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London attack aftermath: In Woolwich, fear, blame and a twinge of hope

A woman looks at floral tributes placed near the scene of the killing of a British soldier in Woolwich, southeast London May 23, 2013. The soldier was hacked to death on Wednesday by two men shouting Islamic slogans in a south London street, in what Prime Minister David Cameron said appeared to be a terrorist attack.


Lynne Booker came with flowers out of the memory of her murdered son. Tracy Kearns stopped to rant about the British government. And Father Michael Branch walked over to speak about peace.

They were just three of the steady stream of people who stopped at a busy intersection in this part of southeast London known as Woolwich. Barely a block away, behind a line of police tape and dozens of officers, 25-year-old soldier Lee Rigby had been hacked to death the day before and left for dead in the middle of the street.

Police shot two men who allegedly carried out the attack on Mr. Rigby, just steps away from a sprawling barracks where he lived. Both men had knives and meat cleavers. Witnesses said they shouted Allahu akbar – God is great – and one was captured on video, his hands bloody, warning about more violence to come.

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Woolwich is not a part of London that gets many visitors or much attention. It's one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in London, with roughly 40 per cent of the population visible minority and about 100 languages spoken. The largest population of immigrants comes from Nigeria, Somalia and Ghana.

It's a working-class neighbourhood with long row houses and a deep attachment to the military. The Royal Regiment of Artillery has been here for 300 years and for centuries different parts of Woolwich have been home to naval docks, a military academy, munitions storage and a massive weapons manufacturing facility known as the Royal Arsenal. But the bulk of the military activity left ages ago, sending the community into a downward spiral.

In many ways, Woolwich is also a microcosm for the rest of London. The community is undergoing a transformation as old warehouses are converted into posh apartments and high-priced condominiums go up next to a new shopping centre. More growth is expected once a new rail line is completed in 2016, which will cut the trip to central London in half to 15 minutes. And, like other parts of London and Britain, ethnic tension is never far from the surface.

That became clear in August, 2011, when Woolwich was among Britain's hardest-hit communities when rioting broke out across the country after a 29-year old black man was shot by police in another part of London. The area is also home to the Woolwich Boys, a notorious criminal gang made up largely of young Somalis. And now this, a 25-year-old soldier stabbed repeatedly in the middle of the afternoon and left for dead while the killers allegedly shouted jihadist rants, waited for police and chatted to onlookers.

Within hours of the killing, several dozen members of the far-right English Defence League descended on Woolwich, singing nationalist songs and clashing with police. The group is planning more marches this weekend.

"It's not going to get better, all the racial tension," said Ms. Booker, whose 19-year-old son was stabbed to death in Woolwich in 2000. "The government needs to make a stand and sort it out, because it's going to get worse."

Ms. Booker carried a bouquet of flowers with a note: "Rest in peace our fallen hero." She left it with a small pile of other flowers along the roadside, many carrying similar notes. Then she talked about how the crime had nothing to do with religion but was simply murder. Before leaving, she added: "As a Christian, in our book it says 'Thou shalt not kill.' Perhaps I am reading the wrong book."

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Next to her, Ms. Kearns nodded. "I blame the government," she said, and then stormed off.

Across the street, Asghar Bukhari had a different take on the violence. While he condemned the killing, Mr. Bukhari blamed the government's foreign policy, saying it had oppressed Muslims around the world and paved the way for disenfranchised young radicals at home to strike out.

"Religion is linked, but it is not the root cause," said Mr. Bukhari, co-founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, a civil rights group. "The Koran doesn't say turn the other cheek. The Koran says fight injustice."

He also had little time for mainstream Muslim organizations, which have also condemned the killing. Those groups, he said, have ignored the growing number of radicalized young Muslims for years and failed to teach them "that there was a democratic way forward."

By late afternoon, Rev. Branch came by with Bishop Patrick Lynch. As the bishop gave an interview to the BBC, Rev. Branch spoke about his work in the community and his church, St. Peter the Apostle, which is two blocks from where Mr. Rigby died.

"What happened here was absolutely grotesque," he said. "That's evil."

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Then he talked about the efforts made to build bridges among different faiths in Woolwich and how so much progress had been made. And despite the killing, he remains hopeful. "The relationship between Christians and other faiths is extraordinary," he said. "It's a very positive experience."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More


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