Sunday, 4 October 2009

Three shootings, three lucky escapes

I have nearly been shot three times. Is that unusual? I’m not a gangster, nor a soldier - not even a foreign correspondent. And none of these incidents happened in an area one could describe as especially dangerous.
The first shooting was in Putney, a peaceful, up-market area of south west London. It was a weekday afternoon, I had a day off work. I’d parked my car off the High Street and was heading for the shops. It was sunny, quiet, unremarkable.
As I approached the corner of the High Street, two men walked past me. I noticed them because they were the ugliest men I’ve ever seen – two horrible faces. At the corner a policeman ran past me. I turned the corner, and I heard a bang! And everyone started running at the same time.
I took shelter in Dorothy Perkins. I called my newsdesk. ‘I’m in Putney High Street and there’s been a shooting,’ I announced. ‘I don’t really know anything else.’ The reporter at the other end was sarcastic. ‘Great eye witness report,’ he said. ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’
The men had just robbed a shop, and they shot at the policeman who was chasing them. Then they grabbed a passer-by, taking him hostage and dragging him over a bridge across the Thames. And I’ve forgotten the details of what happened next, except that I know the hostage was unharmed and at least one of the men ended up blowing his brains out in someone’s front garden in Fulham. I tried to check the details just now, but this happened sometime in the early 1990s and I couldn’t find anything.
Thinking about it now, it seems almost unbelievable that one of those men that I walked past was about to end his life. That if I’d parked five minutes later I would have been in the way of the bullets aimed at the policeman. Or ten minutes later, I might have been their hostage. I’m haunted by the faint memory of their ugliness. Did their desperate crime-filled lives mark their features? Or was it the other way round?

The second time I was nearly shot also started out as a shopping trip. We wanted to buy my husband a really nice dressing gown for his birthday. Amsterdam, where we were living, is a city of specialist shops. My 3-year-old son and I set out one summer’s day for Dam Square and the Dressing Gown Shop which I’d spotted in one of the winding lanes which lead off the city’s main square.
We got to the shop at 10am, then found it didn’t open until 11am. So we went to a nearby café, sat outside. I had a coffee, my little boy had an apple juice and a chocolate chip cookie. We chatted about the present we were going to buy his daddy. All was quiet, all was normal.
And then a bike sped past us. And then a policeman on a bike followed. ‘How Dutch,’ I thought. ‘Even police chases are on bikes.’
And then bang! Bang! Very loud. Very near.
‘Come on, quick’ I said and we ran over to the church across the lane, and sheltered behind a wall. Not a very big wall, but it was the only shelter I could see. My son was still eating his biscuit. He looked a bit puzzled, but quite happy. I was panicking. What if the gunman ran back this way? We were the only people in the street. The wall offered very little protection.
And then the street was full of people. I could hear police and ambulance sirens. Bizarrely, we bumped into a teacher from my son’s nursery school. ‘Well!’ she said, eyes wide, grinning at my son. ‘What a strange thing to happen! Now the naughty man’s got to go to hospital!’
Instantly the incident turned into a story - something to learn from, talk about. The ‘naughty man’ was an armed robber. He lay bleeding on the ground, right outside the Dressing Gown shop. If the shop had opened at 10, we might have made our purchase and been leaving just then. But it didn’t and we hadn’t and we rushed away onto a tram. ‘What a silly man!’ I told my son. ‘He’s not very well now! He did a very bad thing!’
The third time I was nearly shot was not a nice sunny day and I was not out shopping. It was night time on Halloween, and we were walking down the street where we used to live in Amsterdam. We’d recently moved to the Old South area, near the Vondelpark, but we were back in the New South for the annual trick or treat route, organised by American parents for expat children.
Every year the route was planned by an energetic mother I only knew as ‘the Halloween lady’ She’d phone me early in October ‘Hello! It’s the Halloween lady! Can I put you on the list?’ And then she’d work out which houses were prepared to have hundreds of kids knock on their doors and she’d prepare maps and lists and instructions which reminded parents that the Dutch do not celebrate Halloween, and so they should be particularly careful crossing roads, because no one would be expecting crowds of dressed up children to be thronging the streets of the wealthy New South.

Almost certainly the man who ordered the execution of lawyer Evart Hingst was unaware that Mr Hingst’s neighbourhood would be packed with children dressed as ghosts and ghouls, witches and vampires.

Luckily the corner where Hingst was killed – machine-gunned in the head and stomach by two men in a jeep – was not as busy as it usually was on Halloween. That’s because my family had moved to the Old South. In previous years we’d have been handing out sweets just a few meters from where the killing took place.

Even so, there were plenty of children around. We were just up the road when it happened, passing by the school which served as the Gestapo HQ when the Nazis occupied Amsterdam. We arrived at the scene - the corner of the Minervalaan and the Gerrit van de Veenstraat just as the first policemen arrived. There was a strong smell in the air - a fireworky smell. Children were still trooping from house to house in the Minervalaan. The police were shouting, taping off the street.

I bumped into a friend. ‘There’s been a shooting’ she said. ‘Right outside your old house.’ It seemed almost unbelievable. And what to do? We’d only just started - the children didn’t have their normal stash of sweets. We started to walk away, looking at our map, trying to work out a new route. And then I met another friend. She was flushed with excitement. ‘I think we saw them - the killers,’ she said. ‘They were walking away…we passed them on the Michelangelostraat…did you smell the Armalite…They haven’t caught them, you know..’

That was it. ‘Come on kids,’ I said. ‘I think we’ve had enough Halloween for one night.’

Evert Hingst’s death was one of a spate of gangland killings - Mr Hingst had some mafia clients, and was about to talk to journalists - and the Dutch public generally seemed to be rather pleased that gangsters were picking each other off rather than troubling the police with the expense and bother of prosecuting them.  It was a shame for the expat community that the criminals lived alongside us in our expensive suburbs.
I wouldn’t want to give anyone the idea that Amsterdam is a dangerous place to live. We felt extremely safe in our nine years there – we’d walk across the park at midnight - and we rarely heard of street crime. Executions, political killings and a little light car crime left residents feeling pretty secure. In the short time I lived in Putney though, I witnessed a violent mugging and was chased in my car. North London, so far so good…no violent incidents at all.
So, have I just been unlucky to have been so near to three shootings? Or just very lucky to have escaped unscathed? As lucky as I was when the IRA bombed Canary Wharf, as I worked on the 18th floor of the tower. But that’s another story.
(The picture shows the corner where Hingst was murdered, and it was taken by Philip Schade -  I've reproduced it without permission from his flickr stream. I hope that's OK - I think it's a wonderful picture, one where the photo-shopping has been done intelligently and with some point)


  1. Sounds to me as if you are part cat Keren....

  2. i agree with kathy. do you think you might be drawn by some kind of osmosis to these incidents? or is it you? i used to be a foreign correspondent and i only got almost-shot once ... i was standing in front of some riot police and a sniper shot the policeman behind me. my husband (then my boyfriend) pushed me away just in time. funnily enough he doesn't remember the incident because immediately after he got involved in something more exciting. i remember looking over at the policemen carrying the wounded man away. brrr.

  3. If i believed in fate, I'd say it's my destiny to get accidentally shot one day - I just keep dodging those bullets. But I don't believe that at all.
    Undoubtedly though if I'd been an actual foreign correspondent I'd have got shot within minutes of setting out on my first story. Luckily I was never brave enough to even consider it!

  4. Wowza, be careful out there Keren! Another compelling piece.

  5. Woah... that has to be the most interesting blog post I've ever read! You should write an autobiography - it'd be awesome!