Parents bring their kids to spot planes at the edge of Amsterdam’s huge Schiphol Airport. The children enjoy being there too: There is a McDonald’s restaurant with a small playground as an extra attraction. It features a large model airplane into which boys and girls can crawl; once inside, they scream with excitement. Their voices are damped by the structure, so their parents can sit around the restaurant’s tables, eating and drinking in apparent peace and quiet.
Every now and then, the peace is interrupted by a flare on the airport runway – it emits a big bang that scares away birds. Schiphol’s government-owned airport authority doesn’t want birds there, as the seagulls fly into the engines of landing aircraft. (I imagine them coming out, as in cartoons, scorched on the other end of the jets.) But beyond the occasional flame behind arriving and departing planes or whiffs of smoke that appear planes’ tires at touchdown, fire is unheard of at the site.
My 6-year old grandson Christian loves the place. I suspect he enjoys the McDonald’s meals and the playtime more than airport sights or the actual air traffic. Still, he now recognizes some of the planes, the hangars, the control tower, the terminals. I never told him that the low-laying construction out there is the airport’s detention center. Even if I had known the true purpose of the facility, I would have avoided speaking about it. Christian is too young to differentiate between “detain” and “arrest,” between a “criminal” and an “offender.” Whatever you call them, they are all behind bars.
This detention center is one of many in the Netherlands. Here, the Ministry of Justice primarily holds aliens who, after disembarking from aircraft landing at Schiphol, try to enter this rich country without visa or papers. Instead of placing them on return flights to their home countries, they are detained. Reportedly, the center also holds some detainees who smuggle plastic-wrapped dope they have swallowed.
In this quiet corner of Schiphol, five or six minutes into Oct. 27, 11 out of some 300 unsuspecting detainees were burned alive. Fifteen others were injured. The scorched might have been people like me, grandfathers who wanted to bring a Christmas toy to their grandchildren in some faraway village. We may never know: The detainees’ bodies, according to the Dutch government, were charred beyond recognition. The state tried its best to hush up this tragedy.
In my view, this was a textbook coverup. Rita Verdonk, a minister responsible for immigration, tried to persuade the parliament that all necessary measures were taken to combat the fire. Simple common sense and basic logic defy this. Thus, the gruesome deaths of the 11 detainees under the lights of Europe’s fourth-largest airport remain a mystery – and Rita Verdonk remains a minister.
Here are some facts: Detainees are locked two in a windowless cell. Logic guides me to conclude that the cement-and-iron cubicle is furnished with two iron beds, each with some sort of thin mattress, a blanket and, hopefully, a pillow. Excluding their own bodies and clothes, the detainees have nothing else to burn. Furthermore, the things which might ignite could cause only a fire that can be extinguished by stomping or urinating over it.
And note: This was not the first fire at the Schiphol detention center. A blaze broke out shortly after its opening in 2003; a second fire erupted the next year.
So, the question the ministers must answer is simple: What burned so hard as to produce a fire in which 11 hopeless people were scorched beyond recognition, an inferno which the fire brigade could not extinguish, and why were no lessons learned from previous fires there? The horrible deaths of those people is a burning question indeed. This is a tragedy and a huge emotional, moral and legal issue. How will Dutch society tackle it?
Apparently, by ignoring the matter. The Dutch, it seems, have forgotten all about the tragedy. The parliament was told that the fire was treated “accordingly” and MPs accepted that bogus excuse instead of voting no-confidence against Rita Verdonk or the government. Will the world community stand and tell the Dutch state, “We cannot allow you to let our citizens burn to death while in your custody”? Other countries will be wrong if they do nothing.
The Dutch government must not be allowed to get away with this coverup. If a parent spanks his kid, police will spring into action, break down the doors of a private home, take the minor away to safety and send the parent to the magistrate. In the Schiphol case, the fire brigade implied it could not approach the detention center’s burning wing because of a fence – not a wall, but a fence of made of chickenwire. This may mean that the firefighters watched the flames from yards away, that they may have heard the forsaken cries of those burning alive. What stopped them from tearing down the fence?
Human-rights organization Amnesty International has questions as well:
Amnesty International is concerned about allegations that earlier recommendations by fire prevention officials may not have been carried out, such as the failure to provide sufficient training to personnel. Reports suggest that this may have resulted in a delayed response on behalf of the personnel to cries for help from detainees. Efforts to rescue the persons trapped in the cells were hampered by the fact that their doors could not be opened centrally, but had to be opened one at a time by prison guards. Additionally, the alleged lack of fireproof doors in the centre allowed the fire to spread more quickly.
It is obvious that some ministers, those offering condolences instead of resignations, must be fired. Whatever it was that burned for so long should not have been there. All those in the chain of comand for this must be brought to justice. The security unit’s top boss should lose his job. Surely the administration had records containing the names of the individuals in custody, but it dared to issue a statement that the identities of these people were not known. They did not know how many were in custody three hours after the fire was put out because some ran away and were chased by helicopters while those 11 were burning alive! Can you imagine human beings being treated in such a medieval and cruel way in a civilized country in the 21st century?
The number of those missing or burned beyond recognition is irrelevant. Even one would be a tragedy and an outrage. What we need to know is how the fire occurred, exactly what burned for so long with such ferocity, and why firefighters did not break into the detention compound.
The report by the commanding officer of the fire brigade must be made public, no matter whom it finds responsible. Ben Ale, who heads NIBRA, the Dutch fire-protection institute, stated that either the flames raged for a full two hours before the firefighters arrived or the cells violated safety rules. Police washed away graffiti blaming Rita Verdonk. It is exactly that sort of attitude which alienates citizens from their government and eventually leads to irreconcilable, explosive positions.
Now, of course, incidents that explode into tragedies happen everywhere. But this tragedy happened under unexplained circumstances. Every single possible trick was used to minimize the awful impact the full truth might have had on the public. There is absolutely no justification for withholding any information for any reason. Feeble excuses are lies or semi-truths that demonstrate the government’s disrespect for truth. The notorious arrogance of the Dutch establishment in general is well known. Situations like the Schiphol fire, where it is blatantly clear that the government is responsible for a huge public mess, eventually will trigger an international backlash against Dutch attitudes.