Sample translation page 7-18

Translator’s note: On May 23rd 1977, a train hijacking took place in the Netherlands near the home of the author, then eleven years old. Nine armed South Moluccans campaigning for their own independent state took 50 passengers hostage. The hijacking lasted 20 days; 2 hostages and six hijackers were killed. Simultaneously, four other Moluccans took over a primary school in Drenthe, taking 105 children and 5 teachers hostage.




The predicted storm fails to materialize. The evening air is sticky, clouds gather and a wind picks up but doesn’t have any cooling effect whatsoever. My mother says I can go sleep in the guest bedroom on the north side.

In the middle of the night, I jerk awake to an unfamiliar sound, something in between thumping and rattling. It’s deafening. The door to the guest bedroom opens and my mother comes in wearing her dressing gown. I toss off the sheets and rush to the window. In the lamplight I see a tank coming around the corner. It jumps forward a metre and then reverses. A solder is giving directions. The tank parks next to our drive, beneath the dead-end street sign.

It must have been Saturday 11th June 1977, somewhere between four and half past four in the morning.


There have been police in our street for the past three weeks now. The Reformed church and the Civilian Protection bunker have been cordoned off with fences and plastic tape: the press centre and the crisis management team for the train hijacking and the school kidnapping that are taking place at the same time.

Now all of a sudden, in the middle of the night, an extra barricade is being thrown up with a wider perimeter, enclosing our house. ‘They’re going to free the hostages,’ my father, who has got up too, says. He’s turned on the radio but only music is playing.

In the dawn light, the tank changes colour from black to blue. I see now that it doesn’t have a gun barrel. It’s not a tank but an armoured vehicle.

My sister has joined me. Suddenly, the windows in all of the rooms begin to dance in their frames. One fighter jet after the next darts through the sky; it’s still too dark to see them. How many are there?

Once the last fighter jet has flown over without returning, I quickly pull on a pair of trousers and a t-shirt. I gulp down a sandwich because I’m not allowed to go to Hans Top’s, until I’ve had breakfast. Hans is my best friend and lives opposite.

The sun hasn’t yet risen as we pace up and down our dead-end street like caged animals, to the garages and back. The soldiers beckon to us. If we live here, they say, we can get a pass. Then we can go around the barricades and won’t be cooped up. There’s an open hatch on the side of the armoured vehicle. We’re allowed to go inside one at a time; in its belly is a dark cockpit. Wires attached to headphones dangle from the ceiling.

As soon as our cardboard name tags are ready, we go to try them out. In the middle of the crossroads, there’s a machine gun on a tripod. A belt of cartridges hangs from it, looking like a string of firecrackers, only a shiny one. Hans and I show our passes and yes, we’re allowed through: the soldiers shove aside the rolls of barbered wire obstructing the road.

Sure, going back inside the enclose again is also possible; the soldiers laugh and no, we don’t have to show our passes again.

The barbed wire is strange, it doesn’t have spikes but blades.

‘NATO barbed wire,’ Hans explains. He’s two years older than me and in his first year of secondary school.

There is no wind, it’s the beginning of a hot day. All of a sudden the silence is shattered by a roar that reverberates off a skyscraper. A motorbike comes tearing around the bend in the fields. There are two black-haired men on it, without helmets. The driver accelerates and heads right for us. The passenger waves a rag that is coloured blue, white and green, and red. It’s the RMS flag, I know by now – the Republic of Maluku Selatan. I’ve got stamps from that country: a series of eight with tropical butterflies – unfranked.




There is a secret copy of the village of Ossendrecht, which clings to the border between the Netherlands and Flanders.

The original Ossendrecht slumbers in the fields at the top of the Brabant hill ridge. From the Catholic church’s steeple you can look out over the deeply Calvinistic Zeeland polders, a bend in the River Schelde, the cooling towers of Doel’s nuclear power station and the cranes at Antwerp docks.

The duplicate Ossendrecht, which covers an area almost as big as the original, does not have a church. It’s a satellite village of concrete constructions, equally situated on the Brabant hill ridge, but hidden away in the pine forests of the border. There is a fence around it with camera surveillance but no one lives there. ‘Ossendrecht-2’ you might say, by analogy of the forbidden, off the map Soviet cities Tomsk-7 and Krasnoyark-26 in the Siberian taiga, but this is much less shady, this is the transparent Netherlands.

Ossendrecht-2, complete with a hotel, sports centre and shopping street belongs to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The police practice here:

Evicting squatters.

Mediating in disputes between neighbours.

Cutting free environmental activists.

Using tear gas.

Taking out master criminals.

Talking down potential suicides who have climbed onto the hotel roof.

‘We call them jumpers,’ says my host, a police officer wearing a uniform with a few gold insignias. He is prepared to give me a tour of Ossendrecht-2 as long as I promise not to reveal his name, given that he’s an ‘operational negotiator’.

I take his business card and ask what that means exactly, an ‘operational negotiator’.

‘It means if you’d wanted to come next week, I wouldn’t have had time for you.’

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything usual happening next week.

‘There’s the nuclear summit in the Hague with bigwigs like Obama and Merkel attending.’

I look at him, waiting for an explanation.

‘We’ll be on standby.’ His expression and the movement of the corners of his mouth betray nothing, or perhaps a certain casualness.

‘In case anyone gets taken hostage?’

‘Then we’d come into play.’

‘The operational negotiators.’

‘You said it.’

Let me call him Kees. Sixty years old, quiet type. A neighborhood father figure – he seems to be monitoring the surroundings from behind his glasses. We are sitting facing each other in the Police Academy’s canteen, on the Ossendrecht site, the Training Centre for Threats and Crisis Management.

‘The state has a monopoly on violence,’ Kees says. ‘And we want to keep it that way.’ Groups of special duty police officers come in, wearing jumpers with shoulder pads. Beefy-looking chaps with shaved heads, caricatures of themselves. ‘See that there?’ Kees says, moving his chin to indicate the vending machine selling Snickers, Mars bars and packets of Croky crisps.

‘No, next to it.’

On the wall, neat lettering announces:


All persons in the Netherlands will be treated equally in equal circumstances. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political inclination, race, sex or any grounds whatsoever is prohibited.


‘That’s what we do it for.’

Kees himself started with the riot police in 1976 – wearing a helmet and carrying a shield and a truncheon. He carried out simple charges. He learned how to pull a demonstrator out of a sit-in using a single Judo move, even if he had hooked his arms through those of his comrades. Judo is still part of the training; the members of the special squads all have brown or black belts. But Kees’s career path took a different turn: he became a negotiator in hostage situations and kidnappings. ‘Men without guns,’ they’re called mockingly within the academy. Kees doesn’t think he’s got the cushiest job in policing. ‘If you’re the last person to have a conversation with someone who is about to be killed, it gets to you.’

Like most of his fellow negotiators he’s a Rotterdamer – a striking over-representation which Kees cannot explain.

Perhaps, I suggest, Rotterdammers are better negotiators, mercantile as they are?

Kees skillfully pilots his words around my utterance.‘Everything in the training is about resilience,’ he says. ‘That’s what they learn you.’

Anyone who joins the police force is given combat training and has to spend a minimum of 32 hours a year at the shooting range. The downside is that your average cop doesn’t know how to say ‘sorry’ or ‘please’ and that’s a pity, Kees says, because you rarely get good results with just ‘stop’ and ‘put the gun down.’ This is why he trains the officers in using their verbal weapons.

‘Before I let a student tackle a jumper on the roof, I ask him: and just how do you think you’ll be able to employ your pepper spray here?’

Kees leans forwards to involve me in the dilemma. He must do this often: he lets the question hang between us in an almost hypnotic way, and I’m not even under interrogation. He keeps his eyes fixed on mine for a few seconds, then he stands up. It’s time for the tour. Kees slips on his jacket and pulls up his holster belt.

We walk through a corridor that runs alongside the Judo room to a back entrance. Outside there are park gardens and in the distance a residential neighborhood. At first sight, Ossendrecht-2 looks ordinary. Blackbird Road crosses Pine Lane. Only a dodgy-looking Opel and a Ford Transit van are parked diagonally across the pavement, both of them burned out. There are piles of stuffed overalls on the verge next to a lamppost – lifeless, headless bodies, with limbs in unnatural, broken positions.

‘They weigh 85 kilos each,’ Kees says. ‘The men have to drag them over the fence over there.’

I jot down my amazement. My guide doesn’t mind me taking notes, but he doesn’t wait. He walks on towards the station.

Ossenrecht-2 has got a station.

On the square in front of it, a bus is waiting for an imaginary crowd. A sign says PLATFORM INFORMATION.I’ve entered a film set and am walking along under a roof of low-hanging clouds. There is a yellow train in front of us, rusted onto the rails, taken out of service. Destinationless. It’s not an old-fashioned Mat ’54 with its characteristic dog’s head engine; it’s a contemporary intercity with a driver seat perched atop its hull. The tracks end in bumpers in front of and behind it. It’s a bizarre sight: a yellow and blue flash of congealed metal against the dark green of the forest. It’s a line drawn across the landscape that simultaneously, and this is unavoidable, evokes the hijacked train from the backdrop of my youth.

Kees joins me, his stomach sticking out.

‘Is this for train hijackings?’ I ask.

‘We recreate them here, yes.’

‘With actors?’

‘And extras, the passengers.’ Kees explains where the cordon is placed and from which points the snipers keep the train at gunpoint. ‘You can always shoot a person down. Talking them down is more difficult, but better.’

We walk towards the front coach. Once upon a time this train had been headed to SCHIPHOL AIRPORT.

‘Our business started with the first train hijacking in 1975. We didn’t have any negotiators of our own at the time. After it was over, one of us went to Scotland Yard to pick up some tips.’

It begins to drizzle. The cloud layer is so low now that the tops of the pines have almost disappeared into it. I’m welcome to take pictures, according to Kees there isn’t anything special to be seen.

A train is a train.

* * *


I’ve come to Ossendrecht-2 to learn the art of talking down terrorists. More specifically: I’m hoping to learn something from professional negotiators like Kees. If I tease out the deeper questions I’m interested in, they go something like this:

What can an orator accomplish against a murderer?

Can words be equal to bullets?

Which words?

The news, hot off the press: the kidnapping of 276 secondary school girls in Nigeria by the Muslim brotherhood calling itself Boko Haram: ‘western education is forbidden.’ Would a twitter campaign help here? Does it make any difference that Michelle Obama is sharing a photo of herself holding a cardboard sign #BringBackOurGirls?

When language and terror go head to head, which of the two wins?

These are the existential questions I have become caught up in. I can’t figure it out. I’ve run aground before – around the turn of the millennium. As a correspondent in Russia, I witnessed the violence flaring up in Chechnya. I’d barely arrived in Moscow, in 1998, when four heads were found on the southern bank of the River Terek. They were laid out on a sheet next to the tarmacked road, four hairy balls in a row. ‘Come and get them if you dare.’ The heads belonged to technicians from a telecoms company, three Brits and a New Zealander who’d been kidnapped earlier.

As a correspondent, it was my job to file a report from Chechnya. I travelled to the Russian bank of the Terek; the first minaret stuck up above the willow trees on the other side. There were rowing boats in the rushes and a little further, a bridge. But I didn’t dare to cross – I didn’t want to be chained to a cot or a water pipe in some dungeon or other for weeks or months. I didn’t want to plead on camera to my parents to spare my life for sums of money they didn’t have. I didn’t even want to think about any other kinds of videos.

In my reporting, I made a lot of the Chechynian kidnapping industry – perhaps out of self-justification.

On a mountain pass in the Caucasus mountains, I interviewed a group of children who had fled Chechnya for Georgia. Two sisters described what it was like to be bombed. ‘Terrifying,’ one of them said. ‘We screamed,’ the other said. All of a sudden my Russian photographer hissed ‘get out of here’ in my ear. He’d spotted some thugs amongst the refugees, men with bum-fluff beards who were giving us funny looks – he was afraid they wanted to take us across the mountain ridge into Chechnya, as kidnapped booty.

Our premature departure made me feel angry. If even the sidelines weren’t safe, would I have to exercise a buffer zone?

I didn’t cherish any illusions that reporting changed the world for the better, but I did believe that stopping reporting changed the world for the worse. A correspondent was supposed to write down witness accounts and describe events at first hand. He or she mines for valuable facts – the irreplaceable fodder for dialogue and debate, for empathy and understanding.

I felt defeated as a reporter on the Chechnya border. I’d lost my belief in the power of free speech. It felt like a personal defeat. As I child I’d had no answer to the terrorist acts close to home and as an adult in Russia, this – in as much as I’d had it – had been taken away from me.

Since 9/11, the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and even more so since IS’s executioners started posting films of beheadings online, I have wondered whether we have any kind of verbal defense against terror at all. Who still believes in gentle force these days? The force of water droplets hollowing out a stone? Neither talking nor writing achieves anything; the black flag and the Kalashnikov march on. Soon a pen will start to feel like an antique instrument, old fashioned and useless.

I have to brace myself to prevent my defeatism from turning into cynicism. The motto of the newspaper for which I reported was FOR NUANCE-SEEKERS. Fuck off, you can’t talk to cut-throats. Send drones, kill them all.

In an attempt to pre-empt this final step, I’ve signed up for Ossendrecht-2.

To be specific: I’ve asked the managers of the Training College for Serious Threats and Crisis Management whether I can learn how to be a hostage negotiator.

How do you address a terrorist? What kind of tone do you use? Should you be formal or informal? I feel the need to investigate this in the flesh, even though it’s only theatre. Is there an alternative to responding to violence with violence?

The director and his deputy tell me I’m in. ‘Communication in crisis situations,’ the beginner’s course is called. The next series of lessons will start after the summer, but given that I’m already inside the practice village, I get to jump the gun. Operational negotiator Kees can give me a preliminary tour.


* * *

From the station we walk to the street with the bakery, the jeweller’s and the pharmacy. The paintings on the façades are meant to suggest shops. JEWELLER’S AND DIAMOND DEALER. There are no imitation shop windows.

‘They’re not necessary,’ Kees says. ‘If a report comes in that a jeweller’s is being robbed, the shop front doesn’t matter.’

I ask about the scenario.

‘We ensure that everything goes wrong. If a robber is cornered he’ll point his pistol at the jeweller’s head. The only thing he’ll do then is scream and make threats.’

At the end of Pine Lane, beyond a roundabout, there’s a sandy coloured two-storey building: the embassy of a random country.

My only concept of negotiation with hostage-takers comes from films.

‘We use films during the training,’ Kees says. ‘The Negotiator. Beautiful.’ He tells me about the eleventh or twelfth minute, somewhere near the start: one of the police’s star negotiators (Samuel L. Jackson) takes his superiors hostage in a Chicago office building and will only talk to his fellow negotiator (Kevin Spacey). While he is waiting for him to arrive, he talks to a regular policeman who has no idea which tone to adopt. ‘Never say “no” to a hostage-taker,’ Kees says, imitating Samuel Jackson. ‘It’s in the manual!’

‘Are there manuals?’

‘What do you think? You think the FBI don’t have protocols for hostage situations?’ He doesn’t say whether things are different in the Netherlands – I can draw my own conclusion.

I want to know whether a terrorist, unlike a normal criminal, requires a specific approach.

Kees nods, but it also looks like he’s shaking his head. Somewhere between yes and no. There’s one thing you have to bear in mind with terrorists: ‘They’ve got a goal, them there.’

All of a sudden I feel like a complete dork. I could have thought of that – them having a goal, but how could I have got to ‘them there’? I’m up on street talk, I know that beef means grief and that whack as in ‘you’ll get whacked’ is a death threat. But am I really supposed to master this way of talking?

We arrive at Ossendrecht-2’s residential area. The houses have window frames and front doors with nothing behind them. Cinecittà. Just when I’m thinking that a theatre lamp might tumble out of the sky, Kees says: ‘Every negotiator has to be able to tell a good joke.’

No joke follows. Only explanation. The point is that you should be able to parry blindness with a quip. Put things into perspective. Deadly seriousness with a wink.

It sounds simple but don’t you get into a bind with your own principles – sharing a joke with a murderer?

‘Your own principles? Well, you leave those at home,’ Kees says, with an airiness that spreads doubt over whether he has them or not: principles.

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he says. ‘Apart from psychopaths, everyone has their limits. Years ago I closed my account with the ABN-AMRO bank because they started sponsoring Ajax.’

On Pheasant Lane, there are containers with wooden blocks the size of bricks. Fake protesters can throw them at the riot police. Kees tells me he brought along his football mates once so they could let rip, screaming and throwing, at the security forces. There are letters on the metal container: PLEASE RETURN BLOCKS AFTER THROWING.

As I write this down, one thing keeps running through my head: a terrorist has a goal. Obviously: he is committed to a cause greater than himself. An ideal. But us? What can we counter this with?


Translated by Michele Hutchison