southern Iceland. Police later ruled her death a homicide, and the two crew members are still in police custody at the time of this writing.
The story made international headlines, and in response, towns and villages all around Greenland expressed an outpouring of sympathy. But it was the local reaction—both amongst the general public and within the media—that truly reflects just how deeply this story has touched us, and how little experience we have with dealing with tragedies of this nature.
Icelanders across social media could not help but conduct investigations of their own, with some going so far as to demand answers on the Facebook page of the Polar Nanoq. Some media outlets engaged in open speculation, reporting on social media rumours and providing a live stream of Polar Nanoq as it returned to Iceland at the request of the police; and virtually any Icelander with an opinion was interviewed. Breaking from longstanding journalistic tradition, some outlets even released the names and photos of the suspects.
Police have pleaded with the press to show some discretion in this matter. Some city officials have responded to the case by suggesting more surveillance cameras, better security at nightclubs, and safety education for young women—although conspicuously absent is any mention that perhaps young men should be educated on the nature of consent, as Icelandic feminists have been quick to point out.
In many ways, the response is understandable. Birna could have been any of us. Almost all of us have, at some point or another, found ourselves walking downtown alone late on a weekend night. The murder itself also makes no sense, even given how little sense any murder makes: extraordinarily for Iceland, there was no connection between the victim and her alleged assailants, and it did not appear to have been planned. The tragedy is not only senseless: it defies explanation.
The weeks and possibly months to come will hopefully shed more light on exactly what happened. But we may never know why it happened. Whatever lessons we may glean from this tragedy, Birna’s family is left with a vacuum where this vibrant, all-too-relatable young woman, used to live.