Five years ago this month, a street protest was held after a young black man was shot dead by police in an inner city. Not a story from the USA, but from London, England.

That protest escalated into riots, and then into mass looting across London and other cities across Britain. For a week, Britain’s cities burned. An estimated 48,000 local businesses suffered financial losses as a result of the chaos. The disturbances were the worst the country had seen in a generation.

Five years on, many of those worst affected are still coming to terms with the events of that week. In the west London suburb of Ealing, a group of about 50 rioters set upon a row of small, independent shops and cafes.

Polka Rastovic was serving drinks at Crispins Wine Bar that night — the local bar that she has run with her husband for the last 35 years. She received a warning from a nearby pub that the police were recommending that all shops send their customers home and close for the evening. So she locked up, turned off the lights and hid, just behind the bar. Then it started.

“Suddenly it happened — so many of them. First they broke the windows. Then they started coming in."

A few doors down, Amrit and Ravi Khurmy locked up their convenience store, the Ealing Green Local, for the evening, but returned when they heard that a crowd was gathering. When they arrived, people had broken through the windows, and were beginning to strip the shelves of goods.

"It was a horror," Amrit remembers. "We stood and watched [the shop], full of people with masks on. My husband wanted to go and stop them, but I was holding him back, crying."

Some of those stealing goods even appeared to be friendly, Amrit says. "I remember one of the girls was coming out [of the shop] with lots of things and she said ‘you can go in — there’s plenty of things inside.’ I couldn’t tell her this is my store you’re doing this to. I was so scared."

In Crispins Wine Bar, Polka had been joined by her adult son. As the rioters began destroying the bar, they retreated and locked themselves into the kitchen at the back of the bar. That room had an exit that they hoped to be able to use if they needed an escape. "It was an incredible noise from the bar — I could hear it," remembes Polka. "We just waited."

But then they began to hear footsteps on the roof of the kitchen, and wondered if they had been cut off. At the same time, a smell of smoke was growing stronger. "We could smell the burn," Polka says. "We thought — are we going to get out?"

In fact, the smoke was coming from shops farther along the block, including the Khurmy's store. By the end of the evening, it had been set on fire, along with the apartments above. Even the chocolate bars had been looted. 

Polka and her son eventually escaped into the kitchen of a nearby restaurant where they felt safer. When they emerged, they found the bar had been trashed. Wine bottles and glasses had been smashed everywhere, soaking everything. But Polka says she was just glad to be safe. 

Since then, all the shops looted on Ealing Green have had a hard time recovering. Some have folded, unable to shoulder the cost of remaining closed and trying to rebuild. Both Crispins Wine Bar and the Khurmy's store were insured, but no insurance payouts were ever made. 

The Khurmys did get government compensation, and did find things easier after their plight was mentioned in parliament. Things were often very tight financially. Many of the small luxuries that they enjoyed as a family were no longer possible. Music lessons for their teenage daughters were canceled, for example. But Amrit says it has made them stronger."

What made it possible for both businesses to survive was the support of their customers. People insisted on drinking at Crispins even before the clean up was finished. Amrit remembers her regular customers coming in to buy a newspaper and paying with a £10 (approximately $7) note. It was a message, she says.

And the hardship of the last five years has changed the family, Amrit believes. "It’s taught us a lot. It’s shown us anything can change any time. It’s brought us together as a family. Because we had to suffer together."

From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI