23 November 2012

Sierra Leone: Closure in Dutch Murder Case Opens Old Wounds

In 1999, the rape and killing of a 16-year-old girl in a quiet rural area of the Netherlands had many rushing to blame the residents of a nearby asylum seekers centre for the crime. Sierra Leonean native Babah Tarawally was one of those residents. This is his reaction to this week's arrest of a white Dutch man.

Finally we got him, the murderer of Marianne Vaatstra. He is not a black man, not a North African Arab, not Chinese; neither is he a Latino or an Eskimo or a refugee from Russia or the former Yugoslavia. His name is Jasper S.

After 13 years of speculation about the identity of the possible murderer, a native Dutch farmer has now been apprehended. His DNA matched with the one left at the crime scene. With these new facts, I feel as though I have been acquitted of a crime of which I was wrongfully accused. Perhaps I should start thinking of taking the Dutch government to court to pay damages in the form of reparation to me and all the other refugees who were collectively accused in those regrettable times. I think I need a lawyer.

In 1996, I was among one of the first groups of asylum seekers to be relocated to Friesland in the north of the Netherlands. With its open landscape, the province is home to fewer people than most parts of the country. People in Friesland are referred to as Frisians and are mostly farmers. At the time, we had barely any contact with them; they were busy caring for their cattle and ploughing their fields.

In their eyes

It is a fact that the presence of thousands of asylum seekers in Friesland changed the demographics of a province that has been fighting for centuries to retain its identity. The Frisians have their own language, national anthem and flag, and they are nationalistic to a fault.

I could understand that the Frisians were not well prepared to wake up in the morning and see their streets, shopping centres and supermarkets rainbowed by the colours of the world. The locals feared the government was changing the face of their towns into one resembling Amsterdam, perceived as the Dutch capital of crime, drugs and prostitution.And in the eyes of a Frisian, every black man comes from Amsterdam.

So when in 1999 a 16-year-old local girl called Marianne Vaatstra was murdered while cycling home from a disco where she had had contact with some North Africans, the conclusion was swift. Even before reading the book of her life, the reader knew the apparent killer and cause of her death.

All eyes on us

For those of us living in Friesland at the time, Vaatstra's brutal death changed our lives for the worst. From day one after the killing, all eyes were focused on the nearby asylum centre that was home to hundreds of refugees seeking protection. The key suspects were North Africans. Though I was housed in a town nearby, we all felt as though our lives were shattered again. Our already difficult relationship with our Frisian hosts took another devastating turn. Even before the murder, most of the locals treated us as troublesome refugees.

We were scum, and after the brutal killing of Vaatstra, we were promoted to murdering scum. The young Frisian girl had been viciously sexually assaulted before her throat was cut. So people assumed the killer had to be a North African Muslim, accustomed to the ritual slaughter of lambs by slicing the neck with a knife. There was also speculation that the killer had turned in the direction of Mecca, as Halal butchers around the world do.

Eyes to see

The police initially arrested two men from the asylum centre, but DNA tests proved them innocent. Investigators eventually said they believed the killer was a local and a Westerner, but rumours about murderous foreigners persisted. The Dutch media perpetuated these speculations and stereotypes, and so our world as refugees became more traumatic than ever before.

Now, thanks to the DNA testing of more than 7,000 local men, we have the alleged killer. What should we learn from this? As the Nigerian writer Helon Habila rightfully said: "There is looking at a thing, and then there is seeing a thing. The two are totally different. We look with our eyes, but it takes more than eyes to really see."

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