Her name was Birna Brjánsdóttir. Loved by family and friends, but otherwise unknown to the rest of Iceland. Until January 14, when suddenly the entire nation began to hope for her safety.
It wasn't just the thriller-like criminal investigation that sparked our interest. It wasn't solely that murders are exceedingly rare in Iceland, and that each and every case makes the national news. It was the fact that she was just a regular twenty-year-old girl. She had recently enrolled in philosophy at the University of Iceland, and she had been working shifts at a local department store.
When police released CCTV footage, desperately seeking witnesses, many of us thought: This could have been me. A whole generation of Icelandic women could picture themselves walking home on her wobbly feet, late at night after a long party, and, most significantly, alone.
We waited for a whole week after the investigation began, but it seemed like forever. The enormous popular interest spawned an immense number of tips on where she might be found, but to no avail. On the eighth day, they found her, washed ashore by the North Atlantic, stark naked.
Iceland, which is regularly awarded the title "most peaceful country in the world," has an exceedingly low rate of violent crime. In 2003, 2006, and 2008, not a single homicide was committed here. Add to that the feeling of closeness in a nation of only 330,000 people. Reykjavik's nightlife is a bit like Cheers, where everybody knows your name.
Icelanders also have an inherently insouciant approach to life in general. It runs on a scale from the profoundly stoic to devil-may-care heedlessness. Ask an Icelander how they plan to solve any impending problem and he'll answer: "þetta reddast!": it will all work out somehow.
Perhaps we all suffer from optimism bias, the tendency to consistently (and sometimes deliberately) underestimate the risk of negative consequences. The "it won't happen to me" syndrome. But Birna's death punctured that illusion.
In the course of the week Birna was missing, the case developed into one of the biggest criminal investigations in recent times, and was certainly among the top ten media frenzies. Fingers glued to the refresh button, we learned that her boots had been found by Hafnarfjörður harbour, close to Reykjavik. Soon after, Icelandic special forces were on a helicopter chasing after a Greenlandic fishing vessel that had been docked in the harbour and whose sailors had rented a car that was allegedly seen on the aforementioned CCTV tape.
Her blood was found in the car, police have confirmed, and local broadcaster RUV has sources saying that her ID was found in a garbage bin onboard the ship. She was finally found washed ashore on the black sand of Iceland's southern coast. Despite the strangle marks on her neck, the autopsy found that the cause of death was drowning. She was naked when she was found, but police have refrained from commenting on whether they found signs of sexual assault. One of the Greenlandic sailors is awaiting trial on the charge of murdering Birna.
With this single, horrific death, young Icelandic women, en masse, developed a fear for the stranger lurking in the dark corner on the lonely walk home. For years, I used to live just up the street from where Birna was last seen, and by god, did I stagger drunkenly home on the weekends. Though I'm not living in Iceland now and have swapped the partying for two small kids, Birna's death made me, and many women I know, reconsider our heedlessness. Some of my Icelandic friends were suddenly swapping the tipsy walk for a taxi ride. They would check on each other and text to let each other know that they'd arrived home safely. Some even say that they avoided partying downtown.
"I didn't know her, but it felt so close. She'd been partying at Húrra, where I frequently go, had grabbed a snack at my favorite kebab joint on her way home, and then walked a street that I walk every week," says Elín Inga Bragadóttir, 27, who works for Unicef in Reykjavik.