Written and Photography by Octavia Aronne
The cover photo (figure 1) captures what now remains at the site of the Schiphol-Oost Detention Centre Fire. Soon after October 26-27, 2005 the Centre was shut down and dismantled. All we see now is a barren, unkempt field stretching out towards Schiphol Airport. The field is behind a barbed wire fence and barriers, and I needed permission to approach the edges of this patch of grass. Close by, in this isolated and hidden part of Amsterdam, there is a memorial for the eleven lives lost.
This report explores the memory and the impact of the Schiphol-Oost Detention Centre Fire through two fieldwork visits: one to the newly constructed detention center, at Schiphol-Noord, and the other to the old detention center site, at 64 Ten Pol, Schiphol-Oost, near Oude Meer. The visits provided a unique set of experiences and understanding of the disaster. Using observations and interviews, I attempt to deconstruct, connect and report on the event, underlining the relationships to the site.
The Memory in the Landscape: The First Stages of Fieldwork
The new detention center at Schiphol-Noord exists because of the Schiphol-Oost disaster. The official investigation into the fire highlighted the structural weaknesses of the old center and the need for greater safety standards. A completely new establishment in a different location was constructed (Dutch Safety Board, 2006). Despite being roughly ten kilometers away from the original site, the memory of the incident is carried to the new center through monthly vigils organized by the Schiphol Wakes group. Schiphol Wakes is a non-profit organization formed primarily of churchgoers and activists against arbitrary detention. Between Christmas and Easter, on the first Sunday of each month, a different church hosts a vigil. My visit to the new detention center coincided with one of these vigils. These wakes transform the new detention center at Schiphol-Noord into a symbolic site. In a ceremonial, ritualistic way, the Schiphol Wakes carries traces of the disaster to the new center and proves to be a profound force in binding the memory of the fire to the landscape.
On my journey to Schiphol Airport, I reflected on my new residence in the Netherlands. It had been six weeks since I moved, so I was keenly aware of my surroundings and routine, the few friends I had made and my readjustment to further education and dealing with the anthropological material. I was conscious of my excitement and trepidation as I approached my first experience of academic fieldwork. I wondered if anyone from the Schiphol Wakes was going to be there on this rainy day.
Lise, my anthropology colleague, met me at Schiphol Arrivals Lounge and together we went to catch the bus to the detention center. We had to ask several staff members where the correct bus stop was. The minute we uttered the word “cellencomplex,” we noticed raised eyebrows and glares. We were finally directed to the far end of the platform, and as we waited Lise and I chatted about what we wanted to do after university. We bonded over our shared ambitions to work in Medical Anthropology, but my thoughts of the detainees we were about to visit made me feel ashamed of discussing my future, potential, and freedom.
When the bus arrived, a group of military police waiting to board chivalrously let us on first. A young officer in uniform asked us whether we knew where we were going and if we needed any help. Lise cheerily explained that we were going to the detention center, and again we noticed strange looks. The men’s attitude irked me, and made me a bit nervous: what was I was doing? Was it right to go to this place? They reminded me of the ethical considerations surrounding my visit and reminded me of my otherness. Would my visit be contentious or disrespectful towards the Dutch government? This government has kindly let me stay. Would it be offensive or wrong if I participated in this protest?
After only a few minutes we arrived at the new center. There was no one outside, so we entered the reception area. It was no larger than a classroom. There were a few people sitting in the two rows of seats, and attendants behind secure, glass cubicles directly opposite the entrance. It was silent and felt clean and clinical. There was little movement or vibrancy. We immediately sensed we were in the wrong place for the wake and were unwelcome, so we went back outside.
As we walked the length of the detention center, the walls of the complex struck me. In an eerie addition to the center’s architecture, the smooth cement surface was interrupted by small spherical bumps (figure 2).
Figure 2. Schiphol Noord Detention Centre Walls, 06/03/201
These bumps formed a crescent shape, like a half moon or a rising sun. I recalled the Schiphol Wakes website and a blog entry on a visit to the “kippenvelgevangenis”, which I translated to mean “the chicken-skin” or “goosebump” prison. Goosebumps are normally used to describe the body’s reaction to fear, tension or cold. The exterior “skin” of the prison, unintentionally and ironically personifies the emotions that the prisoners within the center could be feeling.
We continued walking along, and the rain started falling heavily again, staining the cement walls. There was a small crowd at the end the road behind the complex, observed by occupants of a police car several meters away. The huddled hoods and umbrellas formed a semicircle directed towards the center. In the middle of the group, a woman was speaking through a microphone. She was holding a small shopping cart containing audio speakers protected by their own raincoat. The crowd of around twenty people looked as if they were prepared and seasoned wake-attendees. Another woman, clearly a key member of the Wake group, smiled handed us a piece of paper which featured hymns and prayers (appendix). Although I cannot speak or understand Dutch, I attempted to sing along.
The woman on the microphone said something and started edging towards the road we just came from. Lise explained that we were beginning a walk around the center and that the leader encouraged the group to engage with the detainees, so “they didn’t feel alone”. The wake group whistled, clapped, screamed, ululated, shouted and waved at the center. At first, I was unsure of what to do; I thought calling out would be helpless and futile. I decided not to scream and draw attention to myself, so I waved. Lise bent down, cupped her hands around her mouth and screamed at the center. I felt a bit ashamed of my embarrassment so I started to shout, but softly.
Through the windows of the center, people were waving back. I was shocked and felt a pang of empathy. These nameless strangers seemed happy to see us outside. Groups of people were gathering at the windows, smiling, waving. Then I felt emptiness, an awkward affinity with the people behind the detention center’s walls. I contemplated my “otherness” in this new country and the strangeness of being foreign and perhaps unaccepted. For me, however, moving and establishing a new home has always been a liberating experience: although I had to adjust to the unknown and unfamiliar, unlike the detainees I have never been deprived of my freedom for seeking something new. As we marched, the police car slowly followed us.
We paused to wave and interact with the detainees. This gave me a moment to reflect on the participants in the wake. The group was diverse. I was not expecting to see families, but there were young children, adolescents, middle-aged and older individuals (figure 3). There were people of different races and religious backgrounds. I noticed a group of three teenage girls who I assumed might be Muslim as one was wearing a hijab. Some wake members were holding banners condemning arbitrary detention, with one sign reading “freedom for all”. Most seemed to know one another, they supported each other as they communicated to the detainees. The warm, community feeling starkly contrasted with the clinical and colorless feeling of the center’s reception.
Figure 3. Schiphol-Noord Detention Centre wake gathering, a moment in front of the complex. 06/03/2016
The landscape of Schiphol-Noord became a platform for many symbolic interactions. In terms of the relationship between the vigil group and the detainees, the landscape was a place of solidarity and mutual understanding. Walls, security or barbed wire did not impede the feeling of communication. At the end of the wake, we faced the center, and held hands in a semi-circle, making clear that we would be complete when the detainees joined us.
Mindful of the few privileges available to those behind the center’s walls, the wake-goers leveraged their freedom and right to move to protest, voice their concern, and show their respect. One of the long-time organizers of the wake told us that when the visits stop after Easter, detainees often ask where the waving visitors have gone and why they were not returning. From the organizers perspective, the wake is something the detainees look forward to, and the reciprocal exchange is appreciated.
However, the visual and physical barriers between the detainees and the outside world also demonstrate that the landscape is a source of conflict. The police car, suggestive of an authoritative, watchful eye, presented the reality of the situation: this is a prison, and prisons are where unwanted members of a society are kept separate from others and controlled. When our group reached the reception center doors, we were prohibited from entering. As we stood by the entrance, peaceful hymns and prayers continued, but the blinds of the reception’s windows were slowly brought down,
protecting the interior from view. Surprised, I drew this to Lise’s attention, although the wake group was unfazed. I immediately interpreted this as a subtle yet powerful act of defiance of the center’s staff, who seemed to me to be otherwise unrepresented and lacking discussion and voice in the event.
The group leader read out the eleven names of the lives lost at the Schiphol-Oost Fire and a moment’s silence heavily underlined the disaster’s poignancy. These eleven souls, most with little or no connection to the Netherlands and the city of Amsterdam, do not have relatives or other loved ones here to carry their memory forward. Their alien, irregular status allows them to be easily forgotten. One of the organizers told us that the wake had been practiced since 1993, many years before the fire. After the 2005 incident, the Wakes used the fire to further highlight the unfair treatment of the detainees. The organizers carry a mobile plaque of the names of those who passed away (figure 4), to serve as a constant reminder of the people who perished on the night of the fire and also of those who are affected by current and past Dutch policies concerning the detention of irregular migrants.
Figure 4. Schiphol-Noord Detention Centre Wake Gathering, the mobile plaque with the names of eleven who died the night of the Schiphol Oost Fire. 06/03/2016
Traces in the Landscape: Uncovering Memories of a Lost Site
It was not as easy to determine whether there was anything at the site of the fire, but after translating local news articles and consulting Lise, I discovered there is a memorial at 64 Ten Pol, just near Schiphol-Oost, in Oude Meer (figure 5). Just south of the Amsterdamse Bos, this area is only reachable using several public transport connections. This made me wonder how such an event could be remembered given it was so removed from public spaces and thought. This highlighted to me how influential those reporting and experiencing the disaster are in shaping its knowledge and understanding and how this knowledge and understanding are also informed by factors including location and accessibility.
My approach to Ten Pol evoked that “airport feeling” one gets in that part of town, where the architecture and buildings change from the familiar houses and apartments into wide, almost barren, business estates and industrial blocks. The landscape is no longer reminiscent of the inner city’s small roads but is instead marked by auto-routes and dual carriageways. Ten Pol, however, is just a residential road. It is not a place one would seek out unless one lived there or was familiar with the area, although it is peaceful. There are some storage units and small modern houses. Among the houses, there was a farm with chicks, roosters, horses, and goats. In fact, the area is a wonderful place to cycle through, with a view of forest trees and a wide canal; there were many cyclists passing through. Just behind Ten Pol road, there is a passageway to an auto-route. After this, the road stops at several red and white barriers, with a security desk requiring authorized personnel to declare themselves. Public access to the area behind these barriers is prohibited, and all possible entrances are fenced off with barbed wire.
At Ten Pol I could not see any memorial. Before heading out, I had checked its location on my phone and verified that the memorial was still there. Now, far away from any transport links, or anything familiar, I was staring at my Google Maps. The little dot on my map indicated that the location of the memorial was just beyond the barriers, behind the security desk and barbed wire. I tried to make light of my situation and thought “well, that will pose a challenge to remembering what happened.” I asked the officer at the security desk if he knew where the memorial was. Bewildered by my question, he told me it was over the side I had come from, “behind those buildings”. I took the opportunity to ask: “do people come here often?” He said: “Yes, sometimes, actually, no, not really anymore”. Perplexed at the ambiguity of his answer, I trekked back the way I came. I looked to see if there was anything out of the ordinary that could be a memorial, but there was little signage or indication of where I was. The storage units were branded 6A, 6B etc., but there was no reference to number 64. Defeated, I chose to go into Café-Restaurant Wink, a little food place at the corner of the Ten Pol.
Figure 5. Google Maps of the area of Schiphol-Oost/Oude Meer. Off the Aalmeerderdijk Road there is a tiny side road, Ten Pol. This leads to the autoroute, Fokkerweg. The star indicates where the memorial is; across from this is the security desk and just behind this is the field where Schiphol-Oost once was 03/04/2016
An enthusiastic older man greeted me in Dutch and spoke to me for about five minutes before I could state I was English-speaking. The two staff at the restaurant, a middle-aged man, and a younger woman looked at me bemused. I laughed off the man’s enthusiasm and sat down outside. I called Lise and told her I was at Oude Meer and hadn’t found a trace of the memorial. She agreed to come join me and investigate. As I waited for her, the enthusiastic older man approached me again. As a female researcher, I initially felt my personal space was threatened. I had not initiated the conversation and was frustrated that he came to sit nearby and ask me questions. However, I took advantage of the situation and asked questions myself. A local, his name was Jacob and he had been coming to this café for the last twenty-five years; he knew this neighborhood well. When I asked about the fire, he immediately explained that “they [the authorities and the media] didn’t tell us what was going on…It was a big deal afterward. If you put people in jail, you have to protect them.” He referenced the Dutch Safety Board’s report and indicated that although he trusts the military police, he “would not want to work for them”. He also admitted that neither he nor anyone else would never really be able to know what happened that night.
When Lise arrived, we went back to find the memorial. We came across man and woman sitting enjoying the sun on their patio. Lise asked if they knew anything, and the gentleman stood up and was quick to describe his experience of the fire. He told us that the night of the fire, no one around knew what was going on. There were people from the prison going past his house, hiding from the police (figure 6). He said that he didn’t believe what was published in the media about the number of detainees that escaped, “There were many people that night” he added. I asked whether he had been scared for his safety: “no!” he exclaimed, “they weren’t criminals”.
Figure 6. Aalmeerderdijk, on the mouth of Ten Pol, where witnesses of the night of the fire described detainees running past and hiding from authorities 03/04/2016
His statement of distrust in the media reporting of the incident and the emotion in his description of the events suggested to me that he felt injustice and anger. The statement also recalled Jacob’s comments about never knowing the truth. Whilst reported and lived experience informs different ways of knowing, the distinction between these types of knowledge also underlines the precarious nature of the process of knowing. As my research on the Schiphol-Oost fire highlighted, “answers have been slow in coming, and the truth may never be revealed” (Lazaredes, 2006). This was made especially true by the fact that surviving victims of the fire were deported soon after (ibid, 2006). Our witness described Oude Meer as a small place, where everyone is aware of what is going on with each other. I sensed that the attention and press might have had a great impact on such a close-knit community. Despite this, he had not heard of any memorial of the event.
Lise and I headed back to the security desk again. This time there was another guard doing his shift. Without a moment’s hesitation, he immediately pointed across the road to a collection of inconspicuous tall bushes behind a gated fence and barbed wire (figure 7).
Figure 7. Below, Gated entrance to the memorial, at the end of the pathway a circle of dried, pine bushes hid the memorial. 03/04/2016
Reflections and Meaning of the Landscapes: Conclusions
The memorial consists of eleven wooden pedestals inscribed with the first names of each of the victims; at the center, there is a prism-shaped black stone, inscribed with their last names (figures 8). Dried flowers in broken vases, melted candles, weeds, and empty snail shells are collected at the foot of the memorial. A faded sash with the words “Daddy we miss you” wrapped around one of the victim’s pedestals. Lise and I discussed the isolation of the memorial and the sense of desertion it inspires. This desertion and the physical decay were accentuated by other forms of forgetting: the comments that “no one comes here”; the conflicting advice on directions to the memorial; the distrust and inability to access truth; the inaccessibility and non-existence of the actual site of the fire.
Decay evokes an existential anxiety that confronts living and being with the effects of time, change, and death. This contrasted with the experience of the wake, where the memory of the fire appears to be embedded within the current, lived realities of the churchgoers, activists, and members of the Schiphol-Noord community. The significance of wake as a symbolic ritual, often a mark of transition, suggests that the healing process has not been completed and there is still is a sense of mourning, loss, and tragedy that needs to be addressed and rectified. The memory of these people depends more on the goodwill of the wake movement, which itself focuses on the issue of detention more broadly.
In a wider context, both visits made me question the surveillance and approach to unwanted people, and subsequently, the remembrance of their tragedy. We went back to the security guard who had pointed us in the right direction to the memorial and asked him about the fire. He had just left his shift the night the disaster happened. “It didn’t surprise me”, he said nonchalantly, “[fires] had happened before”. This indifference and reluctance to discuss what happened contrasted starkly with the openness of the other people I had encountered, and reminded me of the staff pulling the blinds to the wake-goers at Schiphol-Noord. There are many discourses surrounding the highly politicized event, but there still remain many voices that need to be heard, such as those staff members working at the center and its vicinity.
As a final reflection and recommendation for further study, I would include these unheard voices, and reflect on the theme of invisibility and visibility. A site out of sight is out of mind. The isolated and distant location and unkempt state of memorial challenges the possibility for this memory to be incorporated in our lives and community, thus making it difficult to learn and build from the event. Furthermore, this intensifies the victims’ lack of belonging, as their memory is seemingly treated as poorly as their lives were. There is a tension between their status as “unwanted persons”, their incarceration and maintaining their memory. The same situation pertains to the irregular migrants within Schiphol-Noord. They too share an insecure and uncertain fate, and there is a risk that, like those who died in the fire, they will be forgotten. This tragedy resonates particularly in the current context of large migration, where flows of people arriving believe that they will be helped and treated with dignity. This makes us concerned as to our capacity to have compassion and empathy to those we consider outsiders and provides important information which should be factored in our approach to the many refugees and migrants arriving in Europe at this time.
Figure 8. Left, Memorial at Schiphol-Oost. 03/04/2016
Voormalig verdachte Schipholbrand eist ruim 6,5 ton Redactie Parool 24 december 2013, 11:02 Ahmed Al-J. die jarenlang is vervolgd voor de Schipholbrand, eist een schadevergoeding van 663.700 euro van de staat. Dat hebben zijn advocaten Raymond Frijns en Eduard Damman dinsdag aan het ANP laten weten. Het hof buigt zich 14 januari over het verzoek, meldde Frijns. Lees meer...