Tuesday 4 May 2021
The death of Shukri Abdi in 2019 has become a cause for campaigners who believe that something unlawful happened. But is that the truth?
[Clip of the weir at the River Irwell]
Basia Cummings: It’s the 27th of June 2019, and it’s a hot day for the UK – 24 degrees.
School’s out, and a group of kids are ambling around town – in Bury, outside Manchester.
They’re laughing, they’re being normal kids in that sort of chaotic, boisterous way. They go to Primark – three of them, and there had been a plan to go to some kind of water park. But they scrap that idea, and they head to the Irwell, a river that skirts through the town. They want to cool off in the water.
And one of the kids is a girl called Shukri Abdi. She’s 12.
You might know her name or you might have seen it circulating online. You might have seen a photograph of her go viral, a really beautiful one, really – slightly smiling, looking at the camera, in a blue hijab.
And it was a busy time, and a rather febrile time, if you remember it – June 2019. Think back: it was Brexit everywhere, dominating the headlines. Boris Johnson was fully in campaign mode, talking about cracking down on immigration.
You get the picture.
And on the banks of the Irwell that afternoon, something terrible happened.
Shukri Abdi, a Somali refugee, the eldest daughter of Zamzam Canab Ture, drowned.
This week, I’m going to tell you about how her death – and this refugee family’s tragedy – was turned into a campaign for something bigger.
Because this is a story about the building of a narrative on social media – in the absence of a timely and transparent examination of the facts.
It’s about the danger of what can be done to the truth, and the lives of both grieving and frightened people when a case is taken on as a cause.
And it’s about the line between journalism and activism. It’s about how I, as a journalist, and my colleague Nimo Omer faced our own reckoning as we searched for the truth.
I’m Basia Cummings. You’re listening to The Slow Newscast.
Now, Nimo has been following this story for more than a year.
And, for her, this is more than just a news story – this is also about her, her own family, her own experiences of Britain.
And, in the course of her reporting, she’s spoken to Shukri’s friends, to campaigners, to people around the world who were inspired by this story online. She attended every day of the official inquest, and has pored over notes and documents and police reports.
Nimo Omer: Shukri’s been described in various ways to me.
As someone who was chatty, who loved to sing and dance. She was really funny – her friends said that she had great banter – but at other times she could be shy, quiet, and a bit lonely.
Aleena: Shukri was like… she was a really amazing person. She had a bubbly personality, full of positivity and joy. She was always thoughtful, considerate and really affectionate towards other people. She never disrespected anyone. She was always nice, no matter what. Every time you’d see her in the corridor, she’d always have a nice big smile walking in. She’d always have a few jokes with the teachers. She’d just always make people laugh.
She was involved in various afterschool clubs: cooking, athletics. She wanted to be a doctor and make her mum proud. She was a child with her whole life in front of her.
Basia: So let’s go back to that day – the 27th of June.
Nimo: So I remember that day clearly. I was living in Manchester at the time, and it was especially busy. Every square inch of public space was full up with people sunbathing in their lunch hour or having picnics. The uni year had just finished for me; I was in my second year, I was studying politics, and I was working part-time at a coffee shop.
Basia: So really I want to start by going over the facts of what we think happened on that afternoon. The facts that emerged after an official investigation into her death.
Nimo: Yeah, so that day, Shukri’s at school as normal, she’s in Year 8, and she heads to her maths lesson and greets her teacher, called Mrs Parker.
Shukri sat down with someone that we have to call Child 2 – for legal reasons they cannot be named.
Mrs Parker knew Child 2 and Shukri to be friends, though friends with a bumpy history. In that lesson, they came up with a plan to go to a “water park” after school – and Shukri was invited as well.
And so the kids head off together after school, and Shukri skips her athletics practice.
But in the end though, their plans change – and they didn’t actually go to the water park. As we now know, they ended up going swimming in the River Irwell, about a mile and a half away.
Basia: So we’ve come off this tarmac footpath and we’re now standing on this kind of grassy verge. It’s clear that people come here to hang out, there’s these paths worn into the grass and there’s a sort of natural spot by the side of the river. You could totally imagine kids coming here after school on a hot day. And there’s this weir, which we know that the kids called a waterfall – water rushing down, it’s quite choppy, and you can see that that bit’s a lot deeper. And then the water flows down.
The weir, as you can hear, is a thunderingly loud stretch of water. So we moved, slightly further down, where the stream was shallow and the water was gentler.
Nimo: I’m at the river at the place where I think Shukri probably died 18 months ago now. You can kind of hear the birds in the background and the water kind of moving deceptively quickly downstream.
What we know of what happened next is based, mostly, on the testimony of Child 1.
And the account that I’m going to talk you through here now is pretty much the official view of what happened.
So they’d gotten changed at Child 1’s house, they’d stuffed their school uniforms into their bags, and they were wearing clothes that they thought would be easier to splash around in.
Two of the children were hanging out at the river bank, they didn’t want to go into the water, one thought that it looked dirty and the other just didn’t know how to swim. So it was just Shukri and Child 1 that were in the water together.
For a while, things seemed to be going OK. But then Child 1 said they saw Shukri going deeper into the water. So they followed her.
But Shukri started to panic.
According to the inquest testimony, Shukri grabbed Child 1’s hand to try to stabilise herself – but it wasn’t enough.
Child 1 wasn’t sure how Shukri ended up in the deepest part of the water. They thought she caught her leg on something, they weren’t sure.
Shukri then started panicking even more. She was trying to grab hold of Child 1 in any way she could – but, by this point, they were both finding it difficult to stay afloat, so they let go of her.
Child 1 said: “I tried helping her out but she kept pushing me down so I had to get out the water.”
Shukri then, in a last ditch attempt to stay afloat, grabbed onto their legs…
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”.
Child 1 then said: “I needed to save myself… I told Shukri let go of me”.
At this point they are both fully submerged in the water.
Child 1 then said: “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 1 then said: “All you could see was her hands, her face – it was so scary”.
Another child, Child 3, sees something going in the water, and they notice how alarmed Shukri is getting.
They yell out: “Are you joking? Because this isn’t a joke.”
Child 3 then says: “I saw her come up and she was staring at us”.
They see her again, her arms flailing, she’s gasping for air, she’s yelling out for help, and then she disappears under the water, for a final time.
That was the last time Shukri was seen alive.
Another child jumps into the water in an attempt to try and save her and the other children start to call emergency services.
One child runs to get help and in the process spots two fishermen whom they beg to come help them.
Police, ambulances, fire engines – within the hour the scene is swarming with people.
And it quickly turns from a rescue mission, to a body recovery operation.
Basia: Those are the facts of the case as established by the authorities – compiled from the testimony of the children who were there on the day, from police reports, and other witnesses. But that narrative didn’t come together until nearly six months after Shukri drowned.
And in that gap, another completely different story had already taken hold.
One that made sense to the local community, and made sense on a bigger level too.
And to understand that story, we need to tell you about Shukri’s school – and about Great Manchester Police.
Nimo: That evening, after news of the incident started to travel, family and friends start to arrive at Zamzam’s house. And they immediately had questions: who was Shukri with? Why was Shukri in a river when she couldn’t swim?
And, according to a police officer, this is when allegations first started to arise that Shukri must’ve been pushed into the water.
In interviews later, Zamzam says that when the police came to tell her that the body they had recovered was Shukri’s, they weren’t understanding or sympathetic.
There was a language barrier there – she doesn’t speak English very well – so it was even more distressing for her. She felt that she wasn’t being listened to.
Basia: And the next morning, the school decides to tell the students what had happened. And the school is, we know, a crucial part of the story.
Nimo: Yes, even before Shukri had started going there, Broad Oak was a fairly notorious school in the local community.
It was ranked near the bottom – 3,033rd (out of 3,166 schools) in the country – by the Manchester Evening News in 2019.
This school wasn’t always like this. In Ofsted inspections between 2004 and 2011, the school was considered satisfactory.
But then in four short years it took an incredibly steep decline and, in 2018, the school was rated “inadequate” by Ofsted and was put into special measures. What happened?
Well, this data shows a school that was struggling. And this corresponds with the fact that the school was shut down in 2019 and turned into Hazel Wood High School. New uniform, new name – and this was seen at the time as being part of a wider cover up in Shukri’s case, to stop people from finding out the “truth”.
Aleena: To be honest, Broad Oak was actually known to be the worst school in Bury. Just a lot of things happened in that school that just wasn’t really good for mine and my friends’ mental health.
Nimo: That’s Aleena, a girl who went to school with Shukri and welcomed her into her friendship group.
Aleena was four years older. She noticed Shukri quite quickly.
Aleena: There were these girls who were trying to trip her over and that’s when me and my friend Iram defended her, and then, from there, they kind of stopped. If there were other bullying she never told us, she never told us anything, she was too nice. She was just too nice.
Nimo: So Aleena and her friends embraced her. She became part of the friendship group.
Aleena: She was literally our little sister like literally that’s it. She was literally our family.
The bullying was awful. They’d always threaten us, they’d always bully us, they were racist. We had proof and everything, so we told the teachers and what they did was, they said they’d sort it out, but they didn’t. Threatened to pull down leggings, so many things was said that it’s just unbelievable, you probably wouldn’t believe, like it’s that shocking, it’s that awful.
It was just a really rough year, where a lot of things happened and they just did no effort – it was just really bad. Oh my god, such awful racist stuff like saying “oh, you p-words”, “go back to your own country”, “go eat your curries”, just really horrible stuff that has been reported, but nothing’s been done about it.
I didn’t even want to go to school, none of us did, we all just hated school, absolutely hated it because the teachers did nothing about it, we had no support, nothing.
Nimo: Broad Oak had, according to the people I spoke to, some pretty deep-seated racial issues, that the school had allegedly not dealt with.
40 per cent of the pupils didn’t speak English as a first language and lots of them were on free school meals.
Zamzam, Shukri’s mum, insisted that the school knew about Shukri’s issues with bullying. She says that she made two formal complaints.
She’d said that Shukri had told her that bullies would stamp on her toes and, in one instance, pushed her out into the road.
Basia: So when Shukri’s death was announced, there was an immediate suspicion that something sinister could have happened. That Shukri had been bullied into the water, that she could have been forced. Her family said that she couldn’t swim – so why would she have gotten in?
And those suspicions were heightened when the police issued their official response – just eight hours after her body was recovered.
Nimo: So this is where the events of that day start to collide with a bigger history – decades of poor policing and poor relations with the Black community in Bury and Manchester.
And it all came together with a statement police released about eight hours after the body was found.
The statement says: “This is an incredibly tragic incident… but there are not believed to be any suspicious circumstances at this time. With the warmer weather, it’s tempting to go into the water to cool off, but I’d like to remind everyone of the dangers of playing near or swimming in rivers, lakes and reservoirs and would strongly urge against this.”
Basia: “Tragic incident.”
This was Greater Manchester Police’s first, crucial mistake. Because those words, “tragic incident”, would come to define everything that happened next.
Nimo: As soon as that statement was released, people’s backs were up.
People in the local community – in the school, Shukri’s family – immediately assumed that the police weren’t taking this case seriously.
How could the police know? After just eight hours, with no formal investigation?
And when I first read it, I thought the same. How could they know that there wasn’t anything suspicious there when they hadn’t even interviewed all the children yet?
Basia: And the longer the words “tragic incident” hung in the air, the angrier people got. The statement was used as evidence that this police force, already despised within the local Black community, was failing to take this death seriously.
And so the story started to travel… beyond the local community.
The GMP, the fourth largest police force in the UK, is badly run.
Last year, the police inspectorate said that the police had failed to properly record the details of 80,000 crimes in a single year. 80,000.
They said: “over one in five of all crimes reported to the police in Greater Manchester are not making it onto the books. The position is worse when it comes to recording violence against the person, where more than one in four crimes are not being recorded.”
This is a force where violent crimes go missing. A root-and-branch review of the police is currently sitting on the mayor’s desk. But, in addition, it has a poorer relationship with the communities of colour in Manchester, particularly the Black community, than other residents of the city.
And that goes back a really long way. In 1998, the then chief constable of the Greater Manchester Police, David Wilmott, challenged his own force when he admitted that GMP was institutionally racist.
Efforts have been made to fix the problem, but Home Office data from 2018/2019 has shown that Black people are still three-and-a-half times more likely to have force used against them by GMP.
Black people in Manchester were six times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched.
Safia Mohamed: Greater Manchester Police did not have a great relationship with the public. They’re known to have gotten things wrong many times.
Basia: This is Safia Mohamed – she’s a journalist who began following the case in those early weeks following Shukri’s death.
Safia: And what kind of community was this? It’s a Black community, it’s a Somali community. There’s a history in Manchester with the Greater Manchester Police and the Black community. So already there wasn’t a great relationship there, and then the police not saying much to them was like, “okay, so you don’t care about us. You don’t want to speak to us. You’re just covering things up now.”
So, for them, it was kind of like, I think it was another form of like, okay, wow, this is bringing back trauma of things that have happened before. And it was coming from a place of pain.
Basia: Problems with racism at school, the poor treatment of refugees, a police force plagued by accusations of racism. Shukri’s death brought all of these tensions together – her story felt emblematic.
And this was reflected in the way that, very quickly, the case was being talked about on social media.
Safia: The way it just kicked off on social media, you would have thought that there was a clear line of facts, but really there wasn’t. People that I knew were retweeting things: that Shukri Abdi had bite marks on her body, bite marks were found, Shukri Abdi was fully clothed and she was wearing an abaya when she was found, Shukri Abdi would never, never go into the river willingly. So those are the rumours that I can remember.
But also the narrative and the allegations were quite strong. They were that Shukri was bullied, Shukri was being bullied throughout, the school was neglectful, the school was covering up, and, obviously, the biggest one, that Shukri was murdered, Shukri was pushed into the river by students who were bullying her. And they were probably white kids… that was the narrative.
It was something that I saw over and over again… and also the police were covering up, how could the police complete the investigation so fast? How could the police come to a conclusion so fast when the investigation is still ongoing? When an inquest hasn’t happened yet?
Nimo: The story at this point – in the week after Shukri’s death – was that she was bullied at school, and these same bullies forced her to go with them to the river after school.
And that they had killed Shukri by pushing her into the water, whilst she was fully dressed, wearing her Abaya, an Islamic dress, and knowing that she couldn’t swim.
By this point – a week after her body was recovered, the story of Shukri’s death was already written. And the police themselves had accidentally helped to write it – with their early statement basically saying: there’s nothing to see here.
They had lit the fuse for everything that followed.
Basia: Soon, the case attracted campaigners who were, naturally, drawn to elements of Shukri’s story. And this is when this transformed from a local issue to a national one.
Nimo: Bit by bit, more information starts coming out. About how Zamzam, Shukri’s mum, felt mistreated and misunderstood by the police.
About how they were unsympathetic whilst informing her of her daughter’s death.
An interview comes out where Shukri’s mum asks for justice for her daughter. And it goes viral. The Twitter thread gets 25,000 retweets and the video is reshared all over social media.
[Clip: Interview of Zamzam]
And this is when I came across the case for the first time. Scrolling aimlessly through Twitter, a video pops up on my feed with two young Somali women.
The interviewer asks Zamzam: “ma noo sheeghe kartaa waxaa dhaya”, which translates to: can you tell us what happened? And the mother, she takes a pause and looks down, she just seems overwhelmed.
Eventually, she says that Shukri was denied the truth, that she has been left, alone, to fend for herself. That neither the school nor the police have offered her support.
By the end of the video she’s asked what she wants, and she responds: “I want justice. If the rights we came to this country for exist, I want something done.”
Here’s Safia, the journalist who had been following the case:
Safia: I think people also saw Shukri Abdi’s mum, Zamzam, as someone who needed help. You know, a lot of people say she couldn’t speak English, she’s a refugee, a lot of people, especially in the diaspora, first generation, they can relate to that. They can relate to having parents or a mother who can’t speak English properly and having to step in to translate. And so I feel like people really did feel a responsibility to further this cause and get justice for Shukri Abdi.
There was this collective impulse, among the Somali community specifically, and more broadly among the Black community, to protect Zamzam.
A young refugee, with a missing daughter, ignored by the authorities. It became part of why this story was so compelling.
And it’s why I got interested in the story.
After the outbreak of a brutal civil war in Somalia in the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of people fled the country. Zamzam fled to a refugee camp in Kenya in 2000, and she was 17 years old when she had Shukri. In 2017, they were settled in the UK. They’d been here for two and a half years when Shukri died.
My own family fled Somalia in the early 90s. And Shukri really reminded me of myself at her age.
Her skipping madrasa to hang out with these kids was so out of character for her because Shukri didn’t normally hang out with her classmates afterschool – she usually went home straight away. And this is fairly normal in Somali households: you go to school and you come home, you learn your Quran, you do your homework and you help around the house. That’s your life. That was my life. It was almost like I was looking at my younger self. And the really scary thing for me was also that – I can’t swim either.
And so, initially, the version of the story that circulated online was the one I believed – it felt right to me. It reflected what I know about Britain, about schools, and about the police.
Basia: But this is where this story gets really complicated.
Because this is the moment – as the case took on a bigger significance, and began to stand for so much more – two competing narratives began to form and crash into each other.
As an editor, I’d found Nimo and commissioned her because I thought this was a death that, like the deaths of Trayvon Martin, or Tamir Rice or indeed George Floyd, would be our moment of racial reckoning. That this story, apparently of a girl killed by racist bullies and left uninvestigated by police, would reveal something so wrong about multicultural Britain. And it did, but not in the way that I’d thought.
And it’s around this time that the story became frightening for Nimo to work on. Nimo is 22 and this is her first big story – and she was quickly caught up in a fraught world, where the line between activism and journalism became really blurred.
Because in asking difficult questions, as any journalist should, and in trying to get to the truth, Nimo began to upset people who were invested – for understandable reasons – in a particular version of the story.
Nimo: The janaza, the funeral, was on the 5th of July.
The school ended the day early to let students attend.
According to James Frith, the local Labour MP, the funeral wasn’t just a space for the family to come and say goodbye to Shukri – it was a moment of communal mourning.
James Frith: The air was, it was charged. It was charged with grief, first and foremost, but also a sense of confusion, of concern, of anger, and of anxiety, a sense of… what has just happened? I spoke and, in fact, the head teacher spoke at the graveside also, and what was interesting to me, not least because of the back and forth around the circumstances at the school and the accusations of bullying, was seeing this head teacher’s relationships with the male students as the crowd dispersed from the burial service. The relationship, the camaraderie, they were sort of almost hanging off him like a climbing frame in some cases. And that felt like a very natural interaction between him and these young lads who were obviously students at his school.
Nimo: This image, of a community collectively mourning together, was particularly striking to me. Because soon after things became really fraught in Bury.
Here’s one of Shukri’s classmates:
Shukri’s classmate: The school to be honest I think they struggled a lot with it because, I don’t know if you know, but there were many protests happening outside of the school. So like a lot of that happened after Shukri’s funeral there was a protest too. To be honest they let us go early on Shukri’s funeral day because they knew that some students were going to go for her funeral.
Nimo: As the social media storm continued gaining momentum, a campaign in Bury began.
Shukri’s classmate: You could hear every single person chanting her name. They, all of them, were screaming her name, they were there, you could tell all of them wanted justice for her.
And in London – here’s Ayan Aden.
Ayan Aden: It was the whole community. It wasn’t just young people; everybody came and it was the first time anything like that has happened in the Somali community where I think, collectively, everybody came out. Literally, I felt the heartbeat of my community that day.
Nimo: There were calls for various authorities, the police, the local council, the department of education, to respond to Shukri’s death and to do something. Anything.
By July 15th, Attiq Malik, Director of Liberty Law Solicitors, became the family’s solicitor.
The public facing image of the campaign was one of solidarity.
Behind the scenes, though, things were patchier.
Various campaigners had caught wind of this story early on and had travelled to Bury to help the family days after news broke of Shukri’s death.
One woman, Maz Saleem, was in the lead.
Maz is a campaigner, she’s the daughter of Mohammed Saleem, an 82-year-old man who was murdered by a neo-Nazi in Birmingham in 2013. She has been calling for an official definition of Islamophobia and wants her father’s killing to be recognised as an act of terrorism.
She is, by all accounts, a committed and fearless campaigner.
But the people I spoke to said that she quickly became domineering – and controlled who had access to the family.
Here’s Aleena, who was one of Shukri’s first friends at Broad Oak:
Aleena: So Maz, at first she’s an amazing person, but I’m gonna be honest: after she got all the information off me and my friends, she blocked us all, she ignored us. The court dates where it was showing the proof and the evidence and the videos and everything, she did not let us come at all and I was so upset I got my mum to message her, my sister-in-law had to message her, my family members had to message her, and she ignored them all.
Nimo: The central message from the campaign was to push for an investigation into the bullying at Broad Oak Sports College, to scrutinise the breadth and the depth of the police investigation and to push for an inquest that would potentially make way for a criminal trial into the death of Shukri Abdi.
And in the following weeks and months, the family became, according to some people I spoke to, increasingly isolated.
This is Sofia, a local woman who went with her sisters daily to Zamzam’s house to give her food and emotional support:
Sofia: It was me and the rest of my sisters, we just shared the days like if I give her food today so you give it tomorrow. As a Muslim, you know, we know that it’s hard – especially if it was like a sudden death – so we have to support each other.
Nimo: But then, without warning, Zamzam moved out of the area. When she left, all communication with Sofia was unexpectedly cut. And when Sofia tried to get back in contact with Zamzam, she found it difficult.
Sofia: If we need to speak with Zamzam, we have to ask permission from Maz. No. Why? She’s not kind of a secretary or she’s not kind of anything that we have to ask Maz first, and then we can speak with her, Zamzam. To be honest, it’s not just only me then, it’s a lot of other people in the community. Maz, I’m not scared, Maz just wants to come in the scene. Like I told you before, she just wants to stay on the top. She wants to deal and she wants to come on the scene. That’s it.
Nimo: After the funeral, the MP James Frith went to Shukri’s family home to touch base, offering his condolences and his support. But he believed that an important line may have been crossed.
James: So we wanted to go along and pay our respects, first and foremost, but be available to answer any questions or offer some assurances or feedback as to the conversations that we had had with the relevant officers at the time, leading the investigation. The audience at the house was by no way just family. There were a number of people who traveled to be in the room and, in fact, the meeting and things that were said in good faith were either reported or misreported subsequently. So, quite quickly, there had been… there was a mix of interests in terms of the story, in terms of people wanting to make a wider issue of a sense of injustice. And that’s completely understandable given the circumstances and the uncertainty around Shukri’s drowning. But it wasn’t the most natural of atmospheres because it felt like there were slightly different intentions, crossing each other.
Basia: So by this point, a few weeks after the tragedy, we have a drowning we still know very little about, a police force that has alienated and upset the local community with a careless statement, and a campaign group who appear to be controlling who has access to the family. It was tense.
By August, Shukri’s story had generated a lot of press coverage.
To drum up more support, the family’s legal team and the campaign group announced that there would be a public meeting…
[Clip: Public meeting in August 2019]
Emotions ran high, and the family’s legal team stated, in no uncertain terms, where they stood: “We have lost all confidence in the police, we have lost all confidence in the school.”
The family had had enough. They said: they wanted something done.
And that something came, eventually, in the form of the inquest: an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding a death, its purpose is to find out how, when and where a person died.
Nimo: It began on February 24th last year in Heywood, Rochdale, and was initially set to last for five days.
Everyone filed in, Shukri’s family and friends, witnesses, the media, and then the general public. The room was quiet, all you could hear was the low murmur of lawyers, the sound of their papers and the squeak of the chairs.
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 an insight to what happened on the day Shukri died.
Zamzam was the first witness to be called to the stand, along with a translator. But there was a problem.
Safia: I remember distinctly sitting across from Shukri Abdi’s mother while she was being questioned by the coroner and she’d recognised me and she gave me eye contact and I just nodded right back at her to kind of acknowledge that I had seen her.
However, from the get go, there were already some problems that had occurred. One of the things that was very clear was that the coroner would ask a question, the translator would translate it to Zamzan, and then Zamzam would speak for some time, for quite some length, and then the translator would say two or three words back to the coroner.
I think, at first, the coroner kind of let it go. But I could tell, cause I speak the same language as Zamzam, I speak Somali, so I understood what Zamzam was saying. And what I noticed immediately was the translator was not translating correctly, it was incorrect because, I’m sorry, it was inaccurate because it was incomplete. And I think you also picked up on that. It was very summarised, it wasn’t clear.
Zamzam would talk for a while with emotion and she would describe things and I’d expect the translator to translate back, but the coroner would only receive two or three lines, summarised.
But the Coroner picked up on it quite fast. I feel like everyone in the courtroom knew that something was wrong because the coroner was getting visibly irritated with the translator. I wanted to physically get up and leave the room. I was so uncomfortable.
Nimo: Safia – like me – is Somali. We were the only Somali journalists in the room and we both speak the language. And we immediately realised that there were issues with the translation.
I was really taken aback by just how bad it was. The problem was so obvious that other journalists, who couldn’t speak Somali, also started noticing it.
So at the end of the first day of court, Safia and I went to the usher and said – I think there are issues with the translation.
Safia: I think it was like halfway through the hearing, at around lunch time, that the coroner wanted us to – me and you – to speak to the police. “We’d like you to give a statement to the police about yesterday.” And the tensions were very high. I think, at that point, the family’s lawyer was aware. And it was very strange because there was a shift in the attitude from Shukri Abdi’s lawyers towards me and you and everyone else involved. Suddenly it was… the looks that I was getting, the vibe that I was getting, changed. It was as though I was being looked at as the enemy, in a way.
Nimo: On the third or fourth day of the inquest, Safia had returned to London, and I was there by myself, waiting for the proceedings to start, getting my notes in order.
The coroner announced that there were issues with the translation and that Zamzam’s evidence needed to be retranslated – and that this could potentially delay the whole inquest.
As it turns out, only 40 per cent of Zamzam’s evidence had been translated. 40 per cent.
Not long after I was approached by Maz Saleem, the campaigner, and Attiq Malik, the family’s solicitor, and they were not happy.
Attiq asked why I hadn’t come to him or his team with the translation problems instead of approaching the coroner.
Maz stood behind him quietly, but her irritation with me was palpable.
Every now and then, she chimed in to ask whether or not I knew that I was potentially jeopardising the inquest and how my actions were distressing Zamzam.
I went home that day and I was actually quite shaken up.
Maz had tweeted that afternoon: “Day 4 – Shukri Inquest. Note to journalists at the Shukri Abdi inquest: Unless you are legal professionals, please refrain from interfering in court matters. By the actions of a few silly individuals the entire case could’ve been jeopardised. Stay in your line (thumbs up emoji).”
And then she went on to say: “Day 4 – Thanks to the interference from a number of journalists, today’s inquest has been forced to come to a premature end. Do you have any idea of the stress you’re causing the mother of Shukri Abdi. The coroner’s verdict will not be given tomorrow as a result!”
Now this wasn’t true. The inquest would’ve likely been delayed anyway because Child 1 had still not been assessed as to whether they were fit to give evidence or not.
The inquest continued, but by that point I was considered Public Enemy No.1 by the campaigners now surrounding Shukri’s family.
On the final day, Maz approached me, 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.
Basia: Now if the point of an inquest is to find the truth – it is, after all, by definition a fact-finding mission – then why was there any issue that Nimo pointed out that Zamzam’s evidence was only being partially understood by the coroner?
Why was there any resistance to building as full a picture as we could of the day that Shukri died? We asked Maz Saleem and Attiq Malik about why they felt so affronted by Nimo’s actions. They didn’t respond to us.
Nimo: The inquest adjourned on the 28th of February 2020 – because of coronavirus. A date for the inquest to resume wasn’t set for another ten months.
I continued with my reporting. But the more I looked, the more questions I had.
And then came 25th May 2020.
The day in Minneapolis when George Floyd is murdered by a police officer, and Black Lives Matter protests erupt across the US and the world.
[Clip: Black Lives Matter protests]
Basia: Those weeks after George Floyd’s death definitely felt like a turning point. A before-and-after moment.
Nimo Omer: It really did – all of it, ACAB, All Cops Are Bastards, were graffitied on walls, there were calls to defund the police, abolitionist texts were being circulated. People had had enough about talks of reform. It seemed like a generation was being radicalised in real time.
And when people heard that there was this case where the police had failed to properly investigate the death of a Black child, a refugee, who could have been murdered by her racist classmates, it was fuel on a fire.
[Clip: “Say her name: Shukri Abdi” chants at protests]
Basia: By this point, six months into a pandemic, Shukri’s story was being shared by John Boyega, Riz Ahmed, and Maya Jama – a petition was circulating and hundreds of thousands of people were signing it. Justice 4 Shukri was trending on social media and protests were being planned for the 27th June 2020 – the anniversary of her death.
Nimo: Around this time, I picked the story up again, and I did an event in our newsroom at Tortoise to talk through what we knew at that moment in time about the case. Afterwards, it became clear that the central campaign team didn’t agree with some of the things that I had said.
I said at that time, I hadn’t seen evidence that Shukri’s death was malicious – having sat through half of the inquest. And that, to the campaigners, was unacceptable. They said I had made a catalogue of errors, that I had disgusted the family, and accused me of acting unprofessionally.
In an email to my editors, Maz said I was not one of the “official journalists covering the case” who had “exclusive access to the family”. She said that at no point would I or the publication I had been writing for be given access to them now.
I have absolutely no problem with people disagreeing with me, but this tipped into something else entirely.
In the days afterward, I was trolled by anonymous accounts and received a lot of abuse, including racist slurs, to the point where I had to switch my Twitter account to private and deleted the app off my phone entirely.
It culminated in what I understood to be a gun threat from someone I believed was linked to the campaign team. Someone tweeted at me: “I got a piece for you” – that’s slang for a gun. They told me I was a “clout-chasing bandwagon jumping opportunists”. In all caps, one tweet said: “YOU ARE NOT BLACK NIMO.”
Basia: I remember that time really clearly, and it was quite shocking and quite frightening for Nimo, who’s sitting right next to me here, but also as her editor I felt a huge sense of responsibility towards her, a duty of care. She was just out of university, I had commissioned her, and you could see that this was a story that was publicly becoming better known, and it was about solidarity and change, and yet privately it had become abusive and intimidating.
And that’s important because the same rumours that had been circulating locally a year before had now gained a much, much bigger audience.
That Shukri was wearing an abaya when she drowned, that she had bite marks on her body, that she had been pushed into the river. That all was circulating again.
But some of those claims had already been disproved in the first half of the inquest. Her body wasn’t found in an abaya, a post-mortem revealed there were no bite marks and that there was no evidence to suggest that she’d been assaulted or restrained.
Nimo: When the inquest started again in November, final witnesses were called and all the lawyers gave their final submissions.
The family’s legal team had started the inquest by arguing that this was murder. They wanted Child 1 to be criminally investigated. But for this to be a murder there would’ve had to be evidence of an intention to kill, and no such evidence was ever presented.
In fact, in the judgement, the coroner said that “there is absolutely no evidence before the court that Child 1 had any intention to kill Shukri”.
Basia: Towards the end of the inquest, the family’s legal team changed direction – and argued for gross negligence manslaughter – which means that the alleged crime committed is one where someone who has a duty of care commits a grossly negligent act or omission that they should have been able to realise would result in the death of another person.
Nimo: Where was the evidence of murder or manslaughter? My colleague Chris Cook and I spent a lot of time digging into the police response – contacting former and current officers. And we kept coming up empty, beyond the fact that the police had prematurely drawn conclusions about the case.
We could find no evidence of a cover up, or of serious wrongdoing. And 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 which comes up as a big miss.
Basia: In the end, the verdict of the inquest – on December 4th – was this: the coroner ruled that Child 1 – who was in the water with Shukri – did not unlawfully kill her.
That while, yes, Child 1 had a duty of care to her and was negligent, there was no evidence of murder.
This was an incredibly disappointing verdict for the family, and for the campaigners. There was one piece of testimony that had been seized on as evidence that there had been intent.
Nimo: 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 their eyes, tantamount to a confession, it was the smoking gun.
Joanna Kearsley, the coroner, did not see it in this way. She said 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.”
Basia: So, here, the coroner was saying that the push by the family’s legal team to consider this as a murder was “unhelpful” in the context of the inquest.
Nimo: And there’s more. We were also told in the court that Child 1 did not have a good grasp of the English language, they’d only been in the country for a few years.
And according to Daniel Stockdale, a tutor of Child 1, “[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.”
But, of course, you can imagine that for Shukri’s family this was just not believable.
Basia: And this is important because we know that there is further legal action planned against the police by the family’s lawyer.
But Nimo and Chris asked them multiple times what evidence they had to support legal action; they asked on what basis this case was being pursued. They never responded.
There will be things about that afternoon that we can’t know. But I could not escape the finality of the coroner’s judgement – that the current evidence simply does not meet the burden of proof to show that, on the balance of probabilities, this was an unlawful killing.
And that’s so important because the balance of probabilities is the civil standard which is actually so much lower than the burden of proof in criminal courts. If the evidence of the case couldn’t hold up against that lower burden of proof, it would’ve been really unlikely for it to hold up to the higher standard of proof in criminal courts.
And so, at the end of this story, after a challenging year of reporting for Nimo, I am left with an uneasy feeling. As an editor, I saw a young, talented Somali journalist abused online for daring to ask difficult questions. I saw people, inspired by this case, shaping it into something else – regardless of the facts.
I saw a worrying feature, too, among members of the campaign, controlling information and access. Shielding the family and designating who was and wasn’t an “official” journalist.
And in the end, who does it serve?
I was drawn to the story by concerns of an injustice. But activism and journalism are different things. My first responsibility, and Nimo’s responsibility, is to the truth.
So, in the end, what did we establish? Certainly, the accounts of witnesses support concerns about deep-seated problems with institutional racism in our schools and our police. But no evidence in the public domain supports a view that what happened on that summer’s day was premeditated or malevolent.
A grieving, disadvantaged family have been surrounded and spoken for by activists fighting for a cause. And vulnerable children have been accused of murder with little evidence.
In the end, even if you passionately want something to be true, the facts must speak for themselves. And surely this is what justice for Shukri Abdi should mean.
Produced by Matt Russell. Illustration by Christo Musinguzi