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Gary Younge

Quamari Serunkuma-Barnes: ‘He was an old soul.’
What the life of ‘old soul’ Quamari Serunkuma-Barnes tells us about child knife deaths in Britain

For the first few weeks of Quamari Serunkuma-Barnes’s short life, he did not have a name. “He was my only son and I wanted it to mean something,” says his mother, Lillian Serunkuma, who has two older daughters. “So I didn’t want to rush it.”

Her next-door neighbour, in north-west London, who is Muslim, pledged his help. “There’s a name out there,” he assured her.

“Well, you go through the Qur’an, and I’ll go through the Bible,” said Lillian.

They kept up the search until Lillian received a call from the register office reminding her “the baby” had to be named within 42 days of birth. Then, the neighbour came up with Quamari, which means soldier or star of religion. Lillian liked it.

For a middle name, they chose Jahmal. Paul, his father, liked that. “I wanted Jah in his name somewhere,” says Paul, who was born in Manchester and grew up in London, but whose parents came from Jamaica. “My dad was a Rastafarian. Before [Quamari] could even talk, he liked Bob Marley.”

He sang Wailers tunes like other kids might sing nursery rhymes, and he was a dread for a while, says Paul. “He cut them off when he was about eight. I don’t know why, but he regretted it for a while.”

On the day Quamari was stabbed, in January this year, the paramedics had to cut the red, gold and green beads from his neck to access his knife wounds. Quamari was a slight, small boy who looked younger than his 15 years, and at the impromptu vigil for him the next day, outside Capital City Academy’s school gates, where he was a pupil, many of his peers wrote Marley quotes on their cards and a huge Jamaican flag was hung. He was buried with a framed picture of Marley and three airline tickets from a family holiday to Jamaica he had taken in 2015, when he visited Marley’s mausoleum.

National data on the number of children and teens killed by knives in any given year is not publicly available. So this year, in a series called Beyond the Blade, the Guardian has been tracking the fatalities wherever possible, and profiling the victims. When broader themes emerge, such as cuts in youth services, child and adolescent mental health provision, policing or exclusion policy, we aim to pursue those, too. Quamari was the fifth of 21 children and teens who have been killed by a knife this year; the others have ranged in age from a newborn baby to five 19-year-olds. Ten of those who have died have been in London, three have been girls, nine have been white, 11 have been black and one Asian. All of those who were killed in London were black.

Quamari was born into a musical family. Paul was a DJ and had his own radio show on Life FM, while Quamari’s godmother was Sylvia Tella, a celebrated lovers-rock singer.

Quamari had been helping Paul and a friend load a sound system into a van the day before he was killed; Paul had told his son it felt like the old days. The last film on Quamari’s phone was father and son having a soundclash, a playful musical rivalry.

Quamari wasn’t just into Rastafarian music. He embraced the ethos, too. His favourite song was One Love, and Lillian once got a call from school after he told a teacher he didn’t think education was the be-all and end-all. “I just meant you can reach people on the basis of who you are, even if you don’t have a proper education,” he told her. “Like Bob Marley.”

Quamari “was very conscious,” says Lillian with a smile. Some might say precocious. He could cook a full roast dinner for the family. From an early age, he liked to engage adults in grown-up conversation. He stayed up all night for the 2015 general election, matching the results against expectations. The youngest of Lillian’s children, he liked to play “the man of the house”, questioning her about when she would be home. “He was always an old soul,” says Lillian.

His retro taste in music was just one part of his idiosyncratic nature. “He didn’t mind people laughing at him,” a youth worker tells me. “He wasn’t frightened to be himself. Kids at that age do tend to follow each other. If he wanted to do something, he’d do it.”

When he was much younger, he attended a youth club where he was the only boy who wanted to dance. “He was right there at the opening ceremony with all the girls, rocking out,” says Cheryl Phoenix, who ran the club. “He was brilliant; a fantastic dancer. He was very, very funny.”

This was the boy who left school humming and singing to himself on Monday 23 January. He turned a corner heading home and then started running back towards school, shouting: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”, “Help!” and “I’m getting stabbed!” His school friends thought he was joking, and before they could fathom quite what they were witnessing, it was over.

His attacker, who was masked, taller and faster, had caught up with him and stabbed him three times, once in the back, once in the shoulder and once in the upper thigh. The attacker fled; Quamari lay in the road.

 Quamari Serunkuma-Barnes … ‘He wasn’t frightened to be himself.’ Photograph: Metropolitan police
Quamari Serunkuma-Barnes … ‘He wasn’t frightened to be himself.’ Photograph: Metropolitan police

At that precise moment, Clara (not her real name) drove by with her two-year-old in the car on her way to pick up her son from primary school. She had been daydreaming. “I remember looking at Capital City Academy and thinking: ‘That looks like a nice school … maybe my kids will go there.’ And then it struck me how many children there were on the road. Everywhere. A lot more children than you’d normally see. And then I turned my gaze. Had I looked around quicker, I might have seen what happened. But I didn’t. It happened seconds earlier. I just saw Quamari lying on his side in the middle of the road. All these kids were standing around, but there was nobody next to him so he was on his own.”

The car in front had also stopped, and now Clara got out to see what was going on.

“I knelt down next to him and held his hand, trying to figure out what had happened. Some teenagers shouted: ‘He’s been stabbed!’ And, to be honest, I thought: ‘What with, a scalpel?’ Quamari looked really young. We told the ambulance he was 12.

“I couldn’t believe what had happened. Outside a school at 3.30 in the daytime. And as a mother I just responded to this small child in the middle of the road.”

Clara and the other motorist relayed the situation to the emergency services. They were asked to check his body. That was when Clara discovered his boxers were blood-stained. All around them, the intensity of panicked and startled students, still in shock, built up. They wouldn’t discover the fatal blow to his back, that had pierced his rib and punctured his lung, until later. And they wouldn’t realise it was lethal until later still. “It was January, and it was freezing cold. And I was really worried because he was getting so cold. His face was draining of colour. His lips and hand were getting limper.”

Quamari was still conscious. He told off the policeman who was ordering students to keep their distance to stop shouting at his friends. He asked Clara not to expose his body in full view of everyone. He gave his phone to a teacher who had arrived at the scene and told him the pin number so that he could call his mother.

But every now and then, he would start fading. “He said, about three times: ‘I’m going now,’” recalls Clara, “And he lay his head back. I said: ‘No, you’re not,’ and I’d squeeze his hand and say: ‘Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on your breathing. Help is coming. They’re going to know what they’re doing.’”

The ambulance was there in half an hour. Lillian went with him to the hospital. “There was a white lady and a black man [the other motorist] there who helped me,” Quamari told her, referring to Clara. “Make sure you get her number. She was so nice.”

At the hospital, the initial prognosis was good. Quamari was talking, joking and singing Marley tunes. The school notified the other parents of the incident, but told them he was likely to pull through. Quamari asked the nurse if she would contact Sylvia Tella. “Is that your girlfriend?” she teased and Quamari laughed, explaining she was his famous godmother. Later, Quamari, who had originally told the police that he did not know the attacker, told the nurse who had stabbed him. He went into surgery, came out and stabilised.

Then, quickly, things took a turn for the worse. His heart kept stopping. The surgeons would massage it back and then it would stop again. Eventually, it just stopped altogether.

Less than a week later, at the vigil outside the school gates attended by more than 1,000 people in the light rain, an appeal went out. “Sorry to say it like this,” a speaker said. “But we don’t know her name. Quamari mentioned a white lady who helped him and we’re wondering if she’s here today.”

Clara was in the crowd with her family. She hates speaking in public and did not want to address the crowd. Her husband encouraged her to go to the front and introduce herself. She met Paul for the first time, and they hugged. “Then I saw Paul was going to talk and I thought: if Paul can talk six days after his child has been killed, then I can talk.”

Clara can’t remember what she said. Paul told the crowd: “I know you are all praying for my son but I need you to pray for the boy, too. Don’t hold malice towards the boy who did this.”

When I caught up with him a few months later, I asked Paul where that sense of generosity had come from so soon after losing his son. “I hate what he’s done to our family,” he said, referring to the killer. “But I still haven’t any hate for him. He’s a child. When we go to court and I see this boy, it depends on how his demeanour is. If he’s got no remorse, maybe I might change.”

It is difficult to identify remorse in a teenager at the best of times. And being at the Old Bailey charged with murder is not the best of times. The accused, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was 15 and, as with most 15-year-olds, his demeanour was difficult to read. In a clean, white shirt, grey slacks and black trainers – sometimes with a blue windcheater to guard against the court’s chill – he scrubbed up well, topping it all with a tight cornrow. Most days he walked into the court as though affecting a nonchalant swagger. Tall, dark, slim and handsome, he wandered through the dock swaying not just his shoulders but his whole torso – arms lank and eyes suggesting something between defiance and indifference.

Children are a protected category. As a society, there is a general view that we have a collective responsibility for them. As minors, who lack full maturity and therefore full responsibility, they need protection both by and from their parents and the state. It is also a cornerstone of our judicial system and sense of natural justice that people are innocent until proven guilty. So what we saw during the trial was, as a matter of fact and law rather than liberal projection, an innocent child.

 A tribute left outside Capital City Academy. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
A tribute left outside Capital City Academy. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

The court made some accommodations. The accused was offered half-hour breaks, although he did not take them. During legal arguments, the judges and barristers took off their wigs so as not to intimidate the defendant.

Through the trial, he did not sit in the dock, but just behind his barrister, with his mother. She was small and, with a face too young for life to have put a crease on it yet, could have been his sister. When they both stood up to say goodbye each day as he left court he towered over her and had to bend down for the embrace.

The trial started on 9 June, the day after the general election. Outside, the country changed. Grenfell Tower burned, worshippers at a Finsbury Park mosque were attacked, a heatwave came and went. On the day the defence summed up, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, announced his new knife-crime strategy, in which all secondary schools will be offered knife detectors. In the early hours of the day when the jury asked its last question, Mahad Ali, 18, was stabbed to death outside a warehouse party in west London. That afternoon, Quamari would have graduated.

But inside court 14, the jury focused its intention almost entirely on what took place in a single hour. Thanks to CCTV footage and mobile phone records, they knew the accused was in the area at the time. Other CCTV footage showed someone fitting his body type waiting before school closed, and rushing to and from the crime scene – but you could not see their face. The case hinged in part on whether the jury believed that what became known as “the dark figure” in the footage was the accused.

He did not testify and had no alibi. But then the prosecution had no murder weapon. They also failed to establish a motive. “We will never know what made him wait, watch, see, chase and stab with such severity,” said Sally O’Neill QC, for the prosecution, while summing up.

So another important element was recognition. One schoolgirl initially told the police she didn’t recognise him, only to later identify him as someone she had known for many years. In the hours during which Quamari remained alive after the stabbing he also first said he did not recognise the defendant, and then later identified him to the nurse.

As befits a trial accusing one 15-year-old of attacking another, the jury had to decipher such questions as whether it is reasonable to mistake Nike Air Force 1s for Nike Air Force Max and how easily you can recognise somebody when you’ve only seen them on Instagram for the last couple years. A few times, the jurors were moved to tears, particularly during the testimony of Clara and the nurse.

The defence claimed it was only once the defendant’s name had been widely circulated as the assailant that people changed their minds. “This is a case riddled with doubts,” Kirsty Brimelow QC, for the defence, told the jury in her closing speech. “You’re standing between the lynch mob and the law.”

The jury was out for three days. After it failed to reach a unanimous verdict, the judge asked it to aim for a majority verdict, requiring 10 votes.

It is difficult to know what justice looks like when one 15-year-old is dead and another is on trial for their murder. Naturally, you want the perpetrator to be punished. But if the perpetrator is also a child then, on one level, it seems as if some broader, deeper, more intractable injustice has already been committed. One thrashes about, mostly in vain, for an institution, service or agency to blame; for an intervention that could have helped or a moral safety net with smaller holes that might have caught him. There are preferable outcomes; but there are no good outcomes. If the accused is found not guilty, then either the killer is still out there or he just got away with it. If he is guilty, then one child is still dead and the other’s life is ruined. If we understand that wigs in a court can intimidate teenagers, then what do we imagine 20 years in prison will do?

On the day the verdict was delivered, the accused had combed out his plaits and was ordered to stand in the dock, putting a reinforced screen between him and his mother. Paul sat with his head in his hands, his tear ducts brimming. When the foreman announced the guilty verdict, his head remained in his hands and caught the tears. When I squeezed Lillian’s hand on the way out of the court, I could see she had also been weeping. Lillian left immediately.

Paul paced the hallway outside the court that had been his home and office for the best part of a month, taking it all in. He looked out of the window to see if his sisters, who were in the public gallery, had emerged. He hugged the police involved. By the time he was making his way out, the mother of the accused was just leaving the court.

For the past month, they had been avoiding each other. Now they clung to each other. Both crying.

“I’m sorry,” he told her. “I just wanted justice for my son.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

Additional reporting by Damien Gayle

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