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November 4, 2012


By Robert Fisk

Source:  The Independent

The Oslo expSress is racing across the pre-dawn, frozen pine forests of Norway, snow
shawling over the corner window of carriage three, wherein sits Detective Inspector
Fisk on the last day of “Operation Aleppo”. He is reading Rafael de Nogales’ Memoirs
of a Soldier of Fortune, a 1932 edition of the Venezuelan general’s account of derring-
do in revolutionary Latin America and service in the First World War Ottoman army.

On page 294, he meets a doomed German soldier in the Middle East, a “tall,
handsome young officer” who has disgraced his Prussian honour by having an affair
with a girl who claimed she was 18 when in fact she was only 16.

And oddly – for books often carry weird geographical hints about ourselves – General
Nogales briefly meets this young man in the German military mess “sometime in
August 1915, when I arrived at the city of Aleppo, after six months’ steady fighting
against the Russians and Armenians in the Caucasus”.

Odd. For Inspector Fisk is investigating events that occurred in that same city of
Aleppo more than 90 years later, when a Syrian army general on the city’s front line
ordered his soldiers – just three months ago – to show me weapons recently captured
from the country’s anti-Assad resistance.

And among the grenades, rifles and explosives, was a plastic packet containing three
pink sticks of what looked like gelignite, on each one of which was labelled
“Hammargrens, 434-24 Kungsbacka, Sweden”.

Kungsbacka is a small town south of the Swedish city of Gothenburg, which was
where my night train was now thundering – the reader has just grasped why The
Independent’s Middle East Correspondent is more than 2,000 miles from his base in
the Levant – but, like every good detective story, there’s always a twist.

With Detective Inspector Lewis and Detective Sergeant Hathaway, you’ll always find
that things are not quite what they seem. So it was with some excitement that as my
taxi from Gothenburg arrived on the edge of a sleet-swept forest at Kungsbacka, I
observed a steel security gate with the name “Hammargrens Pyroteknik” upon it,
behind which stood a concrete explosives bunker.

Hammargrens, I should add, sells children’s fireworks. And Thomas Wetterstrom, its
managing director, looks the part. Bespectacled, swarthy, 60 years old, 30 years with
the company, which old man Hammargrens founded in 1879, he peered at the
photograph of his product in far-away Aleppo with what I can only describe as wry
amusement. “These are warning flares,” he said. “I don’t really see what the Syrians
can do with them. We sell them to the Swedish police to slow down traffic after

The Swedish police? This was a bit close to home for Inspector Fisk (and “Fisk”, by
the way, means “fish” in Swedish, for my ancestors indeed came from Scandinavia in
1745) – but it was perfectly true.

Mr Wetterstrom imports the flares from an American company called Orion Safety, in
Maine (which accounts for the “made in USA” stamp I observed on the Aleppo batch),
and then sells them not only to the Swedish police, but for ambulances that attend
night-time road accidents in the Scandinavian tundra. Hammargrens had also
exported flares to the Hungarian police. Like our British flashing safety lamps, they
prevent other motorists careering into the police and paramedics on motorways.

Don Kantoff, Hammargrens’ explosives officer, a thin, precise man – as are almost all
explosives experts, I’ve noticed – asked me if I’d like a demonstration. So we padded
out into the sleet; he struck the cap on the top of the flare and it burst into an
astonishing pink flame, so bright that I could only glance at it for a second before it
hurt my eyes. “It lasts for 20 minutes,” Mr Kantoff announced. “And it cannot be put
out by water.”

This was no doubt efficient on snow-covered Swedish roads. But I also had a
suspicion that, thrown into one of Aleppo’s ancient wooden buildings on the city’s front
line today, it would set the place ablaze.

Mr Kantoff reckons that the company had sold 100,000 of these flares over the past
12 years. They come in cartons of 23, each containing a pack of three, a mixture of
strontium carbonate and sulphur that burns down to ash – a home-made bomb in
Syria would need potassium nitrate and oil – although all at Hammargrens agree that
any chemicals, if put inside an iron tube, are dangerous.

But as Mr Kantoff studies the Aleppo picture, he notices the plastic packet: “We
stopped using these plastic packets years ago, before we sold to Hungary.” He hands
me the company’s up-to-date cardboard box.

It turns out that back in 1999 – the date on the Aleppo flares – Hammargrens was
selling flares to a Stockholm company which supplied them, along with emergency
blankets and bandages, to the big Swedish lorry-makers, Skania and Volvo.

And at this point, Inspector Fisk remembered a lecture he attended in Abu Dhabi four
years ago, in which a Swedish diplomat boasted that Volvo was the biggest exporter
of trucks to – Syria! Volvo had cornered the market – in pre-civil war Syria, of course
– and there was no legal reason why these trucks should not have been sold to Syria
with Hammargrens’ flares in them.

The twist in the story. Everything above board, all sold for safety. But a thought
occurs to Inspector Fisk – a “Hathaway moment” from the Lewis series, shall we call
it? – on the night train back to Oslo. Sweden hasn’t endured a war since 1814. But
shouldn’t we Europeans be a little more careful what we send to less stable parts of
the world? Fewer flares, perhaps? More of those old-fashioned, battery-powered
British safety lamps?

So on my super-heated train home, I turn again to my soldier of fortune, General de

“Riding across the sands on his Arab charger,” the preface crows, “this swarthy
soldier of fortune from the high Andes seemed like a chivalrous knight of old…” Now
those were the days.