SALISBURY, England – On a sunny afternoon, four figures in hazmat suits trawl among the swings and slides of Salisbury’s Queen Elizabeth Gardens, looking for clues.
Two of them carefully enter the park’s public toilets, reappearing minutes later with a sealed bag. Forensic teams meticulously search the stream flowing through the park. In the middle of the stream, there’s a small island, its sides weathered from years of tiny human feet leaping from one side to the other.
This is the same playground where my sister and I used to frolic, where on Sundays we’d splash about with our friends, and where, in my uncomfortable teens, I’d hang around with other kids smoking cigarettes under the willow trees.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Francesca Ebel has watched events surrounding the nerve agent poisonings unfold in her former hometown of Salisbury from her post in Moscow, where she is a journalist for The Associated Press.
That a deadly nerve agent attack could take place in this sleepy, medieval city in southwest England — my hometown — seems incomprehensible. But Salisbury is where British authorities say the nerve agent Novichok was used against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. Both were hospitalized for weeks but eventually recovered.
Months later, Salisbury locals Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess also were sickened by Novichok — and Sturgess eventually died. Police are trying to determine whether the nerve agent came from the same batch used against the Skripals.
British officials blame the attack on the Russian government, and the Kremlin’s denial of any involvement has done little to stop tensions between Russia and the West rising to heights not seen since the Cold War.
As someone who grew up in Salisbury and who now works as a journalist in Moscow, the attack seems particularly unreal.
When news of the nerve agent attack on the Skripals first flashed on my phone on March 4, I was baffled. I’d never come across any Russians in Salisbury, and as far as I knew, there was little about the town that lent itself to international intrigue.
Soon, Russian news bulletins rolled continuous video of chemical weapons experts sealing off Zizzi’s restaurant on Castle Street, police manning cordons around The Mill pub, and Prime Minister Theresa May visiting the shopping area known as the Maltings.
It all felt like a bad sequel to Edgar Wright’s 2007 spoof “Hot Fuzz,” an absurd police action comedy that takes place in a small English village.
By the end of the first week, Salisbury’s rumor mill was in full swing, and all fingers pointed to Moscow.
A text from my mum read: “Pete next door told me that the chef at Zizzi’s is Russian and he’s disappeared — very suspicious!” Another, from a childhood friend, said: “A friend of the family knows the doctor treating the Skripals. Says they are completely braindead!” British tabloids fell into a similar frenzy: “MAY GIVES PUTIN 24 HOURS TO TELL US TRUTH,” roared the Daily Express. “FROM RUSSIA … WITH HATE,” shrieked Metro. “WE’LL QUIT WORLD CUP OVER RUSSKI SPY TERROR,” threatened the Daily Star.
In Moscow, state TV rejected the British accusations of Russian involvement.
Trade Minister Denis Manturov declared that Russia had destroyed its chemical weapon stockpile in 2017. The suggestion was made that Britain itself was behind the attack in what pro-Kremlin pundits contended was an attempt to stoke anti-Russian hysteria and isolate the country further. Politicians called it “a campaign of Russophobia,” while Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, claimed someone had “planted evidence” to frame Russia.
After a chemical attack in April in Syria, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said investigators had found barrels at the site that had been made “in the city called — guess where? — Salisbury, the U.K.” There has been no evidence to support this.
Then came Sturgess’ death in July. As I followed the coverage of her funeral, I thought about the frailty of “safe” places like Salisbury and how easily that sense of security can be broken.
Some Russian commentators have suggested it’s not surprising that Salisbury could be the site for an attack.
The Ministry of Defense has an army training base at Salisbury Plain nearby, and the U.K. chemical weapons research facility, Porton Down, is only 8 miles (12 kilometers) away. Russian propaganda outlets have cited this as evidence of Britain’s own involvement. Had there been a leak at the laboratory? Could a disgruntled employee have smuggled out vials of Novichok? Or, as the propaganda outlets implied, had the British secret services staged the attack to frame the Kremlin?
Salisbury is located in Wiltshire, a Conservative Party stronghold divided into a rich, military-oriented middle class and a vulnerable working-class population.
The quaint, often boring city is an hour-and-a-half by train from the mad rush of London. Stonehenge sits about 8 miles (13 kilometers) outside the city, and it is not far from England’s principal ports of Southampton, Portsmouth and Poole.
My new home of Moscow is a powerful, electrifying city where the news cycle is constant and no one ever seems to sleep.
Salisbury, by contrast, was always a place where I could cut myself off from the pressures and demands of life, a peaceful lagoon of simplicity where I could focus on my family and where, for a moment, I could forget all about Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
All that has changed dramatically, of course.
The poisonings hit Salisbury’s businesses hard. For a while, visitors were too scared to come into the city center, let alone eat lunch there. The appointment books at my local dentist were empty for months.
Still, the city managed to pull together and a 1 million pound ($1.3 million) government recovery plan is helping to heal the wounds.
Previously haughty locals have befriended the cheerful police manning the cordons around Queen Elizabeth Gardens and Zizzi’s restaurant. Shop fronts on the Maltings are slowly reopening, and tourists are returning.
And there’s even some local acknowledgement of my hometown’s indelible link to this bizarre story: A window display at a bookstore exhibiting spy novels and books on Russia.