‘We call this place the Bermuda Triangle,” said Ahmed Zulfk ar. Police, councillors, MPs, money, they all come here and just disappear.” Zulfkar, who has lived near Dudley Road in Winson Green, Birmingham, for 43 years, was speaking on Thursday as local people held a vigil for the three young men who died after being hit by a car during the riots.
Bouquets marked the spot where the men fell, close to a petrol station that had become a popular spot for Muslim youths to gather after prayers. A card attached to one bouquet read: “We never met but you could have been my best friend. Peace.”
While the community has been praised for its fortitude in remaining calm after the deaths, local people said they had been preparing for something like it for years. A spate of stabbings, robberies and burglaries had added to their belief that Winson Green has descended into near-lawlessness and when the tragedy struck many were distraught but not surprised. “You want to buy a gun around here, it is so easy,” said Secunder Azam, a man in his 20s standing on the petrol station forecourt. “Russian or German with silencer or without. For £150 you get a gun and ammunition.”
In the hours before the three men died, gangs made up mainly, but not exclusively, of black youths had rushed down Dudley Road and stolen a road digger parked next to the police station, reputedly with the intention of using it to attack a local G4S security depot or steal a cash machine.
The previous evening, as widespread looting engulfed Birmingham’s city centre, scores of cars, whose drivers were hidden behind hoods and masks, cruised the area selecting shops to loot. Onlookers described scenes of anarchy as thieves spilled out of the vehicles to rob shop, safe in the knowledge that the police were busy elsewhere.
But local people say the police are rarely to be found on the streets of Winson Green anyway. “You won’t even find a traffic warden here,” said a man studying the flowers. “He goes as far as the Irish church down by the hospital but won’t come down here. You can park on double yellow lines down here and nothing gets done.”
A shopkeeper pointed to security cameras on a street corner opposite the petrol station, perfectly positioned to capture the crash, but with no film in them. “Look at the money they threw at Sparkhill because it was home to terrorists,” he said. “They found money for that, but there’s no money to operate the cameras that protect our shops.”
Zulkfar said he had run community projects for 25 years but gave up in 2009, dismayed by the lack of resources. A well-regarded support and advice centre closed in 2004 and now there are few places for people to come together. Others talked enviously of a multimillion-pound community and sports centre in Handsworth, less than two miles away and the scene of riots in the early 80s. “We should have learned from what happened in Handsworth, but we don’t even have a job centre here,” one man said.
The battered shopfronts and boarded up pubs littering the Dudley Road are testimony to neglect. But locals were adamant that its relative poverty should not be used to excuse the looting, which, they were at pains to point out, was perpetrated by outsiders. “The stupid thing is this area has got nothing to take,” Zulkfar said. “But [the looters] come in from Ladywood and Handsworth because they know they won’t get caught here, the police just aren’t interested.”
So on Tuesday evening, after the previous night’s looting, many of the mainly Asian shopkeepers along Dudley Road decided to take the law into their own hands, calling on friends and relatives to double as makeshift security guards.
Among the assembled vigilante army were 40 or so Muslim youths congregating outside the Jet petrol station who had just come out of their mosque. It was a warm night, close to midnight, and they had finished Ramadan prayers.
As they stood watch a few noticed a car cruise up and down the road, but in the dark its progress was difficult to follow. Then it hit three of the men. The ambulances took more than half an hour to arrive, according to those at the scene, despite the local hospital being under a minute’s drive away. Their arrival could not save the lives of the three men who had been thrown into the air “like tennis balls”, according to onlookers. Despite desperate attempts to resuscitate them, Haroon Jahan, 21, Shazad Ali, 30 and Abdul Musavir, 31, died.
Immediate fears that the area would experience riots like the ones that plagued the neighbouring Lozells area in 2005 were played down by local elders. They repeated the dignified pleas for calm made by Haroon’s father, Tariq, that appear to have played a pivotal role in defusing community tensions. But it is clear that many in Winson Green harbour deep-rooted grievances that will have to be addressed if lessons are to be learned from last week’s tragedy.
“Nobody pays any attention to us because we Asians – and by that I mean Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus – don’t cause trouble,” said Zulkfar. “One black man is killed and there are riots across the UK. Three Asians are killed and you don’t see an MP. That’s why we call here the Bermuda Triangle.”
Their sense of disconnection has been reinforced by constituency boundary changes that many see as a deliberate attempt to marginalise them. Until a few years ago, the Dudley Road was part of upmarket Edgbaston. But then, as the locals see it, the area was “shunted” into neighbouring and poorer Soho which, they claim, damaged their hopes for regeneration. The area’s poverty has made it fertile ground for bail hostels to appear, according to local people. “All the rubbish ends up here,” said one man. “New faces are coming in here all the time and we are asking ourselves ‘who is that?’ I don’t know who’s who any more.”
The use of empty, run-down properties to house the newer immigrant groups has also stoked tensions between different ethnic groups. “When they shut the community centre there were Jamaicans fighting the Somalis for the radiators,” one Asian man recalled.
Local people speak fatalistically but not angrily. They are gloomy about their prospects but most are not talking about retribution or revenge. Instead, they are more interested in trying to articulate why their area, like many others in England’s inner cities, is so vulnerable to looting and violence.
All of the Dudley Road’s problems – racial tensions, inadequate policing, poverty – that exploded in a single horrific act of violence had been building up for years, they say. They had been warning problems were in danger of spiralling out of control but they lived in the Bermuda Triangle and no one had paid any attention.
“If we were talking about the deaths of three white ladies from Harborne [a smart Birmingham suburb] then there would be a national scandal and something would get done,” Azam said. “But nothing will happen because it’s us. The media and the politicians will move on in a few days and that will be the end of that.”
Westminster’s response to the tragedy seems to have reinforced this belief. “We lost three people the other day,” one man said. “And David Cameron went to Wolverhampton, 20 minutes down the road. He didn’t come here.”