A fire broke out at a detention centre for rejected asylumseekers at Schiphol Airport Amsterdam in the night 26 op 27 October 2005. It was a shocking and traumatic incident which deeply touched Dutch society. Eleven detainees were killed and fifteen detainees and wardens injured in that fatal accident, a sad account of failing security procedures.
To head warden Gershon Weening, the arrival at his detention centre of ninety-eight of the victims of that tragic fire-incident offered a welcome change to the daily routine at his facility. He looked forward to an opportunity to help a vulnerable group of detainees. It would also give him a chance to show his qualities to his superiors. Driven by his zeal, Weening demonstrates to the department heads of the penitentiary facility at Camp Zeist that mistakes were made during the chaotic arrival of the victims of the fire. Names of some of the inmates appeared double or were missing, which resulted in uncertainty about the number and identity of the detainees on his ward. Not long afterwards, Gershon is relieved of his position as head warden because of an incident with a colleague.
Back on the ward as warden, Gershon comes into close contact with the victims of the fire at Schiphol Airport. With those that are left that is, because as he notices, the Justice department has ordered a rapid deportation-procedure for this group of detainees. Which was strange, because a debate in the Dutch Parliament whether or not to grand these victims of the fire a general pardon to stay in the Netherlands was still ongoing. Together with his colleagues, Gershon works to improve the conditions and general atmosphere on the ward for those that remain. Sportive and social events are organized, clothes are gathered. The stories of the prisoners are heard and written down. Letters from lawyers or from court concerning the individual cases are read and explained to the detainees to prepare the men for their next appearance in court.
Erik Bakker perceives the behaviour of his staff on ward E as a threat to his authority as department head. A cat and mouse fight ensues between Bakker and Weening: each time the warden introduces a new initiative to improve conditions for the detainees, more restrictive procedures are put in place by the department head. Other wardens and the detainees are used to achieve gains against each other. Whilst it is the department head’s assignment to get as many of the victims of the Airport-fire deported before a political decision falls to grant them all asylum, Gershon puts all his effort in getting at least some released. When he achieves his pyrrhic victory, Gershon knows that he will never do anything but cleaning jobs if he stays. He decides to leave Camp Zeist for security work in the private sector.
Some weeks later Weening is contacted by a small group of former inmates from Camp Zeist. These victims of the fire have been released as a result of his efforts, but their freedom is a farce, so he finds out. They are compelled to stay at an asylum seekers facility in the far east of the county, waiting indefinitely for their permanent visa-papers. Gershon intervenes on their behalf once more by calling in the help of a high profile lawyer who brings the fate of these victims to the attention of the right members of parliament. Eventually 39 of the 268 victims of the fire at the Schiphol Airport detention centre receive financial compensation and a permanent status to remain in the Netherlands.
*Chapter 1 of this novel is published in Dutch on this website here.
Concertina is the razor sharp barbwire which comes in harmonica-like rolls and is placed on fences and walls of prisons and detention centres to prevent breakouts.
Concertina is a semi-autobiographical novel, written by the Dutch theologian and novelist André Verkaik. The author formerly was warden and head warden at the prison facility, located in detention centre Camp Zeist (2002-2006), in the Netherlands. Verkaik followed short prose and novel writing courses at the Amsterdam writers college (‘Schrijversvakschool’) and has previously published the novel That Red Stuff (‘Dat Rode Spul’) and a collection of short prose, entitled Incidents, stories of law enforcement (‘Incidenten, verhalen uit de handhaving’), so far only published in Dutch. Apart from his literary projects, André Verkaik is the founder and editor in-chief of text bureau AYBS (Areyoubeingsurfed.nl) and is still involved in part-time security assignments.
Works by A. Verkaik:
-Dat Rode Spul, 2013, Calbona, Rotterdam . ISBN 9789 491 254772. (English synopsis click here)
-Incidenten, verhalen uit de handhaving, 2016, Calbona Rotterdam. ISBN 9789 492 575111.
-Concertina, 2017, Calbona, Rotterdam. ISBN 9789 492 575814.