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  • Maria Burbach

The Living Monument

It’s a lovely, unusually warm spring day in Amsterdam. The thermometer (or rather my weather app) reads 25 degrees, children are out riding their bikes, people are lounging in the grass, and the meadows of Nelson Mandela Park are covered in white dandelions. Birds are chirping, the leaves of the ‘Tree That Saw Everything’ (in Dutch: De Boom Die Alles Zag) are rustling in the breeze, and the beautiful, colorful mosaics on the floor shimmer in the sunlight – life is in full bloom. I’m spending my afternoon at Het Groeiend Monument – The Growing Monument – which commemorates the victims of the Bijlmer disaster, more commonly known by its Dutch name De Bijlmerramp. For most people growing up in the Netherlands and especially for the Amsterdam population, the Bijlmer disaster is an event that is deeply etched into the collective memory of the country. Even for those who were either too young to remember, hadn’t been born yet, or came from other parts of the Netherlands, the event leaves a deep scar in recent Dutch history.

When I first set out to write this article, my intention was to highlight how the Bijlmer plane crash is not really remembered among students – then I realized that I simply don’t have friends who grew up in the Netherlands. So this article is not about to what extent the disaster is remembered (or not). Maybe this article is more for internationals like me who didn’t read up on Amsterdam’s history enough before they came to this city. That’s why I want to briefly provide a summary of what happened, of what De Bijlmerramp is.

On the evening of October 4th, 1992, an Israeli cargo plane crashed into the Groeneveen and Klein-Kruitberg flats in the Bijlmermeer neighborhood – killing all four people aboard on the aircraft and, according to official statistics, 43 people on the ground. This number was first reported to be far higher, with police and some newspapers talking of even up to 200 victims. To this day, however, the exact number of people who died as a result of the plane crash is still unknown. This is due the fact that the Bijlmermeer estate served as housing for many undocumented – ‘illegal’ – immigrants following Surinamese independence in 1975. At the time, a Dutch law forbidding more than one Surinamese family from living in the same housing block coincided with the underpopulated Bijlmermeer housing project originally built in the 1960s for Amsterdam’s growing white middle-class population. In the second half of the 70s – following independence – a big influx of Surinamese people, looking for a more stable economic and sociopolitical life in the Netherlands, came to Amsterdam for work. They made use of the largely deserted Bijlmer apartments and started squatting and occupying the unused housing blocks in a quite organized manner, providing housing for friends and family members at first, and later also to other immigrants. Because of its open-door policy, the Bijlmermeer neighborhood housed a significantly large, but unknown number of people at the point of the Bijlmer disaster.

The initial public and official reaction to the plane crash was marked by an outpour of sympathy and solidarity: The Dutch government offered victims, family members, friends, and residents affected by the crash the opportunity to come forward and seek help to report missing relatives and receive a residence permit – regardless of their legal status. Consequently, over 1500 people were reported as missing in the days after De Bijlmerramp and almost 1800 immigrants claimed to have lived in the Groeneveen and Klein-Kruitberg flats. This put the government in a predicament: Many people indeed exploited the opportunity to be given official papers by claiming to have been affected by the disaster. However, instead of taking this as an opportunity to engage in an important conversation about Dutch colonial history and to question why so many undocumented immigrants feared deportation in the case of applying for papers, the public sentiment towards the population of the Bijlmer turned increasingly hostile. After official investigations, the number of missing persons was reduced to 0 and only 55 people received the residence permit that was promised to them. In 1998, an inquiry by the Dutch parliament concluded that there was no reason to believe that the death toll of De Bijlmerramp indeed exceeded the official number of 43 people – despite persistent claims that this figure misrepresents the real number of casualties.

The names of the few known victims

Following the disaster, a monument was set up around a tree that survived the plane crash and lent witness to the tragedy: De Boom Die Alles Zag. Inspired by ideas from survivors, residents, and artists, architects Herman Hertzberger and Georges Descombes designed the site that now commemorates the victims of De Bijlmerramp. The tree that saw everything serves as the center of the memorial and is surrounded by benches and flowers. There is a metal construction at the memorial site which includes the names of the 43 known victims, a brief description of the disaster, and snippets from quotes by relatives, neighbors, and first responders. The floor is covered in colorful tiles which make up a beautiful mosaic – shimmering in the daylight as it reflects the sunrays. It was created by school students, residents, politicians, teachers, first responders, and anyone who wished to express their solidarity with the victims and their families. According to the sign explaining the set-up of the monument, the mosaic “weaves a durable carpet of humanity” and “literally and symbolically spans the spectrum of life”.

The site is partly surrounded by a low wall with three built-in benches. On one of them, a man is taking a nap in the sun; on another, an elderly couple is cuddling in the shade and murmuring in soft voices. I’m sitting on the third bench, next to a middle-aged man smoking a cigarillo with relish and listening to music. At some point, he answers his phone and talks to someone in a foreign language – Dutch – and I’m left to wonder what his conversation is about. Two young men arrive to shoot a music video. I personally enjoy the music; the man woken up from his nap doesn’t seem too excited about it. “Motherfuckers”, he curses as the two leave to find another spot. When I get up to take a closer look at some of the quotes, I start talking to a man from South Holland who came here for the first time today. “I remember this from when I was a kid, so I wanted to see it with my own eyes”, he tells me. “A friend of mine actually used to live here – she witnessed the plane crash when she was still very young.” We chat for a couple of minutes before he leaves to look at the site of the crash. More tourists arrive – you can tell by their bike helmets – to check out the monument. They pace the square mindfully (just like I had done a couple of minutes ago), take a couple of pictures, and cycle off.

Of course, I’m not that disillusioned to think of myself as having discarded the role of an outsider after spending one afternoon at Het Groeiend Monument. But still: It seems that for the people of the Bijlmer, the memorial is of course a place to remember – but also to simply wind down on a warm afternoon. During the couple of hours I spend here, it’s mostly residents from their nearby flats coming to have a quick chat with each other or to have a phone call in the cool of the shade provided by De Boom Die Alles Zag. With the flowers continuing to bloom spring after spring and the tree that saw everything growing bigger and more luscious every year, the monument is indeed growing. But maybe even more importantly, it’s also living: Serving as a site to mourn the victims of De Bijlmerramp and, at the same time, to enjoy a beautiful afternoon outside.

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