Fire was pressed through windows with mangled bars with such force into the night that the flames appeared to originate from cutting torches. The grey building, covered with corrugated sheets, was emitting smoke on all sides, mostly though from under the eaves.
The flat roof of the structure was completely hidden from view by a woolly grey hairdo of smoke plumes. Above it the nightly darkness was driven back by a red glow. Suddenly a fountain of sparks exploded into the air where they were swiftly carried away by the icy October wind.
At the back of the burning building, fire trucks with wailing sirens and flashing beacons on their roofs could be seen lined up in front of the sluice gate that gave entrance to the facility. The sluice gate, a high steel wire structure that connected an outer and inner gate, was topped on all sides with razor-sharp barbwire. A fire brigade truck could be seen standing in the sluice, but the automatic outer gate kept re-opening every time it was about to completely shut. Because of this, the inner gate stayed closed, which prevented all the fire fighting vehicles from reaching the fire.
In lee of another wing of the cell complex stood a group of men, hemmed in by fences. Most of them were half naked and had blankets wrapped around themselves in protection against the winter cold. Defenseless and visibly trembling, the detainees were left there, waiting to be transported away from the prison that could no longer detain them.
Gershon Weening only discovered the drama that had taken place at the detention centre at Schiphol Airport Amsterdam the night before when he returned from bringing his daughters to school the next morning. He was confronted by the dreadful scene when he switched on the news in his still dark and cold living room. Coat and shoes still on, he plumped down in front of the TV. In a trance he saw the images of the fiery incident repeat themselves over and over again. Zapping between the two Dutch news channels he kept looking and listening, eager to know if any new information was made available. It was nine o’clock in the morning and the firemen where still damping down the area.
In the reflection of the garden door windows unto the TV screen behind him Gershon saw his own face amidst the images of fire and destruction. Although his crew cut did conceal the thinning of his hair, nevertheless the contours of his hair implant betrayed an increasing baldness. His large crooked nose, a typical trait of the Weenings, stood in stark contrast to the pointed chin below it. He wiped out his still sleepy eyes with the back of his hands and then wearily plucked his two days old stubble beard. Only by a great effort of willpower was he able to disengage himself from the TV-screen. After freshing-up in the bathroom on the first floor he dressed himself in comfortable sweatpants and proceeded to the kitchen to clean up the breakfast table and do the dishes. Armed with a glass and a postcard he then one by one caught the flies that had ended up half unconscious against the kitchen window, freeing them through the opened window. With an eye always on the television he vacuumed the living. The rest of the morning was spent on the couch with his feet on the table and a pot of coffee nearby.
Gershon knew the cell complex at Schiphol-East. Only a month earlier, in September, he had been asked to drive a truck full of meals and other supplies from another detention centre, located in Zeist, to this facility and had entered through that same sluice gate. Then also the outer gate had refused to close several times before he was able to enter the terrain.
“How could this happen?” The news presenter in the studio asked. The reporter on location, standing there shivering in front of the camera, reiterated the same answer as before. “Eleven people have been burned alive in that blaze, like rats in a fall, locked up in their container cells. There could have been many more fatalities. The cause of this fire is still being investigated.”
This could happen any day, Gershon thought, even at our facility. That realisation tormented him. Detention centre Zeist was a much larger compound than the one at the Amsterdam airport. It consisted for the larger part of the same prefab buildings as the ones on the screen. The construction was simple: two rows of steel containers strung together, separated by a broad corridor of wooden planked floor and flat tin roof. The outer walls nicely packed in grey corrugated sheets with an adornment of razor-sharp Concertina barbwire around the top. This construction concept allowed for endless Lego-style extensions, horizontally, as well as stacked up in the air. In exactly such a three stories high building he would start his shift as head-warden that afternoon at three.
Five minutes before twelve Gershon stormed out of the door to school to pick up his youngest daughter Nicole for the lunchbreak.
“You are late papa,” she said with a stern look on her face when he took her from the classroom, the last one left waiting. “And you have blood on your throat, grose!”
“Well, what do you expect, I have been chased by vampires all morning! And I have defeated most of them. How about a vampire sandwich?”
“Disgusting, papa, yucky,” she cheered as she climbed up against the back of his bike towards her seat with the routine of a skilled mountaineer.
At two p.m. Gershon stepped into his dilapidated black VW Golf GTI and roared towards work. He knew from the news that a segment of the inhabitants of the Schiphol airport detention centre had been moved to Zeist that night. That he would find them on his ward was a logical inference, since they had been empty due to maintenance since last summer. For many weeks he had been working on other units all over camp Zeist because of that. He couldn’t wait to see what the situation at his ward was since last night. In the car mirror he observed how a well-groomed appearance and uniform had changed his outlook. Apart from his gold lined spectacles he could very well pass for a prison warden in a house of detention, he thought.
His entrance into the department surpassed his expectations many times over. Looking into the two corridors that extended to left and right of the central command post he saw many arms stretching out of the cell door hatches. Door hatches are normally closed unless a warden had something to discuss with the occupants of a cell. Men were screaming out from their cells to each other and to the wardens. Gershon heard men crying behind those doors. As he entered the department from the left ward door, a detainee kicked against his cell door and, peering through the door hatch, shouted to him:
“You lock us up here so that you can burn us as well, you motherfuckers!”
One of the wardens on duty hastily proceeded to the door and instead of reprimanding him, addressed the angry inmate in a comforting and understanding manner. Five wardens went from door to door like this, doing their best to calm down the locked up asylum seekers and lighting their cigarettes through the hatches. A girl that he recognized as one of the nurses from the medical unit followed them around and handed out tranquilizing pills as if they were sweets.
“Why don’t you close those hatches?” Gershon asked a warden in passing.
“Then they completely freak out. It sucks for us but they have permission from the department head, so the hatches stay open,” he called back as he sped away toward the next cell. Still shocked by the accusation the inmate had directed towards him, Gershon walked on toward the central command post door. Team leader Roberto came out through the door, offered him a hand and pulled him inside.
“Welcome in purgatory, Weening. A lot less hot than last night’s hell, but still.” Roberto was a tall man in his late forties. Grey stubbles always covered his skull, and now also his cheeks. He had the appearance of the ideal scoutmaster: a strong jaw, bushy moustache and friendly brown eyes under thick eyebrows. Gershon made it a point to get as much information out of him as possible, as he would be taking over responsibility for this madhouse in half an hour.
“I was called from my bed last night at twelve o’clock and sped over here. When they brought these guys in at about two, the smoke from the fire was still coming from their clothes. Some we had to put in isolation cells. Very emotional and aggressive they were. Couldn’t talk to them.”
“So what is expected of us?” Gershon asked.
“We can do very little for these poor souls. Specialists from the Justice Department were supposed to come and help them to process the traumatic experiences they went through. It is now three o’clock and I haven’t seen them yet. The chaplain has been holding small group meetings with some of the inmates in the chapel. I don’t see the use of it. And to facilitate it, costs me a warden that I badly need on the ward.”
“But this is of great importance, it helps them with the emotional processing..,” Gershon wanted to explain.
“I don’t touch that. Let the Justice Department take care of it.”
“But Roberto, don’t you see how fascinating it is to discover how we need to deal with these people? We learned how to handle drug couriers, and even convicts held under hospital orders,” Gershon uttered with passion in his eyes. Roberto looked down on him with eyes pinched and a weary look on his face while he stroked his head with his hand.
“Let it go, Gershon, in the end it only brings us trouble. It is not our business. There is very little we can do. Most of them don’t even speak English. A simple thing as taking an intake interview makes no sense. And is of no use either. The majority are turned-down asylum seekers, they need to be deported as soon as possible. And the drugs traffickers among them need to sit out their sentence, they will be replaced to another facility sooner or later.”
“So there are convicted drugs traffickers in the group? What were they doing amongst the asylum seekers, these are no criminals?”
“I haven’t got the faintest idea, they came in as a mixed group. Now, mind this, absolutely no more than twelve men are allowed out on the ward at a time.”
“So no more than twelve go out on the yard either?”
No, outside recreation is done by side, so twenty-four at a time. It’s prohibited to have lighters in their cells. When they want to smoke, they place a request via the intercom and we give them a light. Don’t hand out the lighter, always light the cigarette through the door hatch. Of some of these guys we don’t know their names. You’ll see N.N. on the card, which stands for no name, and a Justice registration number. The Chinese have been fooling us since the airport by mixing up their names. As a matter of fact, some have escaped, did you know that? You may encounter their names here but then it turns out to be another joker.”
“But then we have no idea who we have on the ward?” Gershon panted out. Roberto just shrugged his shoulders.
“Erik knows about it, he says it was known when they came in.” By referring to department head Erik Bakker, Roberto indicated that the case was settled for him. Gershon knew that in policy questions, ministry of Justice management always had the final say.
“So when I do the final head count at eleven?”
“Then you just count what you have. O, and don’t forget to count the ones in the isolation ward of course.”
Shortly after six, when the dayshift had already left, Gershon received a call on his portophone.
“Weening. Berend here on the F-wing. Can you hop over to cell F10?”
Gershon saw the warden standing at the cell door, hand on the open door hatch. Berend was a bear of a man, bald head and a tattoo in his neck, aged end twentyish. Gershon envied the man’s natural prevalence over the detainees by his posture. But looking at the huge belly that weighed into his shirt, hanging over the broad uniform belt made him feel quite content with his on frailer composure. He would always be faster than a man like Berend, whether it was to fight or to flee. When he arrived at the cell, Berend closed the hatch to prevent those inside from listening in.
“Mister Ksímmenes here is freaking out. He insists on being transferred to another ward. Says he’s in a brawl with his cellmate. I told him we’re filled up but he won’t accept it..” Gershon looked at the nameplates next to the door. Ximénes and Lusjenko were the inhabitants.
“What is the quarrel about?”
“Don’t know. This one is a Peruvian and he barely speaks English. The other guy is from Ukraine. Ksímmenes says they already had a dispute at the cell complex at the airport.”
Gershon turned to the door hatch which Berend was still holding closed protectively and then opened reluctantly. He obviously didn’t appreciate his supervisor going into discussion with the inmates, he just wanted endorsement. When Gershons eyes had adapted to the darkness in the cell he saw a man with Eastern European appearance by the light of the TV, lying on the lower bunk in the far right corner of the narrow room. Hands folded comfortably behind his head the man looked at him with a grim, eyes pinched against the smoke that came from stub that was dangling between his lips. That had to be Lusjenko. So where was the Peruvian?
A small, light skinned man with half long black hair stood just below the door hatch, looking up in desperation.
“Señor, I must go to other cell. I must go to other ward. This man is bad. If I stay it will be very bad.” Gershon could have answered him in Spanish as he had spent time in Latin America doing research in the nineties. But in order not to give him the impression that he would be on his side and shut Lusjenko out, he started in English.
”There is no place for cell mutations.” Ximénes started to cry and jumped up to get closer to the hatch window. Eyes wide open and spittle flying out of his mouth, he shouted,
“O Dios mio, you no understand. We fight together in the fire. This man is bad. Put me in isolation. I can’t stay one night. Put me in isolation man, I tell you. This man is bad.”
Gershon looked passed the man to Lusjenko, who came out of his bunk and towards the door, grinning, and cornered Ximénes in the angle of the cell door and the wall. Quasi-paternally he put his big hands on the Peruvians head and shoulder.
“Not to worry, warden,”’he said amicably with a dark smokers baritone. “We will be alright, èh Miguèl?“ Ximénes tried to free himself but was no match against the tall Ukrainian. The little Quechua Indian sank to the floor, sobbing, hands held over his head. Gershon had seen enough.
“Lusjenko, back on your bunk, now! Or it will be isolation for you. Ximénes, get your stuff and bedding and wait here at the door.” Lusjenko returned to his bed, mocking incomprehensibly. The Peruvian remained on the floor, a small heap of misery.
“Ximénez, toma sus cosas y las sábanas y espera a la puerta.“ The man jumped up, elated. Under an unabated stream of muchas gracias and all kinds of blessings in Spanish he started to pack his belongings into his sheets. Gershon turned to his warden.
“Berend, keep observing them, I will look for an available cell on the other ward.” The man looked at him with a mix of unbelief and contempt and dropped the door hatch with a bang.
“You are not going to give in, are you? Soon they will all want to jump cells! And you need permission from a department head for that.” His face was turning red with excitement. Gershon felt an increasing tension in his stomach. It was never wise to reverse a decision taken by his personnel on the ward, that he knew very well, but this incident asked for immediate action, that also was clear.
“This man is in mortal agony and I need to act on that. Lusjenko intimidates him in my presence. The situation is untenable.”
“Well, I don’t know what kind of head-warden you are, grandpa, but you are very easy to persuade, to say the least.”
“The Peruvian is traumatised..”
“They are all traumatised! They are just using you to get their way, don’t you see?” I’m not going to convince this guy, Gershon thought. And in part the man is right. But I’m not leaving the Peruvian there.
“Mister Ximénes is going to the other ward,” he said as calm as he could. “Keep observing them. Your colleague Bulent will be here shortly with the keys and you will lock Ximénes up in the conversation room until I have a cell ready. Stay at the door until I do.” He turned around and walked back to the central post. First he got on the phone with the last department head that was still somewhere on the premises of Camp Zeist.
“If you think that is necessary, by all means. But make sure to motivate your decision well, nobody wants a chairs dance in the camp, you know,” was the short and simple answer he got after his lengthy explanation.
Most of the next hour Gershon was busy defending his decision and working it out in the compulsory forms, mails and reports. Then he supervised the transfer of Ximénes to a new cell with what he expected to be a more easy-going cellmate.
Gershon felt tiered after his clash with Berend. When it was all done, he looked for an opportunity to get out of the department and decided to see how things where at the isolation ward. The daily report he had been working in had already shown him that all twelve penal cells where occupied. It was only a short walk from his department to the central hall and down the stairs to the first floor. He rang the bell to be let in. A repetitive thud could be heard at the end of the ward when he walked to the team quarters. The two Iso-wardens sat there, smoking cigarettes, a tense look on their faces.
“Cell six holds a completely flipped inmate, he’s called Happy,” Dennis, a young blond fellow, but the more experienced of the two, told him. “Looks like he is of African origin, but that is just a guess, nothing is sure about the man, not even his name. ‘No name’ Happy has refused to put on his tear suit, there, you can see him walk around naked on monitor 2.” Gershon saw the muscular black man in the corner of his cell at the door. With force he was slamming both hands and his forehead against the steal door, again and again. Looking at him, it made Gershon think of the mythological Minotaur from the ancient Cretan labyrinth.
“Let’s go and have a look, then,” he said as he got up from his chair.
“Prepare yourself for the worst, Gershon, it’s a caboodle over there. Happy as been smearing his dung all over the wall. He’s covered with it.” Halfway up the corridor the stench enveloped them. When Dennis opened the door hatch, Gershon’s stomach almost turned outward. Happy stopped his banging for a moment but then resumed his jumping at the cell door with hands and head with the full weight of his brawny torso.
“Mr. Happy, calm down. Come over here, let’s talk.” No matter what Gershon tried, he could not get in contact with the bearded wild man. He called his department head by cellphone. Erik Bakker was at home but was on-call, as there was no department head on duty on the Camp grounds anymore.
“Try to calm him down. If that doesn’t work, call me back,” Erik said when he had heard the report.
“That’s what I’ve been trying the last twenty minutes Erik. Sometimes I think I am getting to him but then he goes at it again with his head against the door and fuming gibberish.”
“Is he injuring himself?”
“Not more than scratches and bumps as far as I can see. But the sound drills down the ward. The other Iso-inmates are continuously on the intercom and asking when it stops. They are getting nervous.”
“Let’s see what happens in the next hour and if he doesn’t quiet down, I want you to call me back.”
Gershon returned to his department but was asked back twice in the next hour for assistance by the two stressed Iso-wardens. Totally loathing it he kept going back. When the door hatch opened, he saw excrement sticking along the hatch rims and smeared out over the inner hatch window, the nauseating smell challenging his composure. Something had to be done, as the other inmates started to panic. A man two doors down who so far had been reciting bible verses in English was now shouting out: “Stop the fucking noise!” The detainee in the cell opposite to Happy’s, a slim looking Iranian man, age about twenty-eight, had his arm dangling out of the door hatch and was screaming:
“He is crazy, he is going to put his cell on fire. My God, he will kill us all!”
Gershon tried to calm the man down and in the process wanted to close the door hatch, at which the inmate totally panicked. “I have permission!” he insisted in tears. The Iso-wardens affirmed that there was a written permission on the post for several detainees on the ward. Now the negotiations went to and throw from the whimpering Persian on the one side to the smelly savage on the other side of the ward. At one point Happy looked Gershon in the eyes with an angry look as if he was measuring him up. Gershon thought that he had finally gotten through to him. But when he addressed him again, Happy started to roar like a lion. When he growled, Gershon saw the man’s dirt between his teeth. His eyes showed a total absence of reason. What use is there, Gershon thought, to try to reason with someone who has totally lost it. What horror has this man gone through to go down this deep? All humanity has disappeared out of him. When the hour was over he called back his department head.
“Then take a matrass and tape it against the door, for Peet-sake,” said Bakker. “But I want you to keep observing him through the camera and call me if he seriously injures himself.”
Back on his department’s central post, Gershon set out to check on a hunch. Both the name Happy and that of the Iranian, Mehmood, had been familiar to him. He had seen them at the head-count at five that afternoon. The first name he found back in the card-index, pointing to a cell on the E-ward. The other belonged to a cell on the F-ward. But as he checked at the door hatches, it was clear that both cells had two occupants in them. Mehmood was a name that occurred more often, but that there were more than one Happy was highly unlikely. When he compared the name labels at the doors he saw that the registration numbers matched those on the Iso-list. Until the end of his shift Gershon kept fretting over the question who the two unknown inmates were, the ones in the Isolation ward or the ones in his department. At the change-over at eleven o’clock he put the issue to his colleague.
“Oh, no need to make such a big thing about it Gersh, it just was total chaos yesterday night when they came in,” Martijn responded.
“But you know as well as I do that it’s a capital sin if the head-count on a prison ward is wrong.”
“If Roberto has said that Bakker knows, I wouldn’t worry about it my friend.” Martijn hardly ever worried about anything. His whole rounded posture and smiling face radiated calmness and ease. It almost persuaded Gershon. But not quite. I don’t want to be held responsible, he argued in his mind, for the chaos that the fire at Schiphol brought into our institute. Neither did he want to embarrass his department head by broadcasting the unknown identity of two inmates in their facility. He therefore decided to send an e-mail to all the department heads of his building to alert them that detainees had switched names and cells and that this, in combination with the unknown number of escapees, brought some uncertainty about the identity of some of the inhabitants on his department on the second floor. In a separate mail message to Erik Bakker he gave a detailed account about the double names that he had encountered. For a moment he hesitated whether it was wise to bring up the subject. He didn’t want to come over as a smart-ass. Finally he pressed send. That way at least I’m covered when worst comes to worst, was his reasoning.