“It started there,” said Tony Bello as he pointed at a Money Shop pawnbroker on Rye Lane, in Peckham, South London. He then motioned across the street to the charred remains of his neighbour’s lingerie shop.
Until Monday, Peckham was a south London district known for bustling African beauty salons, Asian markets and as the setting of the 1980s British sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’. Like many Peckham business owners, Mr Bello, 48, immigrated from Nigeria. Known to his wife Juliet and four daughters as “Taiwo” meaning twin, he moved to the UK in 1985 and opened the Africana Salon on Rye Lane in 2008.
“Before this, people were always coming into my shop,” he said. “It was like a big family.”
On the day of the riot, Mr Bello said he arrived at his salon around 10am. Customers arrived and work proceeded normally until around 6pm when fellow shopkeepers warned him that violent youths had gathered on Rye Lane. “I told my customers to leave,” he said. “My neighbours asked me to close, but I said no. I didn’t think the kids would loot my shop; then I saw they were mad.”
“I was so afraid,” he said. “There were about 50 kids in the road and the Money Shop was the first to be attacked. Six or seven smashed the front door, then went inside and smashed the till.”
Mr Bello watched from inside his salon as the mob wreaked havoc. “The kids went to a pram shop, but the shutters were too heavy, so they went to the women’s wear shop two doors down from me and ransacked the place,” he said. “Women started putting on bras to steal as many as possible. Then some kids threw a canister in the door and the building caught on fire.”
Mr Bello said he repeatedly dialed emergency services, but police and fire fighters did not arrive as soon as he had hoped.
“The police came in a van, but they weren’t chasing the kids,” he said. “The fire brigade took nearly two hours to come. By then the flames were everywhere and took them an hour to put it out.”
Police escorted Mr Bello and others into an alley behind the row of shops. As flames from the burning shop spread, residents of nearby apartments fled into the alley. Around 1am, police ordered residents home, Mr Bello said, adding that no one was injured.
“I was lucky,” he explained. “My shop only got smoke damage. If the fire brigade had come quickly the damage wouldn’t have been so bad. My shop will lose £15,000 (17,000 euros) to £20,000 (23,000 euros) but my neighbour lost over half a million pounds. The building was insured, but what about the contents? Are we to pick up the bill?”
“We hope our customers will come back,” he said. “That is our prayer.”
‘Hackney is broken’ says youth worker
Thomas Bubi-Mukambilwe is a local hackney resident who works with African youths and families just off Mare Street – the scene of Monday’s violence.
“Around 2pm I saw a small group of young people gathering outside McDonalds with their blackberries. Then they started calling more and more people. Before long there were hundreds of youths, lines of riot police and two helicopters… it was like Afghanistan.”
Hackney has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the UK, with over a third of 18-24 year olds out of work. It is also one of London’s poorest boroughs.
“There are no more job opportunities for young people here and it doesn’t help that the government has closed down most of the youth clubs. There are only 2 or 3 left, there used to be 12. So you find more and more youths out on the street with nothing to do.”
Since the Metropolitan Police upped the number of forces on the streets to 16,000 the rioting has calmed down in the capital. However, it will take a long time to build back trust in the community.
“A lot of people now are very fearful, on the bus, on the street, in their local shop. They’d rather lock themselves in at home. Hackney is broken, London is burning you know. Everyone needs to come together and talk with young people then hopefully we will bring back some harmony to London.”