She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
Saskia Kouwenberg has spent 25 years – half her life – as an activist. Everything from indigenous people’s land rights, to national independence, to anti-nuclear and anti-war work has been the focus of her campaigning. Although not affiliated to one group, she has worked alongside Amnesty International, the United Nations, and Moluccan and East Timorese organizations, in all kinds of ways. From mediating in conflict resolution classes to trespassing on military bases, Saskia will try any method to achieve her goal of a better, safer, fairer world. It is not very often that you meet someone who, over their 52 years, has been a barefoot hippy, spent six months as a novice nun (“I would have stayed longer, if they had not thrown me out!”), made movies, smuggled (more of that later), been a monkey-keeper, marcher, conflict resolver, anti-nuclear and anti-imperialist people’s rights campaigner. Yet today I find myself in the lucky position of talking to one of Amsterdam’s unsung heroines. Saskia Kouwenberg has been an “independent human rights activist,” as she calls herself, for nearly 25 years now. “I was not somebody who said on their twelfth birthday ‘I want to be a peace activist when I grow up.’ In my village politics were non-existent,” she says, as she makes tea in the kitchen of her canal-side, Oud-West flat. It is a nice pot of Tension Tamer, appropriate for a woman who has seen more than her fair share of conflict hot spots. This is the place where she has lived on and off, between stints of campaigning, for the last 25 years … (1000peacewomen 1/2).
Saskia Kouwenberg – Netherlands
She says: “Responsibility does not end at borders. I cannot see boundaries. The only boundaries are that you have 24 hours in the day and you cannot do everything you want to do in your life”. (1000peacewomen).
Tijdens manifestatie op de Dam, 15 feb. (20039, Toespraak Saskia Kouwenberg.
Hulp door militairen is vaak funest voor hulpverleners, by Saskia Kouwenberg: Militairen in conflictgebieden krijgen steeds vaker civiele taken. Dat kan leiden tot een gevaarlijke verwarring van rollen, vindt Saskia Kouwenberg, mede doordat de situatie in oorlogen steeds onoverzichterlijker wordt omdat er zoveel partijen bij betrokken zijn … (full long text).
She writes: Militairen in conflictgebieden krijgen steeds vaker civiele taken. Dat kan leiden tot een gevaarlijke verwarring van rollen, vindt Saskia Kouwenberg, mede doordat de situatie in oorlogen steeds onoverzichterlijker wordt omdat er zoveel partijen bij betrokken zijn … (full text, 18-08-2004).
Rapport Blix/El Baradei geen enkele invloed op oorlogsvoornemen Bush, 07-03-2003.
(East Timor-) POSTERS FROM SOUTHERN CROSS UNIVERSITY (AUSTRALIA).
(on 1000peacewomen 2/2): … The village she is talking about is Zundert, a farming place down in Noord-Brabant, where she was born into a vegetable trading family. It is famous for one thing only, being the birthplace of Vincent van Gogh – not necessarily the kind of place you would expect a political activist to come out of, among all that slow-moving agriculture, but Saskia is convinced that her life’s mission found its roots back there.
She had a comfortable, middle-class upbringing when, at the age of 19, she went off on a round-the-world trip, along the hippy trail. “I did not go as a hippy but I came back as one.
In India and Afghanistan especially, virtually everything that I saw there questioned what I was brought up with. I met people with totally different views on life, and they thought they were right too. That was a very big surprise to me. Plus, I saw incredible poverty. I did not know about these things.”
After that, she felt she could not be contained by her nationality, a fact which goes a long way to explain her peripatetic lifestyle since: “From then on I felt like a world citizen. I felt that responsibility does not end at borders: where I am born, the village, or the family. I cannot see boundaries.”
Having had her sheltered Dutch eyes opened to grim realities beyond the limits of the Low Countries, and deciding that a lot of what she saw she did not like, Saskia did what most of us think about when confronted by injustice but seldom ever do. She did something about it. And she has been doing something about it ever since.
In the early 1980s, when it seemed that we were all going to be wiped off the face of the earth at the flick of a switch, Saskia was marching through the streets of Amsterdam with 450,000 others against cruise missiles. She helped set up the peace camp outside the NATO military base in Volkel (back home in Noord-Brabant). Anti-nuclear work plucked her up and transported her to the other side of the world, to New Zealand, where she made a documentary charting nuclear testing there (she had already worked a good few years in the movie business). During that time down-under, she came into contact with indigenous people and their struggle for land rights, opening up an altogether different chapter of campaign work.
Although Saskia may appear to be something of a political nomad, traveling continents from inequality to injustice to trouble spot, you could argue that, at the very heart of her work, all roads lead somehow back to home. “My father fought in the war in Indonesia, and the Dutch army did not do very good things there. There are still a lot of taboos in the Netherlands about what the country did in the colonies, or what the colonial mentality did to the world.”
Addressing the darker side of the Netherlands’ history – the burden of colonial guilt on Dutch people’s and, by extension, white people’s shoulders – has been a major theme for Saskia Kouwenberg. Confronting the shadow cast by Indonesia, for example, a few years back she was invited by Moluccans living in this country to set up a delegation of observers in the bloody inter-faith war taking place in what was once known as ‘The Spice Islands.’ The image seems impossibly romantic now. During that failed endeavor, she was one of the few white people to talk to the Muslim side. She does not pretend she did not bear the brunt of centuries of disaffection: “I experienced a lot of the force of bitterness, hatred, despair and anger towards white people.”
Indonesia was to provide Saskia with the pivotal experiences of her life, when she quite literally made the world see what atrocities were going on. Back in 1991, East Timor, a former Portuguese colony among the 13,000 islands that made up Indonesia, was then struggling for independence. A young man called Sebastian Gomez was killed by agents acting for the Government, and his funeral on 12 November turned into an independence rally. Hundreds of people attending were shot in what was to become known as the “Santa Cruz Massacre.” The killing spree was filmed by undercover reporters. Saskia Kouwenberg sneaked out the video.
She calls it her finest moment. “The thing I am most proud of is smuggling out the film of the massacre in East Timor. It was scary,” she says, though she remains remarkably calm as she recounts the story. “There were five, six undercover journalists in the country. They were the only outside witnesses to the massacre. I was not there when it happened, but my ex-husband was, my friend was.” She experienced personal loss, too: “My friend was killed.”
Getting the film out of East Timor became a race against time. “Everything closed. There were only military on the streets, and I had those videos with me.” But it was a race that Saskia ultimately won. “It took me three days to get it out. And it was, yeah, it was very tense. Yes.” When the footage was shown across the world’s TV screens it sparked off an international solidarity movement, including the East Timor Action Network.
Today, she would be the first to say that things really have changed. “I have the feeling that 20 years ago it was easier to be an activist. The vision was clear, the strategy was clear.” Beneath the idealism of the dreamer lies a hard-nosed political realist who is willing, above all, to change: “I feel now that activists need new strategies. We have to refocus. We have to come up with answers: what needs to be done against extremism and terrorism, and those are very difficult questions. I do not have ready answers.”
One thing she does have an answer for is what muddied the previously clear political waters. “9/11 was hard. I find the perspective for positive change has received an incredible backlash. We have stepped back one hundred steps, I think. This polarization – Islamophobia.” She sees another enemy now: “The neo-conservative agenda, which is really seeping into every international forum.”
Does she think she is making a difference? “I wish, I hope so. I sometimes wonder: Is it because I am not being as active as I was before? When you are active, and you are a part of change, you tend to be quite hopeful. You see change happening. So, I have been the most amazing optimist-activist.”
You can find the cause of why she is beginning to doubt her own powers and question what she does by following the road home again. “I have been looking after my mum, who has Alzheimer’s, for the last five years, and this has taken an incredible toll on my energy. I have started to do less and less work outside. But in that period I was coordinator of a development agency for nine months, and spokesperson for the Platform Against the War in Iraq. It wore me down. I am trying to cope with life at the moment. My mother, unfortunately, is now in a home, and I am slowly starting to feel a bit better, but I am still quite exhausted.”
As you would expect from someone who has been beaten up quite a few times by police, she will not be beaten down. When we spoke, she was just off to Qatar for a week, to host conflict resolution classes. “I am working more and more on this concept of conflict resolution: cooperative conflict approach.” The world is changing, the methods of political activism need to change, and, as ever, Saskia is out there on the frontline. How much longer can she keep going on? “I really hope my whole life.” And I do not doubt for a minute that she will. (on 1000peacewomen).
Activists criticise proposed Obama security appointment, dec. 8, 2008;
… He (retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair ) also came under criticism in the 1990s when his command provided support to the Indonesian military at a time when that country was violently suppressing an uprising in Indonesian-administered East Timor. An East Timor advocacy group the East Timor Action Network) has collected hundreds of signatures for a letter to Obama urging him to reject Blair … (full text, dec. 19, 2008);
Southeast Asia’s newsmakers of 2008, dec. 31, 2008;
Some Random Remarks on Complaints Regarding the East Timor Popular Consultation.