Shattered lives

Last year, 26 people, mostly young men, were killed in gang-related shootings in London. Each death

On 15 November last year I received a phone call from my eldest son, saying that his best friend's bro ther, Etem Celebi, had been shot dead in Stoke Newington at 9.50pm the previous evening. We both felt disbelief, grief and a sense of hopelessness. Within hours, the killing had been named the 23rd gun crime of the year in London. A statistic.

Underneath was a devastated family, a shattered community, and broken friends. Etem's brother Firat had gone on holiday with us and both were regular visitors at my home, watching their beloved Arsenal.

Etem was 17. His parents, Kemal and Hayriye, were from northern Cyprus. Etem had attended local schools and was a student at Brooke House Sixth-Form College studying sports science. He played football for Leyton and, in recent months, for the under-18s at Dagenham and Redbridge FC. He had been Player of the Year and Players' Player of the Year, winning trophies since the age of 11. His many aunts and uncles, nieces and ne phews, lived around Famagusta.

Friends said of him: "He constantly made people laugh. He was bright and intelligent." His father said: "People loved me because I was his dad and loved him because he was my son."

I went with my son to visit the scene of the shooting on the Friday following the killing. We arrived at 8.30pm. Already the community had made a makeshift shrine, with scores of bunches of flowers, football shirts and mementoes. The scene was extraordinary, a gathering of more than forty 17- to 20-year-olds, their faces showing utter disbelief and shock. I had known many of them since they were at primary school.

The next day, I visited the family. Etem's father was unable to speak, his mother was under sedation, the extended family was in bits. During the next few days, relatives flew in from Cyprus, all unable to comprehend the enormity of what they were seeing. Over the following weekend, the family asked me to act as family spokesperson and to liaise with the police. I agreed and helped prepare statements.

The circumstances of the killing began to emerge. A small group of friends had been returning from the Angel in Islington and were hanging around a street corner talking to a friend who was leaning out of a window. Later, according to local youths, two young men approached the group. They asked them if they lived round the estate and the boys said they did. The two newcomers then pulled out guns and fired indiscriminately. The group fled, running to houses, heard screams, and within seconds realised Etem had been shot.

His parents ran to where he had fallen and held him in their arms for the few remaining minutes of his life. Within seconds, scores of neighbours were out in the streets, phoning the police, phoning for ambulances, trying to keep Etem conscious. The police arrived within minutes, the ambulance moments later. The emergency services did what they could, but the wound was too serious and Etem died.

In the days after the killing, Etem's friends and neighbours were struggling to cope with grief, but wanted to get organised. I suggested holding a ceremony and tribute exactly one week after the murder. The young friends printed T-shirts with a picture of Etem, made badges and dog-tags. I prepared a short speech and suggested a two-minute silence. As the day approached, there was significant interest from the Turkish and Cypriot - but not the British - press. I held an impromptu press conference at the scene on the afternoon of 21 November.

Mapping the problem

Later, hundreds of members of the community, mainly youths, gathered at the shrine. By 9.15pm it was pouring with rain. Despite the downpour, Etem's neighbours and friends stood in silence. I read out the statement and four or five of Etem's friends attempted to make contributions. All broke down in tears. Etem's teacher spoke, as well as a clergyman from the local church. Etem's grandfather spoke through an interpreter. Etem's mother arrived and thanked the crowd through a welter of grief and tears; and a local woman, who had lived on the estate for years, made an impassioned plea for an end to gun crime. She received moving applause.

Throughout these terrible days, the murder squad, through a family liaison officer, kept the family informed and gave full support. Arrests were made and charges followed. But the family's grief was made worse when the coroner was unable to release the body. Eventually, and thankfully, he was able to do so. A service, attended by hundreds, was held at the local mosque and Etem's body was flown to Famagusta for burial. About 20 of his friends, including my son, went to Cyprus to show solidarity with the family and support Etem's brother Firat.

I struggle to think of anything that has affected me personally more than this killing. It was unnecessary, senseless and an appalling waste of life. The incident tore the heart out of the estate. Families have moved, and immediate relatives do not want to visit the area ever again. Since Etem's killing, two more young people have been slain by knives and guns in London. As a consequence, there are more armed police on the city's streets than before. The police can still use prevention measures such as acceptable be haviour contracts and con ditional cautions with most troublesome young men but, chillingly, the number for whom enforcement (tags, curfews, incarceration) is the only response is growing. Placing further strain on overstretched police resources is the fact that increasing numbers of witnesses require protection placements.

As I write, tension between gangs in north London is described by community workers as being at the highest level anyone can remember. Some youths even wear body armour. Half a dozen gangs operate in the Borough of Hackney and scores more in the surrounding areas. The tension seems territorial, the influence of the gangs linked to postcodes. There is evidence of intimidation and involvement with drugs.

Essentially, these gangs do not care about the damage they do to others. The macho culture dictates that gang members be "badder" than their opponents. Consequently, the crimes increase in seriousness, their behaviour becomes more threatening, and punishments such as tagging, antisocial behaviour orders or unacceptable behaviour contracts start to look meaningless. The levels of alienation and exclusion are extraordinary. Many feel coerced into joining gangs in order to feel protected from rival teams and from fear of victimisation if they do not.

Efforts are being made to find a lasting way of marking Etem's memory. Police, local clergy and the constituency MP have held meetings. The community is planting trees and painting murals. It is possible that the youth club will open again, with structured activities that the community wants and needs. Attempts will be made to bring together all the bereaved families of gun and knife crime in Hackney.

But a political response is needed, too, not just in London, but in cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, where there is evidence of out-of-control weapon crime. We need to map the extent of the problem, consider the facilities available to bring young people into mainstream society rather than exclude them, and look at the relevance of education, standards of parenting and the quality of life of those involved. If macho behaviour and guns are the only ways young men feel they can gain status, the problem is certain to careen out of control.

More armed police may lead to more armed gangs and more deaths. Increasingly, we will suffer the economic consequences of violent crime. Certain areas will become unviable as places to live or do business in. If, or when, this happens, perhaps the necessary investment in excluded youths will happen. If not, we face the Americanisation of our estates and communities.

The government must act now, and visibly.

Harry Fletcher is an assistant general secretary of Napo, the trade union and professional association for family court and probation staff

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