Who is Babah Tarawally?
After fleeing Sierra Leone for the Netherlands 17 years ago and spending the first seven of those years filing an asylum application, Babah Tarawally began working for independent media outlets in Africa. Alongside this work, he contributes stories and columns to several newspapers. His novel De god met de blauwe ogen (‘The blue-eyed god’) was published in 2010 by KIT. Babah lives with his partner and two daughters in the Netherlands, though is currently working on a project in Sierra Leone.
A Dutch court ruled today that the man arrested this week for a 1999 murder can be detained for another 14 days to allow police to complete their investigation. The brutal rape and killing of a 16-year-old girl in a quiet rural area shocked the Netherlands, and people rushed to blame the residents of a nearby asylum-seekers centre for the crime. Babah Tarawally was one of those ‘outsiders’ and this is his reaction to the eventual arrest of a local man 13 years later.
Finally we got him, the murderer of Marianne Vaatstra. He is not a black man, not a North African Arab, nor a Chinese; neither is he a Latino or an Eskimo or a refugee from Russia or from the former Yugoslavia. He is a white Dutch man, and his name is ‘Jasper S’.
‘I need a lawyer’
After thirteen 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 if 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.
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 splashed with the rainbow colours of the world. The locals feared the government was changing the face of their towns into one resembling Amsterdam, 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.
For those of us living in Friesland at the time, the brutal death of Marianne Vaatstra 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, presumably living in that centre. Though I was housed in a town nearby, we all felt as if 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 Marianne 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.