The pupil who declared war
Waiting for their English lesson to start at 11.45am on Wednesday, Joni Aaltonen and Nurmi Sameli sat on a bench in a corridor at Jokela high school. Close friends and both 17, in their penultimate year at school, the boys chatted.
The school loudspeakers crackled. The voice of the headteacher, Helena Kalmi, sounded an unusual warning to the 500 pupils: Get into your classrooms immediately, lock the doors, and hide.
“We thought it was a joke. We didn’t take it seriously. We ignored it,” said Joni. “Then we saw him coming.”
Pekka-Eric Auvinen, a student in the year above, came strolling along the corridor. The teenagers glanced at the familiar figure and carried on chatting.
“He walked towards us calmly and slowly. We didn’t really pay him any attention. Then he stopped about two metres away from me and my friend. I looked up. He was watching us. He lifted his arm. He pointed the gun at me and started shooting. The dude just pointed it at me and fired.”
Joni fled for his life through the corridors, making it to the staffroom, from where he and a teacher dashed out of the school to safety, away from a deranged teenager on a mission to write himself into European criminal history.
“We believed this kind of thing cannot happen here. In America, sure, maybe even in the UK, but not in Scandinavia,” said Jerzy Sarnecki, a professor at Stockholm University, one of Europe’s leading crime experts and a specialist in juvenile delinquency. “Obviously we were wrong.”
Twenty minutes after Joni fled, Auvinen lay slumped with a bullet to the head in a toilet beside the school canteen.
It was another 90 minutes before police found the gunman and put him in an ambulance to hospital, where he died eight hours later. Another eight people were dead, killed by the 69 bullets Auvinen discharged from his pistol.
Joni spent the rest of the day frantically calling and texting Nurmi Sameli on his mobile. It was Wednesday evening before a reporter from Ilta Sanomat, a Helsinki tabloid, told Joni that his best friend had been the first to die in the Jokela massacre.
It all happened very fast, said Joni. The confrontation with the gunman is scorched into his mind’s eye. It is Auvinen’s expression he remembers most. “He wasn’t laughing. He didn’t smile. His face was blank. The look on his face was really nothing.”
Wednesday’s bloodbath was Finland’s Dunblane , a moment frozen in the national psyche, jolting the taciturn middle classes of Finland out of complacency. “We have got used to feeling secure, and this event opens a crack that will last for a long time,” said the prime minister, Matti Vanhanen.
Government and church leaders called for a national debate urging parents and teachers to engage with their children and pupils.
A sparsely populated country of 5.3 million, Finland is broadly applauded as one of the most successful societies in the world, prized for its quality of life, economic prowess, and social equality.
There is also an underside – the highest firearms ownership rate in Europe, high suicide and murder rates, a high frequency of depression-related illnesses, and heavy drinking.
“Finnish society is a bit more violent than other parts of Scandinavia,” said Prof Sarnecki. Mirkka Lappalainen, a Helsinki University historian, noted recently that Finns’ predilection for violence goes back hundreds of years.
“Every week we Finns show that we are traditionally more brutal, and that is just sad,” he wrote last month, citing a medieval book, A History of the Northern Peoples, which said “because of their extreme recklessness, the Finns are not allowed to use weapons during peacetime”.
This week’s murders have spurred a debate about gun culture in a country that has the highest civilian firearms ownership rate in Europe.
The interior ministry rubbished foreign reports that focused on the ubiquity of guns in Finland – and suggested Auvinen had been questioned about his application for a firearms licence, obtained three weeks ago, and found to be mentally fit to own a gun.
“Applications for firearm permits must always be submitted to a police station in person,” it said. “The police assess the applicant’s personal characteristics by interviewing him or her. In addition, the police assess the applicant’s suitability to possess a firearm, his or her way of life, behaviour and possible mental health problems.”
“I just don’t know what happened,” said Marianna, a 16-year-old pupil wiping away tears as she laid a white rose at the closed school gates yesterday. “Obviously this guy was some kind of psychopath.”
That is the clear conclusion being drawn from the violence and from the extreme rantings and disturbing images Auvinen posted on the internet in the hours and days before he attacked his school and then killed himself.
Senior detectives investigating the case declined to confirm speculation in the Finnish media yesterday that the gunman may not have been acting alone, but may have been in contact with the American teenager, Dillon Cossey, who was arrested last month while allegedly planning an incident at his school.
“We have no evidence of a conspiracy,” said detective chief superintendent Jan Nyholm.
In a country that is arguably the most wired society in Europe, it is not surprising that Auvinen used social networking sites to announce his killing spree before taking almost 400 rounds of ammunition to the high school.
“If you’re a young person planning this kind of terrible thing, you’re doing it to make a point,” said Prof Sarnecki. “The internet is the perfect opportunity for that.” Apart from a YouTube video announcing the time and place of the assault on the morning before he went to school, Auvinen posted lengthy diatribes from his keyboard at his home – a yellow clapboard bungalow surrounded by birch, pine, and purple chrysanthemums five minutes from the scene of the crime.
“Hate. I am so full of it and I love it,” he wrote in his Manifesto of a Natural Selector. “I will eliminate all who I see unfit, disgraces of human race and failures of natural selection.”
The video and his postings were taken down from the internet as news of the atrocity filtered around the world, but not before more than 200,000 had accessed the bloodcurdling one-minute video.
But if scary, the desperate adolescent scribblings also sound like a cri de coeur, disturbing but heartbreaking pleas from a sad and lonely 18-year-old.
“I used to believe in humanity and I wanted to live a long and happy life,” he wrote. “You might ask yourselves, why did I do this and what do I want. Well, most of you are too arrogant and closed-minded to understand … You will probably say I am ‘insane’, ‘crazy’, ‘psychopath’, ‘criminal’ or crap like that. No… This is my war, my ideas and my plans. Don’t blame anyone else for my actions than myself. Don’t blame my parents or my friends. I told nobody about my plans and I always kept them inside my mind only.
“Don’t blame the movies I see, the music I hear, the games I play or the books I read.”
A solitary youth, said to have been spurned and bullied by his peers, Auvinen appeared to choose his victims, not as individuals, but only by age and gender. Like Nurmi Salemi, they were mainly boys around his own age; five of them, aged 16-18. The other three killed were all adult women: the headteacher, the school nurse, and a 25-year-old mother of two who had re-enrolled in the school to complete her education. He did not shoot at girls or younger pupils when he entered their classrooms, instead raking windows or teaching equipment with gunfire.
Police investigators described Auvinen as “lonely and angry”, and from “an ordinary family”. The family garden was sodden with sleet yesterday, three bikes lying in the open, the curtains and shutters closed, police guards blocking access. The street was hushed, the neighbours tightlipped.
Auvinen’s father Ismo, who has worked on the Finnish railways for decades, is also a guitarist in rock and jazz bands, with his wife, Mikaela, a vocalist. There is a younger brother.
The bungalow and the garden are well kept, modestly sized, seemingly a patch of suburban comfort in a dormitory town for people taking the train to work in Helsinki, less than an hour to the south.”It’s such a quiet, well-to-do place; that’s why people move here from Helsinki,” said Mika Parkkonen, a TV journalist and former Moscow correspondent who lives in Jokela.
He was trapped for three hours in the crossfire at the siege of Beslan in Russia three years ago. Traumatised, he moved here afterwards for a quiet life.
“This is the last place you’d expect this. It’s very emotional for us.”
Now all of Jokela is traumatised. Parents, friends, and pupils continued to show up at the schoolgates by a freezing pond yesterday to light candles, and leave flowers and notes in the sleet.
A yellow card with a red heart was dedicated to three of the boys who were killed: “Mikko, Ari, Ville, We miss you so much.”
“We are not very good at finding the frustrated among our young people,” sighed Prof Sarnecki.
Joni Aaltonen said he had spent 48 hours thinking since his brush with death.
“It’s really hard to handle. Nurmi was my best friend, a really great guy. My friend was the first victim.” Autor: Ian Traynor