Netherlands Year in Review: Ten of the top stories of 2019

Flowers and candles left at the scene of a mass shooting on 24 Oktoberplein in Utrecht on 18 March 2019
Flowers and candles left at the scene of a mass shooting on 24 Oktoberplein in Utrecht on 18 March 2019Photo: Gemeente Utrecht/Twitter

The year 2019 was a busy one for the Netherlands, with elections and strikes, multiple high profile murders and shootings, and a summer full of heat records, severe storms and poisonous caterpillars. Here follows a review of the top ten stories of this year. 

Utrecht mass shooting

Perhaps the biggest story of the year was a mass shooting in Utrecht. On March 18th a man opened fire on a tram on 24 Oktoberplein. A total of four people were killed, three died on the day of the shooting, the fourth succumbed to his injuries a week later. Suspected gunman Gokmen T. was arrested hours after the incident. He confessed to the shooting and told the authorities that he was working alone. The 37-year-old man is facing charges of murder or manslaughter with terrorist intent, attempts thereto, and threats with terrorist intent. T. refused a lawyer, saying that he wants to represent himself. But based on a report from psychiatrists that examined T. at the Pieter Baan Center, the court decided to appoint Andre Seebregts to represent the suspect

Teacher shortage and strikes

The year was also marked by schools being closed for multiple days due to teachers striking for higher wages and lower workloads. Teachers in primary and secondary education held nationwide strikes in March and November, and their next strike is scheduled for January. The unions and employers managed to reach a new collective bargaining agreement for primary educators earlier this month, but the January strike will continue as planned. 

The growing teacher shortage also officially claimed its first "fatality" - primary school 16e Montessori in Amsterdam Zuidoost announced its closure in September, saying that it doesn't have enough teachers to guarantee quality education. Sixteen Amsterdam primary schools managed by Westelijke Tuinsteden foundation closed for a week in December as the organization tried to find a solution to deal with the growing teacher shortage. According to education union AOb, some 40 percent of schools in primary and secondary education are already dealing with a chronic shortage in teachers. In special education, the problems are even worse - two thirds of schools don't have enough teachers.

In an attempt to deal with the growing teacher shortage, the government pushed extra money into education, announced a complete overhaul of the curriculum in the coming years, and is working with the five large Dutch cities on an emergency plan

Blackface Zwarte Piet

As in previous years, the Netherlands' annual Sinterklaas celebrations were marred by the racism around blackface character Zwarte Piet. The official Piet characters in the Sinterklaas show Sinterklaasjournaal and the national arrival party in Apeldoorn were all so-called Chimney Pieten, with soot marks on their faces instead of full blackface makeup. 

Far-right anti-Islam group Pegida called on parents to show up at the Sinterklaas parties in blackface. A man went to court to try and get the national Sinterklaas party canceled, saying that the disappearance of blackface Zwarte Piet results in his "white Christian population" having fewer kids and makes him feel "a victim of genocide". The court ruled against him. There was an attack on a meeting of anti-Zwarte Piet protesters in The Hague, resulting in action group Kick Out Zwarte Piet scrapping its public schedule in fear of further violence. And there were multiple incidents of Zwarte Piet songs being sung at black football players. 

Summer heat records

This year's summer was definitely one to remember, with two national heat waves, one in August and one in July. This was only the fourth time since temperature measurements started in the Netherlands that there's been two heat waves in one summer. A massive 14 heat records were broken so far this year, including one for the highest temperature ever measured in the Netherlands. 

The hot weather also brought consequences with it, including a massive spike in water rescue calls, more deathsdrought and a plague of poisonous caterpillars. There was also a possible tornado in Amsterdam in August, and a severe storm resulted in the AFAS stadium's roof collapsing in Alkmaar. 

Derk Wiersum murder and Ridouan Taghi's capture

The murder of defense attorney Derk Wiersum in Amsterdam rocked the Netherlands this year. The 44-year-old father of two was shot dead while with his wife outside their home in the Buitenveldert district of Amsterdam on September 18th. So far two suspects have been arrested in connection with Wiersum's murder. 

The authorities believe he was murdered because he was representing Nabil B., a crime suspect turned police informant who gave testimony against the drug-centered criminal organization allegedly run by Ridouan Taghi. Nabil B. linked Taghi and the gang around him to at least nine separate murders. Taghi was arrested in Dubai on December 16th

The attorney's murder resulted in dozens of people in the criminal law chain being given extra protection and Justice Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus announcing a harsher approach to tackling organized crime. 

Elections

In March, the Netherlands held its Provincial States election, the election that determines the composition of the Eerste Kamer, the Dutch senate. The ruling coalition of VVD, CDA, D66 and ChristenUnie lost its majority in the Senate. New far-right populist party FvD was the big winner of this election, walking away with 12 seats. GroenLinks also did well, ending with eight seats in the Eerste Kamer. 

The European Parliament elections were also held this year. The PvdA was the big winner in the Netherlands, with Labour getting six seats. Populist PVV and SP lost all their seats. 

Giant boobs in Amsterdam canal

Creative agency 72andSunny Amsterdam decided to celebrate International Women's Day with a flock of giant breasts floating down the canals of Amsterdam on March 8th. They company wanted to normalize the fact that "boobs are just boobs". The boobs were a major hit among most who saw them, the artists said to NL Times. 

New Year's bonfires in The Hague

This year The Hague will have no New Year's bonfires on the beaches of Duindorp and Scheveningen. The municipality set strict requirements on bonfires this year after a strong wind combined with the fact that the bonfire towers were built much higher than agreed resulted in a sea of sparks across Scheveningen, and multiple small fires, on 1 January 2019.

The organizers of the two bonfires could not meet the new requirements, which meant that the municipality refused to give them permits for the events. The cancellations of the bonfires resulted in multiple nights of unrest in Duindorp and elsewhere in The Hague, with riot police having to intervene multiple nights in a row. On one such night, a firework bomb was thrown under a police van. None of the seven cops inside the van were injured, but the vehicle was severely damaged. 

Family found concealed on Ruinerwold farm 

In October the police stumbled across a family who had been living concealed on a farm in Ruinerwold for nine years. The family was discovered when one of the children, a 25-year-old man named Jan, left the farm and told his story at a local bar. The bar owner called the police, who discovered five other young people living with 67-year-old Gerrit Jan van D. in a hidden space on the Drenthe farm.

The six young people found living in isolation on the farm told the police that Van D. was their father. A DNA kinship investigation proved that this was indeed the case. 

Van D. and the farm's tenant Josef B. were both arrested. They are suspected of deprivation of freedom, harming the health of others, and money laundering. Van D. is also suspected of sexually abusing two of his three oldest children, who had already left home when the family withdrew from society nine years ago.

Van D. had various Facebook accounts, on which he posted about his religious views. Friends he made through these accounts were shocked by his arrest, saying that he was good to his children.

Dog park murders

In May, three people were stabbed to death while walking their dogs in designated dog walking areas. A 56-year-old woman was killed in Scheveningen in The Hague on May 4th, and a 63-year-old woman and a 68-year-old man were killed on Brunssummerheide in Heerlen on May 7th.

27-year-old Thijs H. was arrested for these murders. On the evening of May 7th, after the two people were killed in Heerlen, H. showed up at the Mondriaan psychiatric clinic in Maastricht, where he had previously been treated. He left the clinic himself later that evening, only to be brought back by his parents. The clinic called the police after H. disappeared again the next morning and hew was arrested later that evening.

H. confessed to the murders. He told a court in August that he received orders to kill through license plates and news reports. After the first killing, his courage gave out. But the messages said that he had to kill two people, so he went to Heerlen. He also used a lot of drugs. "I'm terribly sorry", H. said in the hearing, adding that he knows it won't take the relatives' pain away. The authorities believe H. got the knife used in two of the murders from his mother's kitchen.

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