The Yellow Train

March 22, 2008 at 8:07 am 1 comment

By Roon Lewald

Historic names and events in this autobiographical story are essentially unchanged, except for the fictitious names used for the news agency “ANI”, the young journalist “Archie” and the eyewitness “Petra Wagenaar”.

The Yellow Train

Over a century after Nietzsche proclaimed that God had been dead for long enough to start smelling offensively, the thunder of his broadside against the hypocritical bourgeois religiosity of his day continues to reverberate. All the major churches have seen their congregations dwindle at an alarming rate in recent decades and the ivory towers of Christian establishment theology have been shaken to their foundations.

However, I myself haven’t completely ruled out the possibility that a sentient deity may still be clinging to an unobtrusive existence in our ethically relativist, science-worshipping age. Such a God would know that we could do with divine help, even if we don’t think so. The lack of any conclusive evidence for or against a living God hasn’t stopped me wondering whether it was this survival-skilled deity whose presence I half-consciously sensed during a major story I covered as a news agency correspondent many years ago. It was one of those terrorist hostage-takings that hogged world headlines for days on end in the 1970s, long before 9/11 batted terrorism into an entirely new league of horror.

This experience has led me to speculate that, if indeed God lives, His weakened appeal to our technology-obsessed rationality might well prompt Him to take a more selective interest in human affairs than in the past. So few people would be likely to take Him seriously nowadays – and what chance would He have of making himself understood amid the mounting bedlam of lunacy, anguish, fear, hate, haphazard counter-strikes by the greatest military power in history and even more indiscriminate counter-terror by religiously disguised, culturally freaked-out zealots since the cataclysmic fall of the Twin Towers? If indeed He lives, it seems to me that He might be more likely to manifest himself in cases where violence erupts on a more localised scale in a small, orderly, peaceful community, especially if the locals might be more amenable because they at least pretend to love and obey their sectarian notion of Him. Surely He wouldn’t permit such a salvageable island of comparative decency and sanity to be destroyed by a localized – and therefore relatively containable – outburst of terrorist violence?
In 1977, I helped to man my American news agency’s forward desk during the second of two hijackings of Dutch commuter trains by those young Moluccan extremists who were so militant in Holland then. What a sad affair that was: what a tragic, illusory dream it was that drove those Dutch-born children of unhappy exiles from a sun-drenched island archipelago to extremist militancy! What a pleasant region for a hateful business like that to happen to! As everybody knows, Holland is a small, flat, well-organised country whose likable people have the obstinacy and cool nerve it takes to keep defying their ancient enemy – the sea – day-in, day out in the low-lying, reclaimed land behind their brilliantly engineered coastal defences. The positive hallmarks of Dutch society include common sense, tolerance, social justice, well-earned prosperity and a fond adherence to a frequently bicycle-riding monarchy that is blessed with the common touch. But the hijackings drove such a deep wedge between white and Moluccan neighbours that they threatened to foment ugly racist reactions among some of the white villagers and townspeople in and around Assen, a modest district centre situated a score or two miles south of Groningen in the province of Drenten.

This is Holland’s Bible belt, a region traditionally known for the deeply-rooted, fundamentalist faith of its largely Calvinist population. Those traditions are fading now. But at that time, many regional inhabitants still believed in an ancestral divinity they pictured as a stern father-figure. In their neat towns and villages, they prayed with linked hands at mealtimes, went to church in their Sunday best and hoped to face their Lord one day with a tolerably clear conscience.

When I recall my experiences in this placid green countryside in the summer of 1977, my mind’s eye sees one huge index finger of their Jehovah-like deity pointing down reproachfully from the blue sky at a bright-yellow commuter train. During those sweltering summer days, there was something so surrealistic about the normally prosaic train in its breezy Royal Dutch Railways colour scheme that retrospective associations with local religiosity have turned my memory of that scene into a Magritte painting. This surrealist mental canvas combines the physical reality of the remembered scene with the associations that later accreted around it, thereby collaging the giant, extra-terrestrial Finger onto the bright blue sky above the little yellow train and the white sheep dotting the green fields around it.

Seen from afar through a shimmering heat haze, the uncanny thing about this otherwise humdrum train was its immobility on an otherwise empty track in the middle of a pastoral nowhere. All its window blinds were pulled down to conceal its interior from outside observers. To watchers who could only guess what tensions between the unseen passengers and their captors might fatefully snap any moment, the hidden implications of the outwardly deserted-looking train swirled around it like a poisonous, invisible miasma. For three long weeks, the four-carriage train set with its bulbous-nosed, fore-and-aft motor coaches remained frozen on the tracks where it normally shuttled to and fro so busily between Assen and Groningen. The green pasture around the train had become a no-man’s-land in which the unconcerned white puffballs of grazing sheep were the only visibly moving objects.

Behind a security barrier a safe distance away, the normally placid town of Assen seethed in the hubbub created by a milling host of outsiders: national and local officials and their aides, heavily armed police, soldiers and anti-terror specialists, a horde of advisors, medics, psychiatrists and other support workers and scores of inquisitive rubberneckers. It was the world’s top news story for many days, so a large media presence exposed Assen to the gaze of hundreds of millions of unseen TV-viewers and newspaper readers the world over. The media were everywhere, filling the press centre in a hastily commandeered sports club bungalow near the train, crowding bars and hotels or knocking on doors to interview the locals. Amid this shifting throng, some of the busiest media crews were those of the news agencies. Besides my own ANI wire service, these included UPI, Reuters and national European agencies like AFP and DPA.

I was relatively junior, inexperienced and insecure when ANI pulled me in from Bonn in neighbouring West Germany to man the forward desk for the last week of the 20-day train siege. I found myself to be the only ANI world service staffer left in Assen because reader interest had flagged as unproductive negotiations with the hijackers wore on and on. All the old hands had drifted back to their usual beats – the Northern Ireland conflict in Belfast, European Community politics in Brussels or home-base routines in London, ANI’s biggest European bureau and the main regional hub of a far-flung telecom network. With no experience of commanding forward-desk reporting of a prime world news event, I would have to keep the story rolling by myself. Besides my 24-hour responsibility for keeping the two daily (U.S. morning- and afternoon-cycle, i.e. AM and PM) running leads abreast of developments, it looked as if I would have to rely for fact-gathering from farther afield on a keen but green-as-grass gaggle of Dutch youngsters – stringers who normally reported only to the Amsterdam-based Dutch domestic service on parochial events like local politics, social events, the nearby natural-gas fields or the annual Assen TT motorbike races. Most of them spoke hardly any English, so my predecessors had relied on George, Amsterdam’s capable Dutch-service chief of stringers, to pass on any nuggets that might interest World Wire subscribers too. As I was born in South Africa and speak a passable, Afrikaans-accented Dutch, I was able to work with them directly – for which I was extremely thankful later on.

There was also the most unusual apprentice journalist I have ever worked with. Let’s call him Archibald Leister Jnr. Archie is a name to conjure with in the media world today. He had a lot of pull even then as the young crown prince of a powerful newspaper dynasty, whose illustrious flagship daily was a key ANI subscriber and therefore had a seat on its controlling board of editors. After majoring in journalism at Princeton, Archie had been sent to the ANI London bureau to gain practical experience. This required ANI staffers to shlepp him along on major stories. Irked by his demanding presence, my London colleagues pointedly ignored him and were relieved when the Assen assignment got him off their backs for a while. “I’m sorry for you, mate. He’s going to be a problem if you don’t tell him where he gets off right away,” one London staffer warned me before he flew home from Assen.

Sure enough, Archie went for my throat the very first time we met. He opened up with an angry, fast-talking broadside:
“I suppose you’re another of these ace correspondents who keep sidelining me. I’m not going to stand for that! My father sent me here to prove I can do the job, and I want to do it!”

Compassion welled up in me. I sensed the fix he was in. The weight of the Leister dynasty’s old, proud tradition must be putting the youngster under considerable pressure to prove his mettle, I concluded. He also seemed to be rather thin-skinned and probably threw his weight around from the word go to hide his insecurity and pre-empt any possible future slights. However, he seemed a mustard-keen, highly intelligent lad. Since his family background and Princeton must have taught him something about journalism, he was a potentially useful resource I couldn’t afford to pass up. So I took him outside and told him to simmer down.

“Listen, Archie, I’m no ace, just a casually roped-in staffer from Bonn who has never handled a big story like this alone. I’m a bit worried about it and I need your help. How about this: I run the show, write the day- and nightleads, edit everything else and take on any interviews and news conferences in and around the press centre. You go out and get me as many sidebars and features as you can with plenty of facts and colour. And if and when the commandos go in to rescue the hostages, you’ll be at the forward post near the train to report everything you see on the permanent field line to me at the press centre. If all goes well, your father will be proud of you. And I swear I’ll personally put your byline on the big hostage-rescue story. Okay?”

Archie’s face relaxed and we shook hands on it.
“Okay,” he smiled. “Thanks, Roon!”

We got on very well after that and he did the kind of job you’d expect from a Leister.

The story had broken on 23 May 1977. When the little yellow train headed northwards to take commuters home after work, none of the 60-odd white commuters took much notice of a scattering of youthful, brown-skinned passengers. These young members of the Moluccan communities of Assen, Bovensmilde and other nearby centres, including an attractive young woman, were an everyday sight and some of the whites even knew one or two of them personally. That made it all the more shocking when the eight youths and the girl yanked submachine guns and hand grenades out of their sports bags, told white passengers they were now hostages and pulled the emergency handle to stop the train in open country between two stations. At Bovensmilde, about three miles away, four comrades simultaneously invaded a primary school and took 105 children and their five teachers hostage.

The previous year, another group of young South Moluccans from the same area had hijacked a similar train on the same line not far away, and 21 of them were serving long jail terms for the abortive raid. In both actions, the hostage-takers had been inspired by one of the most unrealistic dreams that has ever fuelled extremist violence: De zaak van de RMS, or “the cause of the RMS”, as they called it. In their language, RMS stood for Republiek Maluku Selatan, or “Free Republic of the Moluccas”. Outsiders could only shake their heads incredulously.

Logically speaking, the humiliating end of a widely forgotten chapter of Dutch colonial history should have snuffed out that dream 27 years earlier. When insurgents led by the later President Sukarno were driving Dutch colonial troops out of Indonesia in the late 1940s, inhabitants of the South Moluccan Islands sided with the Dutch and fought bravely alongside them. The colonial government promised to grant these loyal allies their independence once it regained control of Indonesia. Instead, the Dutch and their brown-skinned comrades were forced to capitulate in 1950 and the Moluccas became part of the Sukarno regime’s Indonesian island empire. The Dutch said they were very sorry about that but failed to see what anybody could do about it over a quarter century later. The once mighty Dutch colonial empire had dissolved decades ago and the puny Netherlands could hardly persuade Indonesia to liberate the South Moluccas now, especially since Indonesia’s multi-ethnic society is so laced with fissiparous tensions that the Jakarta government stamps hard on all manifestations of militant separatism.

The average Netherlander felt that the colonial government had done what it could in 1950 to evacuate its Moluccan allies to the Netherlands and grant them full citizenship. So how could these crazy youngsters make innocent white fellow-citizens pay for a regrettable accident of history? Worse still, Dutch authorities saw Moluccan extremism as a potential long-term threat to the nation’s relaxed, tolerant civic traditions and its treasured social consensus. As it was, minor incidents of ugly racist behaviour among whites in the Assen area had already sent stones crashing through the windows of Moluccan homes at night.

Even the older and more responsible heads among the 40,000 Moluccans in the Netherlands sympathized with the underlying sentiments of the RMS extremists, even if there was no open support for their terror tactics. The inferior economic and social status of the culturally uprooted Moluccan minority fed its dissatisfaction and fanned new heat from the embers of its old anger over Holland’s “broken promise”. Older people who remembered the Moluccas from before their evacuation in 1950 mourned for their islands in the sun which, in the cool, primly regimented mini-landscape of the Netherlands, increasingly took on the tragic appeal of a lost paradise. The very fact that most of the second-generation extremists had never seen the islands made them all the more susceptible to the nostalgically idealised image of their elders.

The incontrovertible truth that the Dutch government had no means to secure Moluccan independence did not impress the young hotheads. They declared their “cause of the RMS” to be a militantly achievable, political goal. They tried to copy the tactics and style of contemporary urban guerrillas in Germany, Italy and Japan. These Marxist-inspired groups rebuffed their requests for logistical support because they did not consider the Moluccan cause to be a legitimate, “anti-imperialist” goal. While the fanatical ideologists of the Red Army Faction and Brigate Rosse had culled their own distorted class-war dialectics from the same rag-bag of standard, ultra-leftwing cant in the loony atmosphere of the Age of Aquarius, the cause of the unsophisticated Moluccans welled up from their own resentful bellies. These were frustrated social outsiders, young enough to believe in the power of heroic gestures to crack the complacency of their constraining environment, focus the dulled eyes of Dutch whites on their marginalised community and make them recognise its grievances.

I must admit that my concern for the plight of the hostages was matched right from the start by sneaking underdog sympathies for their young captors, however much I condemned the terror tactics born of their pathetically absurd dream. It was Max Papilaya, a 24-year-old office assistant at a provincial authority in Groningen, who founded a new action group to liberate the 21 comrades jailed after the first train raid. Among Max’s recruits was Hansina (“Hansje”) Oktulseja, a dental assistant from a village near Assen. What I learned about Hansje from photos and information gleaned from relatives, friends and neighbours focussed my instinctive sympathies on her. This identification was probably reinforced by her personal appeal as an attractive, reputedly friendly young woman from a close-knit family of respectably middle-class Moluccans. Both white and brown neighbours in her home village described her as a familiar, very likeable figure. One photo shows her slender figure to advantage in form-fitting jeans and a neat leather jacket, while her shoulder-length mane of glossy, blue-black hair complements her regular café-au-lait features.

The false legend of Hansina as a gunslinger with a heart of stone was created by another photo which a money-greedy acquaintance sold to a Dutch tabloid. The paper ran a blow-up of the picture on its front page with a story caption under a bold headline that identified the subject as “Holland’s Patty Hearst”. The tabloid claimed that the picture showed the “ruthless terrorist” Hansje, aiming her “assault rifle” while practicing for the train raid at a secret terrorist training field. It was soon established that the girl on the photo was actually her younger sister, photographed by a friend while aiming a harmless air rifle at a fairground shooting-booth target. Many outsiders nevertheless saw Hansje and Max as a couple of desperate, death-defying lovers, even though they were no more than friends. They were certainly together at the end, when a heavy Dutch army machine-gun hammered away without stopping until it had pumped hundreds of thick 0.50-calibre bullets into their mangled and re-mangled bodies. And so, a romantic myth about “Assen’s Bonnie and Clyde” lingers on posthumously today.

After the double strike against the train and the primary school in Bovensmilde, Max’s group demanded to be flown out of the country with the 21 comrades released from jail and a number of hostages. They threatened to start shooting their hostages one by one if the demand were not met within 48 hours. That put the crisis team formed by Premier Joop den Uyl in The Hague under intense pressure to solve an explosive tangle of interrelated problems. The first priority was to ensure the safety and eventual liberation of an initial 160 Dutch hostages. However, no adequately trained special unit was immediately available to pull off the tactically complex feat of launching perfectly synchronised surprise attacks against two different kinds of targets at exactly the same time, but several miles apart (the train at Assen and the school at Bovensmilde). In any case, the choice between peaceful and violent rescue strategies was not simply a question of technical feasibility. White citizens would be understandably enraged by excessive weakness towards the terrorists. But launching an immediate, brutal showdown without previously exhausting the potential for a negotiated solution might inflame the extremist cause still further and imperil even the modest, existing measure of Moluccan social integration. There was also a danger that too much bloodshed could make the tensions between the brown minority and the white majority in the province of Drenten flash over into other parts of the country.

So if a divine Finger had really been pointing at the train, it would have been an admonition to the whole country. The excesses of the Moluccan extremists were a strong indicator that the white majority needed to take the underlying dissatisfaction of the 40,000-strong Moluccan minority more seriously. There was clearly a need for a sustained effort to examine the marginalised status of the Moluccans and devise longer-term measures to eradicate brown/white frictions.

In The Hague, the crisis team therefore pursued the peaceful “soft option” as long as possible in hopes of eroding the morale of the hijackers. Negotiations with Max’s group dragged on day after day. They extended their deadline several times. When they finally refused to parley any longer and threatened to start executing hostages right away, local Moluccan elders were sent to the train to see what they could do. They dejectedly registered complete deadlock.

Behind the security barrier, the media could only guess how much boredom and discomfort, fear and finally despair the hostages suffered as the mounting frustration of their captors made the threat of executions seem increasingly real. Much later, the victims described their physical and emotional ordeal behind the drawn blinds in the unbearably hot, foul-smelling interior of the train under coach roofs which became blazing hot in mid-summer sunny spells, which sometimes lasted for days. The Moluccans were not excessively brutal and never did shoot any hostages, but the fateful question of executions kept the hostages in an agony of suspense: When? Who first?

The cannon-like telescopic lenses of news photographers and TV teams kept the train under constant observation. For most of the unseen newspaper readers and TV watchers around the world, these cameras condensed many-layered human reality into the fleeting, over-simplified impressions of yet another “terrorist drama.” If there was a giant Finger over the train, it might well have warned TV viewers to reflect on the underlying causes of such violence. But nobody saw it on their screens as the media quick-marched new, globally captured images of the global kaleidoscope past their eyes every day. For most of the hijackers, the Finger I sensed then portended death. Like sleepwalkers, they had pitted the puny violence of their childish dream against the organised might of a modern industrial state. Unlike these would-be terrorists, any self-respecting unit of the Red Army Faction or the Red Brigades would almost certainly have executed some of the hostages immediately after the first 48-hour deadline expired. Instead, these Moluccan youngsters knew so little about the merciless rules of the terror game that their mummery left themselves and the Dutch government with only one alternative – their elimination.


When the danger of hostage killings became acute, senior officials in Assen reported the failure of the “soft option” to the crisis team in The Hague. Back came the green light for the long-prepared “hard option”: a military rescue strike, with all attendant risks and consequences. On the evening of 9 June, government spokeswoman Toos Faber discreetly visited the desks of a few selected news agencies and TV services and whispered:

“5 am tomorrow. Remember, don’t tell anybody else, okay?”

At the ANI desk, I swallowed nervously. It should work out alright, I comforted myself. Archie was already at his forward post within sight of the train, where he was supposed to crouch behind a pile of sand bags and continuously feed me his impressions via field telephone. His powers of observation would determine how quickly, accurately and colourfully the big story would turn out. I had already typed the first “take” of my top-priority “bulletin” series. It lay in front of me, ready to be dictated to the Amsterdam bureau for onwards filing as soon as I got Archie’s telephoned clearance:

b u l l e t i n * * * * ‘ ‘ ‘
assen, the netherlands, 11th june 1977 (ani) — a special commando unit of royal dutch marines today stormed the hijacked train near assen in a bid to free 54 remaining hostages held by nine moluccan terrorists after a 20-day siege.
(more to come) (lewald)

The hand-picked Dutch marines had been licked into shape for more than two weeks by advisors from two crack anti-terror units, Britain’s SAS and Germany’s GSG-9 border guards. The troubled 1960s and 1970s saw the beginnings of modern anti-terror combat and the operations of those years produced pioneering tactical and technical innovations. The security industry has come a long way since then, but the state-of-art technology and tactics, careful preparation and efficient execution of the Assen operation were impressive enough. In the first few days, a dark night had allowed SAS commandos to belly-crawl unseen over open ground to where they could stick microphones with mini-transmitters at strategic points underneath the train. This gave remote monitors clear impressions of the various target persons — their usual whereabouts and their activities, moods and even intentions. They found that Max, Hansje and a few others always slept in the driver’s cab in the front drive unit of the double-header train. The cab also served as a lookout post, while the similar driver’s cab at the rear was reserved for fitness exercises. The hostages and their guards occupied the two unmotorized carriages in the middle. At the nearby Gilze Reijen air base, the Marines had practised their rescue mission until they had every move down pat. Now, the moment of truth was at hand.

Good old George, Amsterdam’s canny Dutch-service stringer chief, had weasled the entire game plan from a senior government contact days before the operation. The details he obtained under strict embargo rules were so complete that we could theoretically have beaten the opposition by putting a pre-written report on the wire as soon as the Marines went in – but for the knowledge that, in practice, such operations never fully conform to pre-formulated plans. Even so, young Archie must have found it hard to keep his cool when a regular mini-war suddenly erupted near him in the pitch-black darkness of a moonless night. But he did a noble job behind his sandbags, clutching a powerful pair of Zeiss binoculars in one hand and the field-telephone receiver in the other as he told me everything he saw and heard. This is how I experienced the operation through Archie’s eyes:

At 4.53 am on 11 Juni 1977, six F104 Starfighters of the Royal Dutch Air Force successively roared over the sleeping train at tree-top level while deafening fireworks detonated on the ground to simulate aerial bombs. At the same time, a heavy machine gun, pre-trained onto the target for spot-on accuracy, hammered incessantly at the driver’s compartment in the front, where Max, Hansje and three companions were sleeping. More than 7,000 heavy 0.50 (11 mm) slugs turned the nose of the train into a colander and kept shredding the bodies of the five Moluccans many moments after their death.

The Marines simultaneously broke into the train. Minutes before the operation, the first black-clad soldiers with dark-greased faces had slithered up to the train. Covered by the distracting cacophony of the jets, the simulated bomb blasts and the continuously barking machine gun, they leaped up with plastic charges mounted on rods and slapped them against all doors in hopes of blasting them open simultaneously. Some precious moments were in fact lost when some of the doors stayed shut, but at all points where they succeeded, they threw stun grenades in through the breaches and scrambled in. The frightened hostages heard the Marines shouting: “Lie down! Flat on the ground! Lie down! We’re shooting!” Only one or two Moluccans were able to react quickly enough for a brief exchange of shots in which, unfortunately, two of the 54 hostages were killed.

After exactly 22 minutes, it was all over. Only three of the nine Moluccans survived. Outside, ambulances were waiting to take the 52 surviving hostages — weeping, filthy and emotionally shocked — to a specially established care centre, where doctors and psychiatrists waited to treat their physical and emotional injuries.

At the school in Bovensmilde, all 105 initially captured children had been released after the first week. Now, an armoured personnel carrier smashed through one wall at full speed and three surviving Moluccans (out of four) were captured after a short firefight, freeing four teachers still in their hands. For the Dutch government, the rescue of nearly all the hostages was a triumph. Nobody could accuse it of not having exhausted every hope for a peaceful solution. The success of its reluctantly ordered military operation had signalled to extremist RMS sympathisers that even the peaceful Dutch state was prepared to save innocent citizens by force if all else failed. At the same time, officials promised Moluccan community elders to help improve the status and social integration of their community. Sadly enough, social critics complain today that the authorities have not consistently kept their promise, leaving the Moluccans hardly any better off than before. To that extent, I suppose those responsible may be still be leaving themselves open to possible divine admonition. But since the Moluccans have now become quieter and more submissive, the authorities don’t seem to care that Somebody up there may still be pointing a reproachful Finger at them.

Meanwhile, the day after had taken all the tension out of the atmosphere in the press centre. The place was emptying fast because the sports park members’ club which had temporary hosted the media presence was thankfully preparing to welcome back its normal guests. So the previously friendly sports club barman was already reminding correspondents curtly that they would have to move on soon. Some newsmen were already stowing away their portables, cassette recorders, story files and cameras to head back to their home bases or fly off to cover newer developments in various countries.

At the ANI desk, where we stayed as long as possible to wrap up the hostage rescue story, Archie was deservedly ebullient. On his first-ever major story, he had actually beat even his family newspaper’s own regular correspondent, who had decided at the wrong time to leave his European base for another breaking story elsewhere. The paper had therefore front-paged the ANI story based on his reporting under a byline that read:

“Eyewitness report by ANI Correspondent Archibald B. Leister Jnr”.
I was pleased with myself too when the teleprinter on the ANI table chattered out the daily play report from New York, which privately informs correspondents of the individual preferences of about 10 major U.S. client newspapers for this or that news agency version of a particular major story. This is what I read:

Play report, to all correspondents: ANI — 5 ; UPI — 2; Reuters — 1; Others — 0.

Not bad – Poor old UPI! The intense but friendly rivalry between ANI and UPI was as old as the American wire service business itself. But my UPI rival Joe Fleming, a cunning old pro whose legendarily tight-fisted employers had sent him from their Bonn bureau to Assen alone at the last moment, soon reminded me that pride cometh before a fall. I wasn’t experienced enough to fully appreciate how badly US afternoon newspapers would require new, freshly written material during the 12-hour “PMs” cycle following the reports on the commando strike I had filed during the preceding “AMs” cycle. While my exhausted team and I hit the sack at the Assen Hotel, thinking we deserved some sleep after doing such a good job, Joe kept slogging on without a break. He produced a clear, day-by-day retrospective of the entire three-week hijacking drama from the first day to the last – just what readers need to get the full day-after picture of a confusing, action-packed story once the dust has settled. Joe had left ANI floundering behind UPI in the PMs cycle because all the New York Foreign Desk could offer U.S. subscribers was a rehash of my stale AMs material.

punt07.jpgRetribution came in the wee small hours. A ringing telephone disturbed my dreams and I found myself groggily listening to the squeaky voice of what sounded like an enraged field mouse from the Bronx. It was Jake himself, the legendary, much-feared Foreign Desk chief. This was the same Jake who had unfairly climbed into me a few months back. A busy Austrian colleague in the Vienna bureau had sloppily downgraded my dictated report on a major oil-price decision by OPEC oil ministers from a top-priority “bulletin” to a second-class “urgent”, causing my story to choke in the dust behind the opposition. That had made Jake squeak furiously down the transatlantic cable:

“Hey, Lee-whaald, ya got wiped on the oil price hike! A top story and ya make it an OIGENT!!!? Who ya think ya writin for – some local German rag? The Stooot-gaarder Zay-toong (Stuttgarter Zeitung), maybe??? Ya writin fer ANI, goddamit!”
That same irate voice was now squeaking at me again:
“Oopeye (UPI) beat the hell out of us! Get goin! I want any eyewitnessers you can get, I want colour! I want those hostages when they get out!”
Fortunately, Jake knew that the hostages would not be able to tell anybody about their experiences until they were released from the screened-off care centre after medical treatment and psychic decompression. Meanwhile, we got goin’ in search of other human-interest material. Archie and the Dutch boys fanned out in different directions and I staggered back to the press centre to start working on a new daylead. Archie soon brought back some useable day-after atmospherics from the vicinity of the train, where he and Heinz, our laconic photographer from Frankfurt, had inspected the scene of Archie’s heroic nighttime stand in broad daylight.

“Hey, Roon, write me some captions for these pix, will you,” the German photographer exclaimed as he swung his camera and heavy equipment bag from his shoulders onto the table. “Boy, that Archie, you should have seen him posing in front of the train! I had to take a picture as a souvenir for his daddy. Was he proud!…”

Archie arrived soon afterwards. He was pretty voluble: “The front of the motor unit, where the heavy machine-gun was aimed at – you can’t believe it, it looks like a sieve! 7,000 of those fat slugs went in through one side and came out the other without stopping. Just look – holes as big as this!” He circled his right thumb and forefinger to demonstrate. Then he rummaged in his smart designer shoulderbag and took something out: “Here, I picked up these cartridge shells. 0.50-inch calibre! Can you imagine what they do to a human body? Max and Hansje, they and three others were right up front in the driver’s compartment. They didn’t stand an earthly chance. They must have died right away. They counted 300 slugs in Max’s body and 106 in Hansina!”

And so, as if I had been there myself, I saw again through Archie’s eyes the end of the impossible dream of “the cause of the RMS”. This time, he placed me right beside Max, Hansje and their three friends in the intimate split-seconds of their death. Verily, that supernatural presence of my imagination had emptied vials of terrifying wrath upon those youngsters for their willingness to imperil innocent fellow-citizens for their political dream. I weighed two of the fat, greasily smooth brass shells in the palm of my hand and wondered: which parts of Hansje’s body were torn and smashed by the bullets expelled from these two shells? Perhaps this one slammed through one smooth, coffee-brown cheek and tore her lower jaw away, while the other fragmented the top of her skull and left her blue-black hair matted with blood, bone splinters and gelid grey clumps of brain matter… Or did one of them shred a sweet young breast before mangling her heart or her lungs? So young, so unwise, so dead now, you dreamer – they didn’t even leave you enough time to scream, did they?

When the hostages were released from the isolation centre at last and reporters buzzed around them with cameras and tape recorders, the ANI team had a major problem on its hands. Leading illustrated magazines and TV stations had cornered the market for eyewitness accounts by offering large sums for exclusive interviews, while ANI’s ethically motivated refusal to practice that kind of “chequebook journalism” meant that we could offer no more than a relatively paltry $250. It was Pieter who finally saved our bacon: Pieter Helmholt, the young theology student from the nearby village of Drachten, a stringer whose previous experience was limited to feeding local news items to ANI’s Dutch-language domestic service and a few Dutch papers. Throughout the hijack drama, he had been an unobtrusive, marginal figure in the ANI scheme of things. He had struck me as a likeable, deeply religious but by no means offensively pious person with a socially concerned attitude towards his future duties as a pastor of his fundamentalistically Calvinist church. Piet – as he was usually called – was well acquainted with the needs and concerns of his white and brown-skinned neighbours and was able to feed us quite a few useful footnotes about local circumstances. At the Assen Hotel, where the ANI crew had set up a temporary communications base in a rented conference room after moving out of the sports club press centre, hotel owner Lenie also had a lot of good things to say about Piet. Dark-haired Lenie from Curaçao, who looked after the ANI gang like a den mother, stood by while I discussed the eyewitnesser problem with Ed, an experienced reporter who had just flown in from London to back us up for the final push.

“Roon!” I heard from behind us.
“Do me a favour, Piet – later. We’re pretty busy right now.”
“Maar Roon – ik heb een bericht van een ooggetuie! Exclusiev! Moet alleen
noch vertaald worden!””
Eyewitness account? Exclusive? Only needs translation?
“Ja?!! Gimme, Piet!”

Petra Wagenaar was a 19-year-old whom Piet knew as a member of his church parish. She had experienced the misery on the train from start to finish. The story she put down in her own handwriting was hardly dramatic and contained no sensational new revelations. But it drew a close-to-life picture of a group of women who, despite the completely abnormal situation they were flung into by the hijacking, remained true to their quietly resolute femininity.

Petra described how the experience aboard the train wore down the nerves of the passengers as it dragged on for day after day. How hot, foul-smelling, uncomfortable and filthy the train became. How, strangely enough, those most deeply affected by fear were the male hostages, since they were more sensitive to the menacing implications of their plight. They considered it their male responsibility to inform themselves as well as possible about every new development and debate what dangers it might pose for the hostages. Scraps of overheard talk among their captors or an overheard radio report helped the men to guess the demands and intentions of the Moluccans more quickly than the women – especially once the spectre of hostage executions became more real. By contrast, Petra and the other women simply accepted the situation and hardly speculated about its possible consequences.

One highly pregnant woman soon became a kind of mascot to all the hostages and drew favourable attention from the Moluccans too. Soon after the hijacking, she took out her knitting and placidly kept her needles clicking throughout. She projected such a comforting, housewifely peace of mind that, when her wool started running out, the Moluccans promptly asked the authorities to send in a fresh supply with their next food delivery to the train. When the Moluccans suddenly announced they were releasing her two days before the end of the hostage siege, she seemed extremely surprised and was greatly missed by all her friends.

Petra related how her religious faith encouraged her to make herself useful right from the start by distributing the food rations and performing cleaning tasks. She rightly felt that this deliberately projected normality helped to keep her fellow-captives calm by offering them a cheerful, positive identification figure. Her report was fair to the Moluccans too, stressing that they never resorted to incorrect behaviour towards their hostages and kept insisting on the need to keep the toilets clean to lessen the danger of disease breaking out.

I was just about to start translating the account when Pieter broke in: “Roon, Petra doesn’t want any money for it, but she won’t let us use it unless the World Service precedes the story with a biblical text she specially chose to suit the circumstances.”

Oh no, not now! Why must these stupid things always happen to me, I thought. ANI isn’t a Sunday-school bible class! We’re strictly non-ideological, non-partisan, non-denominational. I can’t put a bible text on the wire outside the body of the following story – imagine what those thousands of subscribers are going to say, for instance the Muslims! But suddenly, and not for the first time, it seemed to me that I was running up against unfamiliar things here in Assen: things that challenged the normal scheme of my private and professional life. Why for example did I feel that inner turmoil, that horror and grief as Archie described the gory death of Hansje and the others in the train driver’s cab? As if I had known them personally; as if I had experienced it all; as if I kept feeling Archie’s “fat slugs” dig their bloody tunnels through living flesh. And as if a great Finger were pointing straight at me. Dammit, I’ll do it, I thought, why the hell not!

“Lenie!” I sang out. “Sweet, kind Lenie, would you please fetch me an English Gideon bible from one of the guestrooms?”

Then I phoned New York and gave myself the pleasure of convincing a reluctant Jake that there was no other way – stern was paying $50,000 for an exclusive eyewitnesser, the major newspapers and TV stations had nabbed the other hostages and nobody was interested in ANI’s pathetic $250 fee offer. Now, however, we could run our own exclusive without paying a cent – as long as we preceded it with Petra’s bible quotation.

“Okay, but with an explanatory “Note to Editors” – now get to work fast, we’re waitin’!”

So Ed and I got to work. Fortunately, the bible Lenie brought us was none of those bland, modern translations into simple language for simple minds, devoid of the power and poetry that once made the Holy Book great literature. No, this was the classic Authorized Version in the 17th century English of King James I – in his view, the personal language of a heavenly sovereign who ruled the world with all the majestic self-assurance and solid good sense of an English royal gentleman. Petra’s verse strode across the typewriter page as Ed’s hammering fingers followed my dictation:

Psalm 34, Verse 5.

I sought the LORD, and he heard me, and he delivered me from all fears.

Then I translated Petra’s Dutch report word by word for Ed’s benefit. Now it was finished and on its way to agency subscribers in almost every country in the world. In the eyes of both Pieter and Petra, two modern rocks of faith supported by the apostolic bedrock of their mutual namesake Peter, that was the fulfilment of a divine command: to testify how the hostages on the train withstood sore trials and were finally delivered by their heavenly Lord, and to have those tidings sped around the globe on the ANI wires. As for me, I had yet to find my own personal interpretation of all these events.

Some time later, when it was finally all over and most of my colleagues were already heading for new assignments, I was the only member of the ANI crew still in the hotel conference room, where I was settling up accounts with Lenie. Sitting amid overflowing ash trays at my table, I felt ghastly after weeks of non-stop tension with very little sleep. My eyes widened with alarmed surprise as I felt a sudden, extremely sharp pang in my chest.

“Lenie,” I said in what must been a theatrical whisper, “I think maybe I’ve just had a heart attack. Only a little one, but still. Just to make sure, would you fetch a doctor to look me over?”

Her eyebrows went up quizzically as she retorted: “Come on – you? At 35? You’re joking.” But she did as I asked.
The athletic young rural GP looked at me sceptically, tapped and stethoscoped my chest and back, straightened up and dryly pronounced: “Nicotine poisoning, stress reaction – no more. Take a few days’ break and try to smoke less.”

All I registered was: medically prescribed vacation! What a great idea! Peace flowed into me, bathed and refreshed my soul. I forgot the train, ANI, the whole busy world beyond the pretty countryside around Assen. In the bicycle depot at the next railway station, I paid just a few guilders to rent a used sports bike in good order. I bought it for only 110 guilders at the end of the day and rode it for many a year back home in Bonn until some bastard stole it – not knowing or caring what memories it held for me. Country lanes took me along green pastures grazed by idiotically staring sheep and placidly munching, black-and-white Frisian cows. Then I had myself boiled pink, immersed in icy cold water and kneaded and thumped by a plump masseuse in a sauna centre I discovered in a scenic woodland clearing. Several kilometres further on, I found myself on the reed-fringed banks of a broad sheet of water, part of an interconnected network of meandering channels and lakelets created down the centuries by local peat-diggers. The underground water table was so high that their peat excavations had immediately filled up with water.
Those early peat-diggers had called the section I stumbled onto “Het Zwarte Water” (The Black Water). To me, that romantic name conjured up fantasies about dark doings by desperate men or faery folk in olden times. On this fine summer’s day, however, there was none of the mysterious, foggy gloom that winter often brings here. Instead, the place was a cheerful holiday setting for picknicking families, kiddies splashing in the shallows and trim sailing boats drifting by. I hired a dinghy with a tiny Johnson Seagull outboard motor from the owner on his jetty. For hours, I puttered along the peat-digger channels under a huge blue sky. Stalk-legged herons and fossicking dabchicks speared or sieved the water for food while proud duck mothers led their furiously paddling fluffball convoys on adventurous forays into overgrown side channels. In a nearby inn that evening, I followed up a thirst-quenching glass or two of Heineken’s with a great big steaming bowl of gebakkene paling (baked eel), neutralizing the high fat content of the delicious meal with several ice-fogged measures of heavy, oily-textured Oude Jenewer gin from a stone jar. And so ended one of the few faultless days in my life.

But when I climbed into my hotel bed, I found myself unable to sleep. I was really supposed to drive home the next day because the story was stone dead – nobody outside Assen was interested any more. But I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that something or other remained to be done here. The next morning, after paying my bill and thanking Lenie for taking such good care of the demanding ANI team, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: drive off to the neighboring village where Hansje had lived with her parents and knock on the door. On the face of it, I had a professionally justifiable motive for doing so: I wanted to find evidence of the more complex reality I sensed behind the facile image of the gun-ready terrorist’s moll that the world had accepted after three weeks of media coverage. I hoped the world might now be more ready to learn that the meaning of the events here in Assen was hardly as simple as TV viewers might well have assumed from the images which flashed so quickly across their screens. Beyond these professional reasonings, however, was a more urgent personal motive: the riddle of my own emotional involvement in the death of a person I had never met. Knowing too much about her death and too little about her life, I felt compelled to seek any detectable traces she might have left among her closest relatives.

Nommer 10 Lelystraat * was one in a row of semi-detached houses of the sort you can find in every Dutch town or village. A glimpse through the spotless, demonstratively uncurtained front window showed a typical “best room” for visitors: comfy sofas, a carpet-covered table and a rain forest of burgeoning greenery. Only the pictures on the walls and the bric-a-bric on the ornamental shelves were different from those of white middle-class neighbours: everything spoke of the island home which Hansje’s parents had left behind.

Father Kees, the two brothers Jakob and Hans and their five sisters sat with me around the table while their mother silently served tea and home-baked shortbread biscuits. Photos were passed around. They showed Hansje laughing beside her sisters, giving a motherly look at the baby in her arms (the same pudgy nephew who was crawling around under the table at this very moment), or holding brother Jakob’s arm as she strode in a festive sarong and kabaya blouse to join traditional festivities staged by the local Moluccan community. Another photo showed her with a white toddler, the child of the white dentist for whom she had worked. Many of his patients remembered her as his friendly assistant.
“Everybody here is for the ‘zaak van de RMS’ ”, declared 20-year-old Jakob, although even the family had not known that Hansje was prepared to go so far for the cause. “But the government knew very well that Hansje and the boys would never have killed a single hostage,” he insisted. “It’s as if a person with a huge cannon had killed somebody who was carrying only a little water pistol!”

The newspapers which claimed that Hansje was a brutal terrorist had tried to bury her in a heap of lies, chimed in sister Maryke. “Hansje was never brutal! She was a spontaneous person who loved life. She won friends easily. Everybody loved her.”

Of course, criticisms could hardly be expected to intrude into this tightly knit, emotionally and politically defensive family circle. The only half-way reliable conclusions I could draw about Hansje were that she must have been capable of giving and inspiring love, and that she had most certainly grown up in a decent, warm-hearted family. What else she may have been, however she may have justified to herself the violent implications of her role in holding innocent people to ransom for such unrealistic aims, to what extremes she might have allowed her youthful enthusiasm for the “cause of the RMS” to lead her – all this was now beyond the knowledge of any living person.

I did manage to obtain one snippet of additional information from Chris: Hansje had been ill for days and was locked in a feverish dream when the machine-gun bullets ended her life. Was that all her brief days of questionable fame added up to — a feverish dream, snuffed out by the thundering voice of death?

I drove straight back to Bonn and went to the bureau the next morning. It was an off-duty Sunday, so I had all the time in the world to write my story. I impartially described in the words of a broken-hearted family how they felt about the death of their beloved daughter or sister. The report was printed by only a few, mostly German newspapers, although it was prominently displayed at full length by the Frankfurter Rundschau, a high respected left-liberal daily. Few Dutch papers touched the story and some ANI subscribers in the Netherlands were clearly upset by what they misinterpreted as a reprehensible bid by a supposedly objective foreign wire service to stir up muddy Dutch waters with pro-Moluccan propaganda. Our Amsterdam bureau chief was extremely peeved when the government press office in The Hague put him on the carpet for authorizing the report, the more so because they caught him with his pants down. He correctly told them my report was none of his doing and he had no inkling that I was still in his territory when I did the interview. However, my own news editor in Bonn told me to ignore the Amsterdam chief, praised me for my initiative and said the story was as clean as a whistle – exclusive angle, well written, totally objective. Not one word of it could be construed as supporting the absurd “cause of the RMS”, he affirmed.

Those muddled reactions were all my report elicited, although some of the Frankfurter Rundschau’s intelligent readers at least may have registered the message I sought to put across: namely, that an ancient injustice which has never been set right doesn’t simply vanish. Instead, it may fester until a day comes when those who have not forgotten it are misled into revenging themselves against innocent people at a time when the real culprits can no longer be called to account. Finally, my portrayal of Hansje’s family may also, I hope, have shown a few of those readers that even such misguided avengers – terrorists, criminals, call them what you like – remain what we all are: human beings.

So much for my journalistic rationale. Today I know that the most profound motive behind my interview with Hansje’s family was a deeply felt, personal response to that imagined Finger above the yellow train. For years afterwards, memories of Assen troubled me. Already unsettled by personal misfortunes, my mind seemed incapable of digesting and storing away what I had experienced there. At times, I felt a strong compulsion to tell colleagues or friends about it. I would describe everything that happened in minute detail under a growing emotional stress that finally made my eyes burn with unshed tears as I described the butchery performed by those 0.50-gauge bullets. I knew even then how overwrought I must have appeared to some of my listeners. I knew full well that I had not even directly experienced the punitive commando strike against the Moluccans (terrorists, after all!), and that their fate hardly bore comparison to the scores, hundreds, even thousands of daily deaths covered so coolly by my war-seasoned colleagues in Belfast, Beirut or Vietnam. There was a difference though: Hansina especially had become my own, personal dead.

It took a few years for a remarkable occurrence in Assen to throw more light on the admonishing Finger that still hovered in my mind. I have tended to be cynical about religion in the past, so it’s not the sort of thing I would easily tell to any normal, sane person. Mounting symptoms of marital crisis, the partly self-generated pressures of news agency reporting and psychic warning signals of what soon afterwards led to a major nervous crisis prompted me to visit Assen again. Just to relax in friendly Lenie’s hotel for a few days and maybe revisit Het Zwarte Water to share the tranquillity of the reed-fringed peat-digger canals with the ducks, dabchicks and herons, I told myself. But my return to Assen generated enough tension in me to keep me awake the first night. I finally got up before dawn, threw jeans and a pullover over my pyjamas, put on walking shoes and drove to the edge of the town to stroll into the surrounding fields across the dew-drenched grass. My thoughts strayed far beyond the events of 1977. Even that violent episode had been only a minor intimation of the forces of chaos which constantly menace our familiar world: so unimaginably mighty that no life, no civilisation, no human values, none of our laboriously evolved rules and regulations can withstand their sudden, unannounced irruption into our scheme of things.

Alone in this lush, pastoral idyll, above me a dove-grey sky hung with the same towering banks of cumulus you see in the paintings of 17th century Dutch masters, I felt an intimate bond of sympathy and fellow-suffering with all who share earthly existence with me. Most of them would probably be glad to have my relatively minor worries, I thought, and yet I couldn’t seem to get on top of them.

And yet again, this tidy Dutch landscape seemed so soothing, so well-ordered that I would have liked to project a similar kind of order into my troubled mind. Why – since my rational mind refused to believe in an empirically ungraspable deity – could I not get rid of the feeling that a huge Finger was pointing at me? In a suddenly more light-hearted frame of mind, I asked myself: Wouldn’t it be a joke if I addressed the owner of that Finger and challenged him to prove his existence, yes, called on him to appear before my very eyes? I was actually chuckling to myself because the idea seemed so zany yet so strangely attractive. What would such a God look like, I speculated. Well, probably nobody would ever know His real face, even if he has one, I mused. But a truly universal God would surely have a locally acceptable, recognizable guise to suit whatever cultural community and whatever part of the world he chose to appear in. Here in the Calvinist bible belt, he would almost certainly pander to local tradition by posing as a stern old patriarch with a long white Jehovah-beard…

“Right,” I said to myself, still giggling, and looked pointedly up at the middle of a particularly imposing mass of ballooning cumulus. Despite myself, a feeling of reluctant expectancy crept up on me as I called out: “Are You there? Show yourself to me, Ancient One of Days! Maybe I’ll believe in You if You appear.”

No, dear reader, sorry to disappoint you: I didn’t see God. Not clearly at least. But the theatrically billowing mass of cumulus before my eyes did seem to thin momentarily, and I swear I sensed a grand Presence regarding me from behind the lighter spot in the middle. Nuts, I thought, I’m completely bonkers – what do I do now? Go down on my knees like a born-again bush Baptist, praise God and sing out “Hallelujah, Lord, I’m Saved!!!”??? That logic machine I can never completely switch off immediately started whirring to process my sensations. The analysis it finally printed out informed me that the perversely wishful thinking lodged in my emotionally strained subconscious had simply projected that Presence onto the spot in the clouds where I was half-expecting it to appear. The whole thing had been a purely subjective, psychic event and certainly no objective confirmation of a divine presence, no empirical evidence that any kind of God existed. On the other hand, as I kept reminding myself in years to come, God’s presence and God’s existence hadn’t been Disproved either – so the whole question was still open.

A great deal of time has gone by since then. My hectic ANI years seem very remote now. I left the agency for a well-paid job with the in-house news service of a major U.S. publisher of business and trade magazines. As a McGraw-Hill World News staffer in Bonn, I spent 10 years reporting for a wide range of company publications on everything from company management and construction engineering to the oil business, machine tools and the international fertilizer market. They treated me better than I deserved, because my work deteriorated badly when my previously unsuspected manic-depressive syndrome shot me and my marriage of 20 years out of the sky. I ended up in a clinic with no job, no wife, a puzzled 11-year-old daughter and big question marks over my head about who I was and what I was going to do with myself.

McGraw-Hill, bless them, helped to set me up as a freelance when I recovered enough to try working again. That was fun at times, but my earnings were nowhere near my previous steady salary and freelancing is such a risky business that my nerves couldn’t stand it in the end. More clinic sojourns followed until, faced with debts I couldn’t possibly settle, I had an ultimate flake-out that put me out of circulation for nearly a year. Germany is – or used to be – a welfare state, so my doctors managed to get me classified as a “seriously handicapped” candidate for a permanent work-disability pension. Municipal subsidies for my comfortable little rent-assisted apartment and a modest extra income from occasional translating help to keep my head above water.

It’s a quiet, modest life but a safe one, and I am grateful to the powers that be for having taken the intense pressures of journalism off my back. If my long marriage to a woman I loved ended in rancorous divorce and my lovely, clever daughter understandably kept me at a safe arm’s length during her most interesting, formative years, so be it. I regularly visit the out-patients’ department of a large state-run psychiatric clinic, where skilful medication and the insights I have gained into my syndrome down the years successfully minimise my psychic ups and downs.

If this tale is the story of an attempt to make sense of an imaginary, pointing Finger, I must end it with the admission that I haven’t solved the riddle yet. But I have made some progress at least. I have come to accept that my nature is such as to compel me to think and live according to my notion of a supernatural Guidebook for the conduct and validation of human life – even if, for the moment, I can only postulate its existence and attempt to assemble what I think it might well contain. That’s not as difficult as it sounds. The multi-millennial history of man’s religious thinking is full of pointers to the core values of such a Guidebook. You can extract them from all the major religions of the world – even in their current, dogmatically encrusted state – if you search long enough amid their falsifying myths and their calcified behavioural shibboleths.

Finally, even scientists seem to be taking man’s religious instincts moiré seriously nowadays. I recently read that neurologists have identified a section of the brain whose specialized function is to host and deploy those instincts as a kind of permanent hard-disk store of that part of the intrinsic operating software we are born with. To me, this means that we have a built-in faculty which destines us to seek instinctively a more than mortal agency to guide and validate our otherwise brutish lives – even if, of course, our human software cannot contain and instead can only synthesize God Himself. To find the true, the living God – if he exists — we who fall short of the final Act of Faith will simply have to shuffle off this mortal coil without knowing what awaits us in that place from which no traveller returns.

But I haven’t yet lost hope that my search for belief may one day find its hoped-for culmination. Occasionally, when my courage does fail, I think of Petra Wagenaar’s bible verse and wish I had her rock-like faith:

“I sought the LORD, and he heard me, and he delivered me from all fears.”


Entry filed under: Lewald.

The Night of the Flying Ants Durbanse somer

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