Monday 23 May 2022

“Kif sirna” (what have we become)? Or were we always like this…

This column first appeared in Malta Today

The double murder in Sliema a few weeks ago stunned a country which has not yet fully recovered from the other horrendous murders we have had on the island over the last few years. It sent chills down the spine of all those who live in the upmarket area where the tragedy occurred, temporarily jolting us out of our laidback summer mode, and reminding us that, beneath the veneer of a country which seems comparatively safe, one just never knows when one is being watched.

Two lives were cruelly snatched away and their relatives were left reeling in shock, for motives which are still unclear, but which seem to point to robbery. In fact, the prime suspect was wearing a gold chain stolen from one of the victims when he was arrested. The only minor consolation the grief-stricken family has had is that the Police acted swiftly, thanks to nearby CCTV footage, and the culprits have already been apprehended. A European arrest warrant was immediately issued for one man who had fled and he was arrested on Sunday in Spain. He is expected to be extradited to Malta to face charges for his involvement in the murder of Christian Pandolfino and Ivor Maciejowski.

Expressing her gratitude to the Police Commissioner and the lead police investigators on behalf of her family, Christian Pandolfino’s sister thanked them for “their stellar work” in bringing them closure in this horrific case. For surely, one of the worst aspects of any murder is not only the tragedy itself, but the never-ending pain inflicted on those left behind if the case is never solved or if the murderers are never brought to book.

Those who are left behind will inevitably be consumed with brewing over ‘why’, because only when they know can they perhaps move forward and pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. As we know, there have been countless murder cases which have never been fully resolved, and one which immediately springs to mind is, coincidentally, another Sliema double murder early on New Year’s Day in 2012, which left two men, Nicholas Gera and Darren Zammit, dead from stab wounds after a fight. Gera ostensibly had broken into the apartment of Claire Zammit Xuereb and Darren Zammit, but the actual motive remains shrouded in mystery.

Of course, the trauma which follows a murder is often exacerbated by unthinking and callous people who gossip about the tragedy online, not stopping to think for a minute that there are families behind every tragedy who have to either switch off all news or get off social media for a while, lest they are faced by deeply personal, hurtful, comments which are often hard to stomach.

Do we really have to type every thought that pops into our heads? Is it too much to ask to physically restrain our fingers from rushing to a keyboard or our phone to join in the speculation because we find it ‘thrilling’ to become amateur detectives for a week or so? This is not to say that thoughtless chatter when a murder happens is anything new – we have simply replaced the village corner store or pjazza with our favourite FB platforms. The only difference, of course, is that if before you gossiped with a few friends, now your ‘theories’ are being read by everyone, including the families.

If only we just stopped to pause for a second before typing to think: what if what I am about to write were about a member of my own family? Believe me, absolutely no one likes to see their personal life splashed out for all to read without their permission, as has happened in some cases of those who have unfortunately passed away due to Covid-19. This also holds true for newsrooms by the way, who at the very least, have the ethical obligation to ask first before lifting photos and quotes from people’s FB profiles in order to turn them into a story.

Whenever a murder occurs in this country, the go-to colloquial phrase has become “kif sirna!” (“what have we become”). The implication is that the horrific murders and violence over the last few years are something new, and that crime was practically non-existent “before”. Before, of course, alludes to different things depending on who is saying it – some are referring to the years before a Labour Government, while others refer to pre-EU and Schengen days before freedom of movement led to the influx of so many foreign nationals of all persuasions.

It is certainly true that it feels like violent assault these days is raising its ugly head too frequently, sometimes for no apparent reason, such as the woman who was viciously attacked while sunbathing, by a man in Valletta last week. Domestic disputes also often turn into murder as happened last month when a man murdered his son. It also bears reminding that a woman was stabbed to death in February of this year by her former partner. Of course, all these cases happened to involve Maltese culprits, but this observation does not sit well with those hell-bent on xenophobia. In any case, does the nationality of the aggressor really matter? Will the victim be any less deceased, depending on who did it?

Having said that, it is also true that stabbings seem to be the way arguments are settled among certain ethnic minorities, so I am not disputing that these type of attacks have become more common either.

The frequency of violent acts seems to permeate our consciousness because we are constantly receiving information 24/7 and news is easily shared by a click of a button. However, if it is any consolation, according to the Overseas Advisory Security Council which falls under the US State Department, the report for 2019 states that, “Violent crime is comparatively lower than in many of Malta’s EU counterparts”, although it also points out that street crime, especially in tourist areas, is on the rise.

Interestingly, Mark Camilleri, the author of a trilogy of popular crime novels in Maltese, is compiling a list of significant statistics surrounding murders which have occurred in Malta and Gozo over the decades and I am reproducing his stats here with his permission.

So far he has covered the period from 1900-1920 in which there were 52 murder victims, eight of whom were killed in Gozo.
41 of the cases were solved while 10 remain unsolved to this day. Some other salient information from his research includes the following:
The oldest victim was a woman, aged 88 who was strangled following a robbery. The youngest was a five-year-old boy who was kicked to death by another boy, aged 11.
A murder which occurred in 1905, in which a certain Francesco Grixti was shot to death, was ultimately solved 23 years later in 1928, when an Inspector opened up a number of cold cases. Another murder dating back to 1911, was solved in 1929.
Out of the 51 murders, 22 were a result of an argument or fight, 6 were men who killed their wives (except for one case where a woman killed her husband) and six were connected to a robbery.

Obviously, I am not referring to these figures to brush aside what is happening now; after all, every murder leaves a devastated network of family and friends behind, and some never fully recover from what feels like a nightmare. But I also wonder whether we are quite accurate when we paint such a nostalgic, romantic picture of Malta where it felt like nothing bad ever really happened. After all, human nature being what it is, lust/jealousy, revenge and money have been motives for murder for as long as time. It is similar to when we are shocked at learning about priests who are discovered to have sexually abused children, and blame it on “kif sirna” when in reality the same priest would have been at it for decades but was never found out (or it was swept under the carpet by an obliging Church hierarchy).

I am also not denying that the cousin of the violent under world, namely white collar crime in all its myriad forms, from tax evasion to outright corruption to moneylaundering, seems to be seeping out from the very pores of this island but again, I wonder – is it really just occurring now? Or is it simply that we have become so hyper aware of it because of the 24 hour news cycle (not to mention Netflix) that we can spot it at a hundred paces? Certainly, cyber space has made it much easier to track down dubious dealings, as well as all the networks of who gets which tender and their very convenient political and business connections.

Could this type of investigation have been carried out, say, 15 years ago? It could have, but it would have required someone very committed to do so, lots of legwork and physically scouring through actual newspapers and documents. We tend to forget that as recently as 2005, only 23% of households had access to the Internet. Compare that to today, where we google things from our phones in the middle of dinner party conversations to ascertain who is right about any issue under the sun.

In fact, while violence is undeniably present here as it is elsewhere, it is thanks to modern-day technology, such as CCTV footage, that the recent double murder was solved so quickly. If only we could go back in time and use this same technology to bring to justice all those responsible for other heinous crimes who have never been caught.

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