No escape by Quentin Bates

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It’s one of those weird things that could only happen in Iceland. A prisoner who escaped from the nearest thing Iceland has to a high-security prison, Litla-Hraun, apparently by simply crawling under the wire, managed to spend a week on the run after having started a five-year sentence for attempted murder just a few months previously.

Although the man in question is Icelandic, he has spent much of his life abroad and served in the military, including a spell in the French Foreign Legion. Because of his military and survival training, and as he had apparently been in touch with the person he had assaulted, resulting in his five-year stretch, threatening to come and finish the job, the police took the man’s disappearance very seriously. His former and intended victim quickly fled the country.

After a week on the run, no mean achievement in sparsely populated Iceland, he knocked at the door of a remote farm in Thjórsárdalur late on Christmas Eve, waking the farmer and his daughter with the intention of giving himself up, and asked them to call the police.

As the man was armed with a rifle, an axe and knives, it’s hardly a surprise that the farmer and his daughter were alarmed, but persuaded him to put his weapons aside, and fed the man coffee, Christmas speciality smoked meat and coffee while they waited for the police to arrive, while the farmer also told the young man that he should at least make the best use of his time in behind bars to acquire a better education.

Now back in Litla-Hraun, our guy is spending two weeks in solitary confinement before going back to the rest of his five-year term inside, after spending the best part of a week hiding out in someone’s well-stocked country summer house where he cooked himself a few meals and spent time in front of the TV. That seems to also have been where he acquired the rifle, and its owner is now undoubtedly answering a few questions on that score.

It’s not easy to hide yourself away in a country that’s as small as Iceland. A couple of mentions on the TV and everyone will know what you look like, not to mention the man’s face has been plastered across most of the newspapers. This guy was pretty much on a hiding to nothing if he thought he could stay on the loose for more than a few days, especially in winter with snow on the ground, without money and without wheels. In fact, he has set something of a record in being on the run for a week, as a day or two is normally all it takes for the police to find the rare escapees.

The unsuccessful search for him had been extensive, considering the limited resources the Icelandic police have to sweep a large and thinly-populated rural area at a time of year when there are only a few short hours of daylight. The prison at Litla-Hraun isn’t in Reykjavík, or even near it, but out in the country near the village of Eyrarbakki on the south coast. There aren’t many people there, so any stranger is likely to be noticed immediately, hence the surprise that he stayed undetected for so long.

According to the reports, the escaper decided to give himself up to spare his family the worry of what had become of him, as there was every likelihood that he could have succumbed to exposure and not been found until the spring, if ever.

What is thoroughly heartening is that the farmer at Ásólfsstaðir, instead of going for his own shotgun and letting fly before asking questions, was prepared to listen to the escaped prisoner, talk to him like an adult and even give this deeply troubled young man some well-meaning advice. My guess is that even in Iceland where violence is a rarity a minority of people would have responded like that, and in other countries the sight of an escaped would-be murderer with an axe and a rifle would be treated somewhat differently – not least in the light of the news of that senseless slaughter of innocents at Sandy Hook before Christmas, bleak enough  to lay a stone on your heart.

So here’s to a peaceful 2013, and here’s to people like the farmer at Ásólfsstaðir, prepared to listen without reaching for the nearest weapon.

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