By Gethin Chamberlain in Brzeg, Poland, for The Sunday Telegraph, 7 October 2007
It was in the little notes she wrote home to her family in Poland that Magda Pniewska revealed the silent anguish behind the smiling face of a young woman who had travelled to Britain in search of a better life.
“I wish I could be back home with you,” Magda wrote to her parents in the little town of Brzeg. “I love you, I miss you.”
Like hundreds of thousands of her fellow Poles, the 26-year-old had seized on her country’s entry into the European Union to move abroad in search of a better quality of life. She loved the people and she loved the lifestyle, she wrote in letter to a friend. But she was also scared.
The violence she saw all around her on the streets of south London was something she had only witnessed in the movies before, Magda told her mother. She took her dog with her for safety, put bars on her windows and rarely ventured out alone.
The last time she was home in Brzeg, in August, an old friend saw her dancing at the hotel where she had gone to discos as a teenager. She lit up the room. “She was shining, she was elegant,” he said.
advertisementMagda flew back to London that same night. Within two months, she was dead, caught in the crossfire between two rival London gangs, the latest innocent victim of a gun culture that has become the scourge of many of Britain’s inner cities.
The young care worker had left work at the Bupa-run Manley Court home in New Cross in south-east London just before 6.20pm last Tuesday, intending to walk the 150 yards to the flat she shared with her 25-year-old fiancé, Radek Lipka.
She was chatting excitedly on her mobile phone to her sister Elzbieta, 34, back home in Brzeg, telling her about a trip she had made to Paris with Radek the previous weekend.
If she saw the teenage gunmen, one at the top of a flight of steps, the other standing by a red Volkswagen Polo parked outside a block of council flats, it appears she was unaware of the danger.
“I am on my way home, I am carrying toys for my dog, I am going up the steps,” she told her sister.
A moment later, Elzbieta heard the sound of gunshots. She heard Magda’s bags hit the pavement, then only silence. “Hello?” Elzbieta said. “Hello? Hello?” But there was no reply.
A stray bullet had hit Magda in the head and by the time the ambulance reached King’s College Hospital, there was nothing doctors could do to save her.
Magda Pniewska arrived in Britain on May 12, 2004. It was the day of her 23rd birthday and her second attempt to make a go of life in the UK. Three days earlier, Poland had joined the European Union, removing the need for its citizens to seek special permission to work in other EU countries.
The economic case for decamping to Britain was a strong one. Poland’s minimum wage is less than £1 an hour. In the UK, the minimum wage is £5.52 an hour. The average monthly salary in Poland is £316 — a third of the EU average, and only a sixth of the UK average of £1,877. While Poland suffers from an unemployment rate of 14 per cent, Britain has one of the lowest in Europe, at just 4.7 per cent.
Those statistics now mean little to Magda’s parents, Barbara, 52, and Ryszard, 58. This weekend, in their small flat on the top floor of a concrete apartment block in Brzeg, they have only memories of their daughter.
“She always used to promise that she would look after me when I got old,” her mother said. “One day, when she was seven or eight, I pointed out an old lady in the street and said I would look like that one day and Magda said ‘No, if you look so wrinkled, then I will iron you’.”
The Pniewska’s apartment is dark, every spare inch of space on the wooden wall unit in the living room cluttered with cheap ornaments. A weak light struggles through net curtains drawn across a window that affords an uninspiring view out over a bleak skyline of urban degeneration.
Magda wrote often, sending birthday and Christmas cards, cards for Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day, professing her love for her parents and her sorrow at being apart. “She always used to say that she would come back, she wasn’t planning to stay away,” Mrs Pniewska said. “She used to cry a lot because she had to be away from her parents. Every time she couldn’t come back for Christmas it was a big tragedy.”
Mrs Pniewska drew on a Marlboro Light, crying in sorrow and anger, railing against the injustice that had befallen them. “Why did my daughter have to die? London is very dangerous. She said it was like in the movies, she could not believe it. There is so much crime. The city should be safe. Where is the government? Where are the police?”
On a visit home, Magda had told her parents she was afraid and that she heard gunshots at night and sometimes even during the day. She had taken her dog, Bandera, over to England with her for protection, and seldom left the flat alone.
“She only felt safe here [in Brzeg]. If something happens in London, nobody does anything about it, but if something happens here people do something about it,” said her mother.
Until last Tuesday, Magda’s story was not dissimilar to that of many of her fellow Poles who have seized the chance to move away from home in search of the riches of the West. After passing her school exams, Magda took a job in the UK as a carer, but she was back within six months due to loneliness.
Back in Poland, Magda enrolled at university in the nearby city of Wroclaw to study management, but in 2004, a year into her course, she received an offer to return to Britain to work in the care home. She was two years older and thought it would be different, her mother said. And, more importantly, she could earn £1,200 a month.
“England is not so attractive. People leave Poland because they don’t have work,” said Mrs Pniewska. Magda’s two sisters, Elzbieta, 34, and Marzena, 32, both still live and work in Brzeg. Elzbieta is an engineer and Marzena a physical therapist, but their mother said it was hard for them to make a living. Marzena, she said, earned 150 euros a month, almost all of which went to cover her bills. “That is what makes young, well-educated people go abroad,” she said.
Wojciech Huczynski, 48, the mayor of Brzeg, said the city was cheaper and safer than London, but people knew they could earn more in the UK. His own wife, a doctor, earned just 3,500 zlotys a month (about £600). “That is why people go,” he admitted.
Magda’s killing has shocked Poles and the newspapers and television channels have been full of questions about how such a thing could have been allowed to happen.
Poland has an almost identical crime rate to Great Britain, but the vast majority of incidents are petty offences such as theft, and violent crime in Poland is lower than in the UK.
In contrast, south London has been plagued by gun crime in recent years. In the past 12 months, the Metropolitan Police recorded almost 900 gun-related offences in Lambeth, Southwark, Lewisham and Wandsworth alone.
That has been enough to convince some of those who travelled to Britain in search of a better life that the cost in terms of personal safety is too high to pay.
Anna Kedys, 23, went to the same local nightclub in Brzeg as Magda and also went to London, but she returned a month later. “I missed my family and friends,” she said. “London is scary. There are so many people and different nationalities and there is a lot of tension.”
Local police spokesman Miroslav Dziadek said that in his 18 years in Brzeg, he had never come across anything remotely like the killing of Magda.
Sometimes there was a murder, he said: maybe one in a year, sometimes none, but never involving guns. Thefts were the most common crime. “The troublemakers stay in this country, they don’t need to go abroad to work, they get involved in crime here.
“Only people who want to work hard go abroad and they are expecting to be paid well for their work. It is either the people who have finished university or the skilled workers.”
He simply could not conceive of a situation where gangs could roam the streets shooting at each other.
“We would put more people on the streets and check all the dodgy places to look for these guys.”
Maybe people respected the police more, he said, because they carried guns.
“Every policeman has a gun. If he goes out he takes a gun. It makes an impression on people. Knowing that a policeman has a gun and he will use it if he has to makes people more law-abiding.”
According to Magda’s parents, she had been planning to return to Poland to marry and start a family. She was looking forward to spending her first Christmas with her parents for four years and had already bought the ticket, taking advantage of a cheap deal.
Instead, with the help of the town’s mayor, her family are now making arrangements to transport her body home.
“We have to carry on living for our daughters and their children,” her mother said, “but it will never be the same again.”
Mr Pniewska had been staring at the table, but then he looked up: “It is like the sunshine in the family has gone out,” he said.