A 12-year-old Somali refugee drowned in the River Irwell in 2019. Suspicion and rumour soon followed – quicker than the truth.
It was an uncharacteristically hot afternoon, at the end of June 2019, in Bury, Greater Manchester. For a place better accustomed to grey skies and rain, the 24-degree heat was a welcome anomaly, and the town was feeling it – people were out having picnics, sitting outside in their lunch hour, and in the town centre, a group of children were ambling around, dreaming up a plan to go to the nearby river.
One of them was a 12-year-old Somali refugee called Shukri Abdi. She joined her schoolmates after school, skipping athletics practice, and walked with them to the banks of the Irwell, a river that skirts through Bury. Three children stayed on the rocks, and two – Shukri and another child – got into the water.
And everything seemed fine – until it wasn’t. Around five hours after first getting in, Shukri Abdi’s body was recovered by police from a deep section of water beside a weir, which the children had called a waterfall. And as soon as the news broke in the local community, a narrative started to take hold: that Shukri had been bullied to go to the river with racist classmates who pushed her in; that she had been bitten and coerced. And that when the police did finally arrive, they covered it up – refusing to properly investigate what happened.
It was a narrative that travelled far and wide on social media, appearing to be emblematic of British society, with its documented and deep-seated problems with institutional racism in schools, the police and the courts, and where refugees are maligned and have little access to justice. When I first came across the story, as a journalist of Somali origin myself, this was the story I wanted to investigate, to expose the injustice.
But as I interviewed Shukri’s friends, campaigners, police officers, and witnesses, I came to understand a different story of what had happened that day. One that is no less revealing about what is wrong with multicultural Britain. It’s a story I’ve been harassed for reporting, and abused for on social media. But it’s a story about the truth, and the difficult line between journalism and activism.
To understand how the narrative formed that Shukri Abdi’s death was emblematic of the racism embedded in British society, understanding the relationship that the local community had to the school, Broad Oak Sports College, and Greater Manchester Police, is crucial. Deep mistrust of these institutions created fertile ground for rumours, where narratives travelled and gained traction online because they were plausible – they tallied with the experiences of the Black community in Bury and beyond.
Born in a refugee camp in Kenya, Shukri Abdi, her mother Zamzam Canab Ture, and her four siblings arrived in the UK in 2017 and were settled in Bury.
Shukri started at Broad Oak Sports College that same year, aged 11. She was funny and boisterous, but could also be shy and reserved. She was a Black, Muslim refugee, and she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up – she wanted to make her mum proud. But the school she joined was notorious in Bury: the year after she enrolled it was rated “inadequate” by Ofsted and put into special measures. In 2019, the year Shukri died, it was ranked near the bottom – 3,033 out of 3,166 – for schools across the whole country by the Manchester Evening News. Among the community, it was said to have problems with racism and bullying.
Shukri’s mum, Zamzam, revealed in the weeks after Shukri’s body was found that her daughter had been targeted by bullies. In interviews, she said Shukri would come home each day complaining about abuse – that she had been pushed into the road, and that other children had stamped on her toes. According to Zamzam, the situation became so bad that she made two formal complaints to the school, but nothing was ever done.
Numerous students I spoke to corroborated the claim that the school had long-standing issues with racism that it had failed to address. Aleena, 19, who asked us not to use her surname, was a student at Broad Oak Sports College and one of Shukri’s first friends at school. She said that the threats and racism were so bad that she stopped wanting to attend. “None of us did, we all just hated school, absolutely hated it.” She said she was called names, too. “They’d say just such awful racist stuff like ‘Oh, you p-word, go back to your own country, go eat your curries,’ just really horrible stuff.”
Like Shukri’s mother, she alerted the school to what was happening – getting her friends to confirm what was happening to her at break times and in class – but promises from the teachers to deal with the bullying she experienced never materialised.
Another student, who asked not to be identified, said she thought for children like Shukri the racial tensions at the school would have made it difficult to make friends. She said students self-segregated. “They are all separated. They still are. I would say that all whites are separate, browns are separate, and blacks are separate”. Another student who asked to remain anonymous said it was around 2017, when Shukri joined, that tensions got worse at Broad Oak, with students asking “Why are they coming here?” in reference to migrants and refugees.
Suspicions were compounded when, two months after Shukri’s death, the school was suddenly shut down, turned into an academy and given a new name – Hazel Wood High School – with a new uniform to boot. This was an entirely standard response to a school with poor results getting an “inadequate” finding from Ofsted, the inspectorate. But, in the community, it was seen as part of an attempt to shirk responsibility, and cover up the truth of what had happened to Shukri Abdi.
All of these factors contributed to a feeling in the local community that it was completely possible that this Black Muslim girl could have been bullied to death. And this idea became even more believable after the police response.
Just eight hours after her body was recovered, Greater Manchester Police sent out a press release stating that the 12-year-old’s death was an “incredibly tragic incident”, but that “there are not believed to be any suspicious circumstances at this time”.
How could they have possibly known? By that point, they hadn’t interviewed all the children present that afternoon. In the local community, it was further evidence, as if any more were needed, that the authorities were not working for Shukri, her family, or the local community.
For any police force, this preemptive announcement would have been met with scepticism – but Greater Manchester Police, in particular, is already considered a poorly run force. Last year, the police inspectorate said that GMP had failed to properly record the details of 80,000 crimes in a single year.
GMP is also a force that has, at best, a precarious – at worst, an actively hostile – relationship with communities of colour in the city. It goes back decades. In 1998, the then chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, David Wilmott, admitted that his own force was institutionally racist.
Twenty-three years later, Black people are still three-and-a-half times more likely to have force used against them and six times more likely to be stopped and searched by the Greater Manchester Police than white people. The GMP were seven times more likely to use firearms, six times more likely to use shields, and five times more likely to use irritant spray against Black people. In almost every instance of force being deployed it was disproportionately used against Black people.
And this data has a material impact on the way that people of colour view the police. Idiris Sheikhnur, an activist from Manchester who helped organise a protest on the one year anniversary of Shukri’s death, said: “[During] a lot of my high school years we had police officers at the reception when we were coming in. Or around the park when we were leaving the school. Already we saw racialised policing and kind of monitoring of your character. It’s almost like from an early age, you’re kind of taught that you kind of have to watch your step because if you don’t the forces of the state will collapse on you.”
It wasn’t just locally that tensions were high. Nationally, the discourse around refugees and asylum seekers was particularly fraught. In June 2019, Boris Johnson was preparing for a leadership election, he was in full campaign mode, talking enthusiastically about cracking down on immigration while Brexit was dominating the headlines.
And in the absence of a timely and transparent examination of the facts, the suspicion and mistrust already present in the community began to crystallise into a narrative, fuelled, in large part, on social media by concerned communities and activists.
Zamzam, Shukri’s mum, gave an interview that went viral on social media. In it, she looked overwhelmed, exhausted and heartbroken. She tells a young Somali woman, sitting beside her, that she’s been denied the truth and has been offered no support by the police or the school. And when she’s asked what she wants, she responds, simply: “I want justice. If the rights we came to this country for exist, I want something done.”
The Twitter thread was retweeted 25,000 times. It was a turning point, propelling the story to the national stage. The story was settled: that something malevolent had happened to Shukri, that she had been forced into the water, that she had bite marks on her body, that she was found wearing an abaya, an Islamic dress, that she had been pushed into the water. Each rumour strengthened a powerful story: that Shukri Abdi had been killed in a racist attack, and that her school and the police had covered up the crime.
In those first few weeks, filled with confusion, grief and anger, campaigners came to Shukri’s family’s door with their advice and support, which became a campaign, called Justice 4 Shukri. It was headed by a woman called Maz Saleem, by all accounts a fierce and committed campaigner. She’s been calling for a definition of Islamophobia for years – as well as campaigning to get her father’s murder at the hands of a neo-Nazi recognised as an act of terrorism. If anyone understands grief and injustice, it’s her.
But after she became the leader of the central Justice 4 Shukri campaign – calling for an investigation into the bullying at Broad Oak Sports College, an investigation into the police response, and for a full inquest to make way for a criminal trial into Shukri’s death – people started noticing how isolated the family were becoming.
Sofia, who asked us not to use her surname, had been checking up on Zamzam daily, bringing her food and offering her emotional support. “It was me and the rest of my sisters. We shared the days, like if I gave her food one day, you give it tomorrow. As a Muslim, we have to support each other.” She said that, during this time, Zamzam unexpectedly moved house and left the area altogether without warning. Afterwards, it became very difficult to get back into contact with her. “If we needed to speak with Zamzam, we had to ask permission from Maz. Why? She’s not a secretary, or she’s not kind of anything. To be honest, it’s not just only me, it’s a lot of other people in the community. Maz just wants to stay on top. That’s it.”
Some of Shukri’s friends from school said that they experienced bullying from people with close connections to the campaign. They said that, soon after Maz and other activists had gleaned information from them and had set themselves up as the official voice of the family, they found themselves blocked on WhatsApp. Within a couple of months, the only people with direct access to the family was the central campaign team, led by Maz Saleem.
By the time the inquest into the death of Shukri Abdi started, on 24 February last year in Heywood, Rochdale, the campaigners were running the show. On the first day of the proceedings, due to last five days, everyone filed in, Shukri’s family and friends, witnesses, the media and the general public. The room was quiet, all you could hear was the lawyers quietly conferring with one another, the sound of their papers rustling and the squeak of the chairs on the hardwood floor.
One by one, witnesses were being called to tell their account of what happened on the day Shukri died. Shukri’s teachers, the fishermen on the scene, paramedics, police officers, all the children who were there on the day, a forensic pathologist – anyone and everyone who could give insight.
This is where I witnessed the territoriality of the activists at first hand. As Zamzam’s main language was Somali, she only spoke a little English, a translator was hired by the court to convey her evidence in English. But very soon it was clear to me that he was doing a poor job. It was so striking that even non-Somali speakers could tell something was up: Zamzam would give long answers, and the English translation was just a couple of sentences long. Another Somali journalist and I alerted the court, and the coroner had Zamzam’s testimony re-translated – to find out that only 40 percent of her evidence had been translated to the court.
But Maz Saleem and the family’s solicitor, Attiq Malik, were not happy. They approached me during the hearings, and asked me why I hadn’t come to them to flag the translation problems, instead of alerting the coroner. Later on in the week, Maz Saleem pulled me to the side and asked, furiously, if I knew that I potentially jeopardised the inquest, stating that I had acted unprofessionally by flagging up the translation issues, that I had broken media rules, and that she wanted to lodge a complaint against me to my editor.
It wasn’t true – I hadn’t broken media rules. And I was left with an uneasy feeling. If the goal of the inquest was to find the truth – it is, after all, by definition a fact-finding mission – then why would the campaign, and the family’s lawyer, have a problem with building as a full picture of what happened that day to Shukri? I wondered at the time whether it was about momentum: the translation issue had delayed the inquest, perhaps making it more difficult to maintain public support and attention. But my punishment was immediate and clear: all the interviews I had lined up with the campaign team were cancelled. And although I had, in various ways, tried to reach the family to talk to them directly, now that the campaign saw me as an enemy, I was denied access.
It was an important moment for me as a journalist covering the case. It was the first time I understood that the facts that were being established, and the pursuit of the truth, might be diverging from the powerful narrative that had taken hold – on social media and in the local community.
Then came 25 May 2020, a turning point in the case of the Shukri Abdi. After the video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer went viral and protests erupted across the world, a global reckoning began about the ways that white supremacy and racism permeate police forces and other public institutions.
Shukri Abdi’s name became one of the many cases that resurfaced – the power of the story once again catapulted it to a wider audience. Very quickly, the hashtag #Justice4Shukri began trending worldwide almost a year after her death. A petition that had been created in Shukri’s name received more than a million signatures, shared by A-listers like John Boyega, Riz Ahmed and Ice Cube.
But as millions of people came across the case, the same pieces of misinformation began to resurface: allegations of bite marks, and that she had been wearing an Islamic dress.
It was around this time that I spoke at an open event at Tortoise. The inquest had been paused, half way through, as coronavirus swept through the UK. Another date was yet to be set, and against the charged backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests and new interest in the case, I conveyed my thoughts about the case based on the evidence I had seen so far. I said that, so far, I hadn’t seen evidence that Shukri’s death was malicious, that it did appear to have been an accident.
This was, once again, met with fury from the campaign. This contravened their allegations – that someone was culpable. Promptly after a video of the event was posted online, an email was sent to my editors claiming I was not one of the “official journalists covering the case” who had “exclusive access to the family”. It added: “We will also continue to watch the behaviour of those who may have ill-intent towards the family in denying or derailing their fight for justice for Shukri.”
This felt pretty extraordinary. There is no such thing as an “official journalist” who gets appointed to report on a case, and campaigners shouldn’t be able to dictate who reports on a story. Surely that is up to the family. But the domineering nature of the central campaign began rearing its head, only this time, I became a public target. In the following days, I was trolled by anonymous accounts so severely that I felt I had to delete the Twitter app from my phone and switch my account to private.
The abuse came to a climax when someone I understood to be linked to the campaign sent me a death threat. “I got a piece for you,” the tweet read – “piece” is slang for gun. They told me they would “be following me closely,” and that I was a “clout-chasing bandwagon jumping opportunist”. In all caps, one tweet said: “YOU ARE NOT BLACK NIMO.”
After this flurry of activity during the summer, the campaign appeared to go quiet. There was little social media activity and no updates until the inquest started again in November 2020.
Final witnesses were called and the lawyers representing Children 1, 2, 3 and 4 – who cannot be identified for legal reasons – made their concluding arguments. Shukri’s family’s legal team did the same.
They said, a few of the children had gotten changed at Child 1’s house, stuffed their school uniforms into a bag, and were wearing clothes that were easier to splash around in. Two of the children were hanging out on the river bank, and Shukri and Child 1 got into the water.
For a while, things seemed to be okay. But then Child 1 said they saw Shukri going deeper into the water. And followed her. Then Shukri started panicking. She grabbed Child 1’s hand to try to stabilise herself – but it wasn’t enough. Shukri began panicking more. Child 1 said: “I tried helping her out… but she kept pushing me down so I had to get out the water”.
Child 1 said during the inquest: “I accidentally pushed her to the deep part… that’s why I feel like it’s my fault… I [motions a pushing motion] with my legs… I needed to save myself… I told her Shukri let go of me.” At this point, they were both fully submerged in the water. “I was frightened, I didn’t know… you can’t talk, you can’t see, you can’t do anything”. Child 1 heard Shukri say: “Help me, please, help me, I’m stuck.”
Child 3, on the river bank, yelled: “Are you joking? Because this isn’t a joke.”
They saw her again, her arms flailing, gasping for air, and then she disappeared under the water, for a final time. That was the last time Shukri was seen alive.
After having heard testimony from all witnesses, the court was able to create an account of what happened on the day of Shukri’s death and, on the final day, the coroner was to give her final judgement, which would determine whether or not there would be a criminal trial.
Despite this evidence, submissions for gross negligence manslaughter and murder had been made by the family’s lawyers. They had seized upon one important piece of testimony. During the inquest it was revealed that Child 1 had said to Shukri: “Get in the water or I’ll kill you”. This was, in the eyes of the family and their legal team, the smoking gun. This was evidence of intent to kill.
But Joanna Kearsley, the coroner, did not agree, stating that, “at its very highest, the comment made by Child 1 which has been described as a ‘threat to kill’ is in my judgement, in the context spoken, a phrase used by an exuberant child in the company of her peers. To even suggest the case reaches anywhere near the standard required for a court to consider the most serious of offences was misplaced and most unhelpful.”
It was also revealed that Child 1 did not have a good grasp of the English language and they’d only been in the country for a few years. Daniel Stockdale, a tutor of Child 1, said: “[they] copied phrases and idioms without understanding what they meant.” He used the example that Child 1 would often tell him not to eat their biscuits, saying, “You better not eat them all or I’ll kill you.”
This explanation, understandably, did not convince the family or bring them any reassurance.
On 4 December, the verdict of the inquest was given, and the coroner ruled that Child 1 – who was in the water with Shukri – did not unlawfully kill her. The coroner said in the judgement that: “There is absolutely no evidence before the court that Child 1 had any intention to kill Shukri.”
The official view was that, based on the current evidence, the case did not meet the burden of proof to show that, on the balance of probabilities, this was an unlawful killing. This is important: the balance of probabilities is the civil standard, which is much lower than the burden of proof in criminal courts. And if the evidence of the case couldn’t hold up against the lower burden of proof, it would’ve been very unlikely for it to hold up to the higher standard of proof in criminal courts.
This was a disappointing verdict for the family and the campaigners. In a press conference after, Zamzam said: “I need justice for my daughter. I know what happened to my daughter. I’ve waited for a long time for justice. I know today that I don’t have justice, but I know that justice is coming.” Attiq Malik announced that the legal team would be seeking a judicial review. Maz said: “the investigation of Shukri Abdi’s death and subsequent investigation by the school, police and other local authorities have come to represent yet another example of the institutional racism riddled throughout this country.” The fight clearly was not over.
After the end of the inquest, I spent five months going through every piece of material that I could get a hold of, multiple times over. I thought that I must be missing something. What did the family’s legal team know that I didn’t? Where was the evidence of murder or manslaughter? I spent a lot of time digging into the police response – contacting former and current officers. But there was no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, of a cover up, or of serious wrongdoing. Greater Manchester Police is a force with some very serious problems and it is full of internal critics – but Shukri’s death is not a case that comes up as a big miss.
When I learned that the family’s legal team was planning to launch legal action against the police, I asked them, multiple times, to tell me why and asked them to share their evidence. I put all the allegations made in this piece to them, too. They never responded.
The case of Shukri Abdi came to mean so much, it became part of a wider reckoning, in the wake of Black Lives Matter, about systemic racism in Britain. The story spoke to so many because of what it reflected, cutting right to the heart of a question about what justice looks like for people who come from disenfranchised and marginalised communities, who’ve been victimised and harmed. How do they find the answers – and the outcomes – that they’re looking for? It is unsurprising that Shukri’s family did not believe in the truth offered up by authorities, who they felt had previously failed to treat them with respect. And online, the virality the case attracted in turn helped to flatten what was a complex tragedy into a simpler narrative of murder.
Along the way, I learned that there is a line between activism and journalism. When aspects of this case began to diverge from the narrative that had taken hold, I felt the ire of a campaign that seemed unwilling to engage with dissenting views or voices. In the end, my investigation revealed a grieving family spoken for by activists who appeared to have taken charge; and of vulnerable children accused of murder with little evidence.
The deep sense of injustice that drew people to this case isn’t unfounded. That can remain true, as we accept that, even if you passionately want something to be true, the facts must speak for themselves. Surely this is what justice for Shukri Abdi should mean.
Illustrations by Christo Musinguzi
Published in partnership with gal-dem. Read Nimo’s first report here.