Written and Photography by Lars Polderman
For my fieldwork report, I wanted to pick something a bit different than what you would normally expect when you think of a disaster site. There were a lot of different disaster sites to choose from, but in the end, there was only one that really caught my eye. Like I said before, I wanted to pick something different, not an open field where there is only a monument left or a building that burned down. I wanted to pick something that had a more human element, even though in my case the human element was the one that caused the disaster.
For my disaster, I went to shopping mall Ridderhof Alphen aan den Rijn. A shooting took place here on April 9th, 2011 in which 7 people were killed and 16 were injured. Three people had to be rushed to the hospital in critical condition. The perpetrator, a local by the name of Tristan van der Vlis committed suicide by shooting himself in the head after he was done committing his terrible deed. The event was seen as a disaster where a lot of feelings of shock and tragedy were expressed, especially since it was the biggest attack in the Netherlands after the attack on the royal family in 2009. This is what drew me to do an ethnographic visit to the disaster site, also because I live only 25 minutes from where it happened and a shooting like this almost never happens here in the Netherlands.
For this fieldwork report, I decided to make two visits to the shopping mall in Alphen aan den Rijn. One during the week on a Thursday, the other time on a Saturday during the weekend. I will first describe my two visits to the site, I will describe what I saw and the feelings and thoughts I had while walking around there. After that, I will go a little bit more into my general reflections about this disaster and my experience being there.
First visit and experience
For my first observation, I went to the shopping mall on a Thursday at the beginning of the afternoon because I thought it would be less busy. It would also give me a chance to observe the site more calmly so I could take everything in better, especially since it would be my first time visiting the site and I had no idea what to expect. So as the day came to visit the site I got into my car, having looked up the best was to get there the night before, it said it should be only a 25-minute drive to get there.
This is when the first real realization that I was going to visit the site kicked in. I remembered seeing the shooting on the news back in 2011 and my mother saying how something so terrible could happen so close to where we live. That is what hit me the hardest, the fact that it was close to home. Although the perpetrator was a Alphen aan den Rijn local, it might have just as well have happened in my hometown. This is when the visit became more real to me, the thought that people were just going about their daily lives doing their groceries and then out of nowhere the shooting starts and their lives would never be the same again. To me, it seemed almost surreal. Living in the Netherlands we have all seen the mass shootings happening in The United States, where they seem to happen a lot more frequently. A mass shooting isn't something I expected to happen here so close to where I live, especially with the laws surrounding owning and using guns being a lot stricter. These were just some of the thoughts I had while I was driving towards Alphen aan den Rijn.
In the end with some help, the shopping mall wasn’t that difficult to find. There was a carpark underneath the shopping mall with an escalator that brought me straight up in the shopping mall itself. Little did I know that I had already passed the monument they made to remember the shooting on my way to the entrance of the car park. I will get back to this at a later time. So here I was standing in the shopping mall almost 5 years after it happened. Two weeks before it was the actual day itself April 9th, the day on which the shooting every year is remembered. I started walking around the shopping mall, going wherever I wanted to go not with any particular route in mind.
I started to look around for any traces that might still be visible. On the surface, there wasn't much that was visible, which I expected. It is still a shopping mall where people come to do their shopping. There are no more bullet holes or chalk lines on the ground. Everything has been fixed and it looks like just a normal shopping mall. So on the surface, there wasn't much to see, but what about the traces that might be less visible on a first glance. For me, it started with a feeling, a feeling that I in a way had felt before at others places. It was a feeling like there was something off, something weird. For me it felt weird to walk around at a place where something terrible happened but where it isn't visible anymore. It is sort of a choked-up feeling, the feeling that I had a pit in my stomach. I thought this feeling was quite an interesting one to have since the only other time I had felt that way was when I visited similar places where something terrible had happened, like the 9/11 memorial or the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is not that I am saying that they are the same because they cannot really be compared.
But I did have the same feeling walking around there, a feeling that makes you quiet and makes you fully realize that you are actually there. After I had let that feeling sink in a bit more, I continued to walk around. I did a full scan of the area, to see how big the shopping mall actually is and what kind of stores are in the shopping mall. Pretty much everything you would expect is there. Multiple grocery stores, both big and small. They had a place that sold flowers and a place that sold fish. Compared to shopping malls that are closer to where I live, the place is not as big, but it has everything that one might need. This also made me think about the fact that on a busy day like the Saturday afternoon when the shooting happened, a lot of people would be there. A lot of families with children as well.
During my first visit, this wasn't the case at all, there were hardly any people. It looked like there were no more than two people in every store. The place with the most people were the grocery stores. To me it felt like the disaster that happened here had sucked the life out of the place. It felt kind of like an abandoned ghost town. There were still people there walking around, but I didn't get the same feeling in this shopping mall as I would walking around in a different one. To me, it seemed like this place had never been the same after the shooting happened. It isn't something one would notice at first glance, but if you walk around for a while it is a feeling that will slowly creep up on you.
Another thing I maybe would not have noticed if I did not know about it before were the many abandoned stores. The day before I made my first visit to the site there was a special episode of the Dutch television show ‘Pauw’ where they had a segment called: ‘The drama in Alphen: 5 years later". In this segment, they had several people around the table who were in one way or another specialized in the situation surrounding the shooting in Alphen aan den Rijn. Not only that, there were also 6 people in the studio who were there on the day itself. Some of them were wounded by the shooter, others saw the whole thing play out right before their eyes. For me, one of the most interesting eyewitness accounts was that of a shop owner who got shot in the shoulder, due to nerve and muscle damage he was left with a minimal function of his arm and was no longer able to pick up any heavy things. The man was the owner of a small grocery store and in the months following the shooting he tried to stay afloat. Before the shooting, his store in the Ridderhof was one of the most popular and most profitable, he was the owner of four stores in total. He thought the people would eventually come back, he even held special offer with severe discounts. In the end, there just weren't that many people coming to the store anymore and he was forced to eventually close the store. To my surprise, even 5 years later the place where the small grocery store used to be was still empty.
Not only that, but two other places which once housed shops were empty and available for rent or for sale. To me, the sight of the empty stores turned out to be one of the most visible traces of what had happened. Many people just weren't as eager to shop there anymore and that's why to me it looked like the life was sucked out of the place. This idea was confirmed when I was standing outside the grocery store, the Albert Heijn. To me, it just didn't feel right to walk up to people and ask them some questions about the shooting. I consciously decided to not conduct any interviews but to stand or sit somewhere and listen in to see if I heard anything interesting. While I was standing near the Albert Heijn an old lady was almost done at the checkout. I heard the old lady and the cashier talking about the fact that the day the shooting happened was coming up again soon. The old lady said to the cashier that she does her grocery here out of necessity, but that the place even 5 years later was still giving her an uneasy feeling.
Visit to the monument
After I had walked around I decided to go outside and do a lap around the shopping mall to see if I could find anything interesting. I was also looking for the monument since it wasn’t inside the mall or in front of the main entrance, the place I thought the monument would most likely be. After walking around the mall for a bit I still had not found the monument, which to me was weird. A monument is normally easily found. I was almost ready to give up and ask someone when I saw something in the distance. It was a tree planted in a round pot standing in a small circular square. I had finally found the monument in a place I did not expect, at the back of the shopping mall surrounded by houses and flats.
On the front of the stone plant pot, it said April 9th, 2011 and on the side, the names were engraved of the people that died during the shooting. In the plant pot were some candles and some flowers but there wasn't much else. To me, the monument did not feel like much of a monument at all. First off it is located at what I thought was a really random place at the back of the shopping mall, I could not even find it at first and I apparently had already passed it on my way to the parking garage. To me, the shooting was a very significant moment but it got the most basic of monuments. It is not very clear what the monument should signify, maybe something like, that even with all that had happened something is growing again. I could not think of anything else. This is the only monument that memorializes the shooting and to me it did nothing. It doesn’t interact with any other symbolic structures because it is on all sides surrounded by houses.
The choice to pick that kind of monument and the place it is located at are still very strange to me. I was almost at the end of my first visit and the last thing I saw was the monument. While I was driving home, I was still thinking about the monument. In the end, it was the shopping mall itself, the empty stores and the way it made me feel that activated the memory. Before I got there I thought I would be seeing the monument that would activate the memory, but in the end, it was the complete opposite.
Although it was during my first visit that I saw and experienced the most, I will still describe my second visit which was a shorter one. For my second visit to the site, I decided to go on a Saturday, at a time where I thought there would be a lot more people. To my surprise, there were not a lot more but still quite a few more than during my first visit. Although not as much as you would expect of a shopping mall during the weekend. For this visit, I decided not to walk around randomly but to try and follow the path the shooter took when he arrived at the scene.
After reading a lot of online newspaper articles and especially the one from the Volkskrant I knew what had happened. At 12:08 Tristan parked his car in a parking lot outside of the Ridderhof. This is where he shot his first victim. After that, he entered the shopping mall and he walked around for 3,5 minutes shooting all around him before he eventually reached the Albert Heijn where he shot himself in the head and killed himself. I decided to trace back his steps to see if there was any logic behind it, however crazy this may seem. The only thing I found out was that the Albert Heijn supermarket was at the end of a corridor next to a door through which you could exit the building. It was literally the end of the road for him, he probably thought he had reached the end and this was the best place to commit suicide.
The idea behind walking this route was to give my walk a bit more structure, although I didn’t see any different traces in the landscape or the shopping mall. I did have the same feeling I described during my first visit, especially when I was trying to trace the shooters steps. The place did seem more alive during my second visit but not by much. I still had the same feeling of there something being off. Just like the first time I ended my fieldwork by having another look at the monument. Since the memorial date was coming up quickly there were a bit more flowers that were laid under the tree.
I even saw that a man took a moment to look and stare at the monument. The look on his face pretty much said it all, I wanted to talk to him but it just didn’t feel right and I wanted to respect his privacy. This was the last thing I saw before I drove home again.
I thought my two visits to the disaster site were very interesting. It wasn’t the interaction with the landscape itself that was the most interesting to me, it was the experience walking around observing trying to look for both the visible and the invisible. Since my disaster site is not an empty field or a burned out building but a shopping mall that people still use, there wasn't a lot of interaction I could do with the landscape. I could have conducted informal interviews but with my own experience being there it just didn't feel ethically right. If I would ever have to make a recommendation for a further study by me or someone else it would be to do make the decision to conduct interviews. This way people could talk you through their experience and maybe give an entirely different perspective. Thoughts about the monument from people that live or were there at the time of the shooting could be in there as well. Since this fieldwork report was mostly about my own experience I decided not to do it.
To read about this disaster wouldn't have been enough for me, it was myself being present at the site that made the biggest impact. I can only imagine what the people might have experienced that day. Something you will never forget and every time you go there you get reminded of again and again. Like I said before, this is probably the main reason a lot of people stopped going to this shopping and a lot of shops were forced to close. Although the psychological trauma wasn't visible for me, I still think this is the class theme that my experience drew out for me the most. It was my own experience and the feelings and thoughts I had while I was walking around that were most import to me. It was my own reaction to the disaster and the hope to have even a little understanding of what had happened that day and what the people have gone through. Even after all these years, the psychological trauma of the people that had to experience the shooting is still there and it isn’t going away. It probably never will.
Even though I wasn't there that day, my visit to the disaster site still made a big impact on me and it is something I am not going to forget anytime soon. I did not have many expectations before I started conducting my fieldwork. I expected to not see a lot of visible traces of what had happened. In the end, it wasn't the traces that lay on the surface that was the most interesting, it was the things that weren't as visible. The feelings and thoughts I had whilst walking around and my experience all around. It wasn't the monument that activated the memory of hearing and seeing the disaster back in 2011, it was me being present there walking around experiencing the place on my own. Although it seemed to me that the life was sucked out of the shopping mall, there are still people doing their shopping there and going about their daily lives. Normally this would be me as well, so in the end, it was really fun and interesting to walk around consciously and to just observe, feel and experience.
 Peter van der Ploeg 9 April 2011 http://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2011/04/09/meerdere-doden-bij-schietpartij-alphen-aan-de-rijn bezocht op 10-04-2016
 Redactie 11 juli 2011 Wat weten we nu over Tristan van der V.? http://www.volkskrant.nl/binnenland/wat-weten-we-nu-over-tristan-van-der-v~a2622997/ 09-04-2016
Achtergrond: Dit is wat we weten over de schietpartij in Alphen aan den Rijn Nu.nl - 27 maart 2018 11:13 Op 9 april 2011 schoot Tristan van der Vlis vijf mensen dood in winkelcentrum Ridderhof in Alphen aan den Rijn, waarna hij zelfmoord pleegde. Ook overleed een man aan een hartaanval tijdens het incident en vielen er zeventien gewonden. Dit is wat we weten over het schietdrama. Lees meer...