Why road to Syria peace could begin in a sleepy Swedish farmhouse
The incessant trilling of the larks was still the dominant sound at Backåkra, a traditional ‘fyrlängad’ – a four-sided, half-timber farmhouse, overlooking a sun-bathed coastal heath sprinkled with purple flowers.
But this peaceful, secluded corner of Österlen, the southeastern corner of the Swedish county of Skåne, will on Saturday be crawling with specialist security officers, diplomats and journalists as the UN security council meets for its annual retreat.
With just six small windows built into the white, lime-washed walls of the farmhouse, it is hard to see how 15 council representatives and 10 UN officials will fit inside.
Speaking in New York before his departure for Sweden, Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, appeared concerned at being forced into such close proximity with his counterparts from the United States, France and Britain.
The week running up the meeting saw the two sides accusing each other of lying about the chemical attack in Syria. “I will see how they feel about dealing with me after all what happened,” Nebenzia said.
Should diplomatic tensions rise, the only easy escape will be to a meditation circle 300 metres away built at the instigation of Dag Hammarskjöld, the legendary Swedish secretary general of the United Nations, who was killed when his plane crashed in unexplained circumstances in Zambia in 1961.
Hammarskjöld, who bought this farmhouse four years before he died, is the reason that Sweden has chosen to drag the world’s top diplomats so deep into the countryside as part of its two-year term on the council.
After a recent refurbishment, the house was reopened this May for what Karin Erlandsson, its manager, describes as “highly exclusive conferences for companies and organisations who share Dag’s spirit”.
Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallström, said at a press conference on Friday that she hoped the presence of Hammarskjöld’s books, furniture and writings at the house would inspire today’s council members. “He was an extremely brave person with great relevance to the security council,” she said.
The council has been paralysed by acrimonious rifts in the six meetings it has held since the chemical weapons attack on the rebel Damascus suburb of Douma on 7 April.
“I don’t think anyone should have any exaggerated expectations that this whole issue will be solved here,” Wallström said. “It takes time. What we hope is that we will create an opportunity for them to have time to hang out here and to do it in the informal way that such an environment allows.”
The council is also expected to discuss the refugee question and the future of its peacekeeping efforts.
The British ambassador, Karen Pierce, has said she hopes the retreat would at least begin a political process that could eventually lead to peace in Syria. “That’s the most important thing,” she said. “I do hope that the retreat will be able to make progress on that.”
Jill and Jan, two locals out for their morning walk, said that a taste of the Österlen countryside might indeed help Nebenzia and his US counterpart Nikki Haley thrash out their differences.
“Maybe they will have more nice earthy thoughts here,” Jill says. “If you are here, you can let your thoughts wander. You can see the horizon.”
The only time they could remember the village hosting anything similar was when Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden and Queen Sylvia visited the farm in 2005 to celebrate the centenary of Hammarskjöld’s birth.
Then, they say, it poured with rain and, as the party made their way across the field to pay their respect at the meditation circle, Queen Sylvia’s dress became near transparent while another attendee stepped in a cow pat, which went straight through her sandals.
Fortunately for the participants in Saturday’s informal meeting, the house is set to be bathed in sunshine and a late-running winter means the cows have yet to released.
“I’m very happy that we have such great weather,” said Erlandsson. “It’s going to be extra beautiful.”
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