Monday, 14 September 2020

THE CARGO to appear in Dutch on October 5th

Last week I wrote about the fire at Camp Moria and the shameful handling by Dutch and other European politicians of the Greek refugee camp crisis, the constant shadowy deals by governments to allow as few displaced people as possible a safe refuge in Europe, in spite of the UN refugee treaty concluded in 1951 (updated in 1967).

A few days have now passed and we now see the Greeks having set up a so-called "humanitarian" camp to receive the homeless people on Lesvos. They follow a military tactic, besieging and starving the homeless masses until they give in and voluntarily go to their new prison. Isn’t it remarkable that the people don't trust it, expecting to be locked for more interminable months and years? They have a bellyful of Greek asylum policy. A humanitarian camp - why couldn't that have been created sooner? Let’s ask the Greek authorities - I'd say to them: πρέπει να ντρέπεσαι για τη Μόρια - shame on you for Moria.

One of the driving forces behind the current refugee flow, regardless of the underlying causes (poverty and war), is human trafficking. We must not confuse this with the actions of humanitarian organizations rescuing refugees at sea, who as a result are being depicted by some European authorities as human traffickers. That’s just a political game. Those organizations have a humanitarian objective and, according to maritime law, are obliged to save lives, regardless of the question whether that fuels migration.

source: Sputnik

In my new book HET TRANSPORT (translates as The Cargo) I introduce a different face of human trafficking: dealing in women. Human trafficking is difficult to combat, but the means used by our Justice Department to collect evidence against human traffickers (a temporary residence arrangement for victims inducing them to testify) often presents the victims with an impossible choice. That dilemma runs like a red thread through the book.


My new book is not just a thriller. It also shows the harshness of governments mainly concerned with devising and implementing rules and procedures, thus disregarding the human dimension. As an author, when I researched the background to my story, I was shocked to see how often the approach to human trafficking is subject to official arbitrariness and political interference. Read the book and draw your own conclusions ...

As it is impossible at present to hold lectures and book presentations due to the limitations imposed by the corona crisis (my last presentation took place in March, before the lockdown), I made a promotional video, which, like a movie trailer, has the role of a digital presentation. I have used my own film footage of the Waddenzee and the IJsselmeer, where part of the story takes place.

 

HET TRANSPORT is available from booksellers, in Dutch, from October 5th. I have THE CARGO, an English translation, waiting for eventual publication in the English language domain.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Moria - a shameful dance

(Edit: new photos by MSF added) 

I actually planned to write the final announcement of my second book (Het Transport) today, but that can wait another week. I am furious, and it seems I am not the only one, having read the reactions of refugee support organisations and the papers this morning.

Some of you who read the English version may remember what I wrote in The Batavian, about a Greek refugee camp being set on fire. Well, the inevitable has happened: Camp Moria on Lesbos burned down. In a another way from what I described in my book, but still.

source: Médecins Sans Frontières

This is what happens when you put thousands of people in a filthy concentration camp and then subject them to a Covid-19 lockdown, making life even more difficult. The camp was torched - apparently a few people have thrown in the towel and set it on fire. Predictably, the Greek authorities' initial reaction is that the "culprits" will be punished.


Culprits? The real culprits are the indecisive, heartless rulers of the EU, who for five years failed to find a humane solution to a problem that will never go away. You can ignore it, you can put a fence around it, let yourself be blackmailed by a bunch of Eastern European autocrats who are holding the entire EU hostage. You can make a bad refugee deal with Erdogan, who has successfully turned it into a game of harassing the EU, but it won't go away.


source: Médecins Sans Frontières

Finally, Dutch politicians seemed to have seen the light. But only after a huge fire broke out in a refugee camp, resulting in thousands of people now sleeping out in the open. The last hurdle our right-wing Coalition had to overcome was the harsh stance of one coalition party, the VVD Liberals (Conservatives in UK parlance), who try with all their might to lock the gates on every refugee. Something had to be done, not out of charity, but in order not to endanger the right-wing coalition.


Let me be clear: I don't believe those people will be very happy here. They’d probably prefer a normal life in their own country instead of running away from war and poverty. But if more than a hundred Dutch town mayors back in April petitioned the Government, saying they want to do everything possible to accommodate young and vulnerable refugees, what is the problem? Yes, it will raise questions and no doubt it will cause adjustment problems. But we can handle that.


source: Médecins Sans Frontières

So what is the coalition doing now? They will allow one hundred of the thirteen thousand homeless people from Moria into the country. You have read correctly. ONE HUNDRED. I suppose that will solve the problem. 


Yet another shameful development in the refugee debate, and a compromise to be truly proud of. As always: too little, too late. "We take our responsibility," said Rob Jetten, one coalition party foreman. It’s what I call conscience money


By the way, these one hundred will be taken from the UNHCR ‘quotum’ of 500 fixed for next year. Refugee support groups are furious, but the creases in the coalition have been smoothed once more, and Parliament rests.



Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Kastellorizo once again

Kastellorizo ​​once again

Previously, I wrote about Kastellorizo ​​in this blog, and once again the remote Greek island recently made the headlines with a new Turkish effort to back up that country's claims to the sea area around the island. The Turks sent a research vessel to explore for natural gas, guarded by no less than five naval ships to frustrate any Greek counter-action. Even so, the Greeks are said to have forced a collision with the research vessel.


The Turkish ‘armada’ underway

Kastellorizo ​​plays a leading role in my novel De Batavier (The Batavian), which was published last year. Already during my visit to the island in 2013, the tension was palpable, even though the islanders do their shopping at the market in the Turkish coastal town of Kaş, which is only a few nautical miles away. A recent newspaper article even states that the islanders have a current account with the shopkeepers on the Turkish mainland!


Kaş harbour


However, the political situation remains grim, with repeated border incidents in the waters contested by both sides. The origins of all this lie in the past: the islands were mandated to Italy after the Turkish-Greek war of 1919-1922 and transferred to Greece in 1946. The Turks have never accepted this.


Kastellorizo

In The Batavian I stage a Turkish invasion of Kastellorizo, which is thwarted by Greek intervention. Later I describe the difficulties in rescuing distressed refugees in the disputed waters between Kastellorizo ​​and Kaş, as any border crossing by the coastguard of either country turns into an international incident of impossible proportions. The Batavian is a work of fiction, but the background is everyday reality. The Batavian can still be ordered (in Dutch only) from the bookstore or my publisher, Palmslag.


The Cargo


My new book Het Transport (The Cargo) will be going to the printer soon. As mentioned earlier, my publisher Palmslag will publish the book in early October. Due to current restrictions on large gatherings, no book presentation will be held for the time being. Instead, thoughts are turned to an online presentation, possibly an interview or a promotional film. I will discuss this with my agent, Hanneke Tinor-Centi, shortly.



I am writing this on board my yacht Manokwari, lying in the port of Harlingen, where part of The Cargo takes place. The plan was to sail to Vlieland, but bad weather has thrown a spanner in the works. We are waiting here for stormy weather forecast later today ...


For both The Batavian and The Cargo, English translations have been prepared.


To be continued...

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

A tale of Africa

As a seafarer I came to South and West Africa, during the 1970s. To be honest, at the time I saw Africa mainly from a European perspective, although even then I wondered what was the matter with apartheid in South Africa. We transported Western products to Africa, and the return cargo was mostly tree trunks and some tropical products. Thus, I did my share in the destruction of the rain forest.

loading tropical trees at Campo, Cameroon, 1978

Africa has been cruelly exploited for centuries - it was a source of raw materials, tropical products and cheap labour. Local rulers were bribed by unscrupulous traders and actively participated - you only have to read about the slave trade to understand. The consequences are still there: Africa is a rich continent with an enormous potential, but it is torn by war and the people are bad off. Three out of four people in Africa have no permanent job and no fixed income, they are mostly day labourers who cannot feed their children at the least setback.


Jamestown, Accra, Ghana, 2012

The problem is that almost no one invests in Africa - the exploitation continues as before, large Western and Chinese multinationals being the main perpetrators. A new colonization, which we in the West still benefit from. The corruption and collusion of African governments is often alluded to as the cause. But I think it is a vicious circle of despicable dealing involving outside parties that has still not been broken.

An example

Recently, my newspaper featured an article by a South African professor about vaccines for infectious diseases no longer being developed in Africa. Some initiatives have failed due to "financing problems". Even now, during the Covid-19 epidemic, Africa is only used as a testing ground for vaccines that are being developed elsewhere. Everything is made outside Africa and sold in Africa on our terms. Medicines and vaccines are expensive. This applies not only to medical applications, but to almost all achievements of the contemporary world.

Small wonder that the continent is so impoverished and young men are sent to Europe by their families, hoping to find work there and money to send home. To Europe, where they come up against fences and refugee camps, remaining in permanent poverty and insecurity. It is too easy to explain away the African migration as their own fault.

fish market in Elmina, Ghana, 2012

Fortunately, there are exceptions, where the local population gets a better chance. A friend of ours worked in Ghana for a long time. He managed to save an area of rainforest in the Atewa range, which a Chinese company was after because there is a 20 metres thick vein of bauxite underneath. The forest serves as a water extraction area for Accra and the local economy benefits from ecotourism. Our friend presented the local ‘chief’ with calculations proving that in the long run the income out of the forest would be more than the proceeds of selling it to the Chinese. There is an ongoing drive to declare the area a national park, which is better than it being pillaged by a Chinese mining company.

Africa in 1976

I remember a thief being caught on board my ship in Cape Town. Naturally you don’t want thieves on board your ship, but all the poor sod had stolen was an alarm clock from the first mate's cabin. I had the dubious pleasure of receiving the South African police on board, two big white-skinned cops in pale blue uniforms, shorts and flat caps. The thief looked rather innocent compared to them. He was a Cape Coloured, a descendant of the original San population and Dutch settlers. The first thing the policemen did was slam the thief’s head against the steel bulkhead. I stopped that, saying I did not tolerate that on board a Dutch ship. The men spoke Afrikaans (a form of Dutch) and understood me perfectly. The detainee was handcuffed and taken away. I don't know what they did to him later. They probably beat him senseless.

French colonial church in Kribi, Cameroon, 1978

At the time, Colonial influence was still strongly present in West Africa, in some cases probably still is. In 1978 I sailed to Senegal, Ivory Coast and Cameroon. The French connection showed in hotels and apartment buildings for the scores of French expats who lived there. Dakar (Senegal) looked like a French city on the Côte d´Azur. In Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the city center was a collection of tall tower blocks, surrounded by shabby slums.
 
Fort Elmina, Ghana 2012

Fort Elmina

I returned to Africa once more in 2012. In Ghana we were driven around by a local driver named Emmanuel, in a rented minivan. I still remember the visit to the slave fortresses at Cape Coast and Elmina. Elmina in particular made a deep impression on me. The fort was originally Portuguese (São Jorge de El Mina) and was conquered by the Dutch in the 17th century. Ultimately, the Dutch West India Company controlled a large part of the overseas slave trade from what was then called the 'Gold Coast'.

the church in Fort Elmina, Ghana

The Netherlands was almost the last country to ban slavery (1863, remembered on Keti Koti day, the Broken Bonds, July 1st), although in the colony of Suriname the former slaves were obliged by law to continue working on the plantations for 10 more years. It was institutionalized human trafficking.

dungeon in Fort Elmina

The church at Fort Elmina is located directly above the dungeons, where for many years people were locked up, waiting for the next ship to take them to the Caribbean and the American mainland. Centuries later the dungeons still smell of excrement - there was a drain in the centre, but the stench is too deeply sunk in the floor and walls. The Dutch slave traders were singing psalms in the church upstairs, turning a blind eye to the ocean of misery underfoot.

I couldn’t meet the Ghanaian guide’s eyes for shame.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

The Cargo



Almost three months have gone by, turbulent months in which the world had to deal with a continuing epidemic, which currently mainly rages in India, Latin America, Africa and the US.

Inevitably, the restrictions imposed on group meetings have also had repercussions on the book presentations featuring The Batavian, which I had planned during the spring and summer. These were all suspended.

This takes me to my new book Het Transport (The Cargo), publication of the Dutch version of which is expected in early October. The method of presentation of this book will strongly depend on the conditions of the moment. However, publication will not be postponed.

Cover by Palmslag Publishers

The Cargo is actually my first novel. Two years ago I had two manuscripts completed when Hanneke Tinor-Centi, my agent,
put me in touch with my publisher (Palmslag). At the time, I chose to publish The Batavian first. That proved to be a good choice, so now it is the turn of The Cargo.

The Wadden Sea seen from the isle of Vlieland

The Cargo is a thriller rather than an adventure story such as The Batavian. It starts with a gruesome discovery by two yachtsmen on the Wadden Sea. The Wadden Sea has sometimes been described as our last real wilderness, a tangle of sandbanks and tidal channels in the North of our country, which is constantly in motion.

Sailing to Vlieland

The Wadden Sea is an ideal setting for anything that will not bear close scrutiny, in this case overseas women trafficking from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic. The main protagonists get caught in a web of crime and murder. Originally, the title of the manuscript was 'The Directive', which refers to the Human Trafficking Directive (probably a poor translation from Dutch), which plays an important role in the book.

A sinister encounter in the fog

The Human Trafficking Directive at first sight appears to be meant to protect victims of human trafficking. Reality is very different however: the Directive is aimed at providing the Justice Department with witnesses for the prosecution of human traffickers. In itself a good goal, but the victims’ safety often takes second place. That isn’t wild guessing on my part - I read the critical reports of the National Reporter on Human Trafficking in the Netherlands.

Using these ingredients I wrote a thrilling tale set in both the Netherlands and Russia, and inevitably also at sea. There is a fair English translation available of both The Batavian and The Cargo, which needs to be further edited before publication in the English language domain should be attempted. Sample extracts are available from my website.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Liberation



I will put out the flag at half mast once more on Monday 4 May, our Remembrance Day for WW2, which is 75 years in the past now. I mainly do so to honour my father’s classmates who were shot by the occupying German forces, because they were part of a resistance group that was betrayed. Theo Polet, my Dad, barely managed to escape with his life.

Theo Polet, my father, in 1946
I have never been properly able to understand what it must have been like for my parents to live under a foreign occupation. Until the spring 2020 pandemic hit us, killing thousands and completely disrupting life.

The Corona lockdown is not comparable to a state of war, because the tyranny and gross violence of the German occupiers was many times worse than the threat of the virus. But it probably feels about the same - aged people, who have experienced 1940-45, recognize it: powerlessness, grief, fear and anger, but also a suddenly rediscovered communal spirit.

Long ago, my father wrote his war memoirs. They fill many pages of a closely typed text, in which I found familiar, but also surprising new anecdotes. He was almost 17 years old, when he saw the German bombers fly over his (then) hometown of Waalwijk,
to hit Rotterdam, exactly 80 years ago. He writes the following:

"... There was a brown-yellow smoke high in the air, which passed over us with the prevailing west wind. A few weeks after the bombing I saw Rotterdam myself. The rubble still smoked, a large department store was a distorted skeleton. The shipwrecks lay in the harbour, the same ships in which I would have sailed if there had been no war. My future changed drastically ... "

The latter was a surprise to me. I never realized that he wanted to go to sea as well as I years later. Fortunately he didn’t go to sea: seafaring was a life-threatening business in WW2.

 
Burning ships in Rotterdam, May 1940
What followed after May 1940 was five years of ever-increasing restrictions, persecutions and massacres by the occupying forces. A hundred thousand of my countrymen were put on the train, first to the Westerbork camp, then to the gas chambers. My mother told the story of the “evacuation” of the Jewish nursing home in Apeldoorn, which she was forced to watch at gunpoint by the black-uniformed thugs, a 15-year-old girl on her way to school. The memory remained with her until her death.

As a 19-year-old, my father sat up nights with an elderly Jewish neighbour, after the Germans had taken away his family and left him, because he wasn’t yet on their deportation list. He wouldn’t leave him alone. Later they also took the old man away. My father was active in a student’s resistance group in Amsterdam and joined the Underground Army after its establishment by proclamation of Queen Wilhelmina in September 1944. He never said much about that, but it can be read in his memoirs.
The Monument in Westerbork Camp
What May 2020 has in common with May 1940 is our total lack of preparation for a catastrophe. The disarmament drive of the 1930s was prompted by the same lack of vision that has left our economy and health care so vulnerable in 2020. Precautions apparently were no longer necessary.

There is not only a parallel in lack of foresight, but also in the unfeeling attitude of those in power - apparently that goes hand in hand. During the occupation, the Dutch authorities cooperated, at least in part, nicely with the Germans. As a result, a hundred thousand people could be taken away with the greatest ease.

In 2020, our Cabinet abandons displaced refugee children to their fate in Greek camps, where they lead a destitute life and are prone to disease or exploitation. And the Alderman for Welfare closes the municipal shelter for illegal refugees in Leiden, in the midst of the epidemic, nicely according to plan. Seven people walked into the rain with their suitcases, into homelessness. Apparently it couldn’t wait. It is of a different order than actually participating in a pogrom, but the harshness is the same.

The experts seem to agree that this will not be the last pandemic. The future of our young people could also change drastically. How will we prepare better and make our society more robust, less dependent on scarce resources and scarce health care? Some kind of Pandemic Marshall Plan? Have we learned from it, and above all, have our politicians learned from it?

I fear the worst. The first thing those in power lose is the ability to listen.


Edited 28 June.