MAASTRICHT — The worst thing about it, says Marina Smirnova, is that people won’t tell her directly to her face what they think of her. When the 27-year-old Russian, a linguist, joins a discussion with colleagues at work about the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, and points out that responsibility for the tragedy has not yet been formally established, everybody suddenly goes silent.
Feeling increasingly isolated, Smirnova is sure that people are badmouthing her, making malicious remarks behind her back. On Facebook there have already been calls tor Russians to be chased out of the Netherlands and for a killer commando to be sent to take care of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.
Smirnova has read the posts. She sits in Café Zuid by the Maas River in the Dutch university town of Maastricht and reflects about where her relations with Dutch people are going.
"My wish is that the negative climate doesn’t escalate further," she says.
Of the 298 people who lost their lives in the crash a week ago, 193 were Dutch. The plane was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, when halfway through the flight it was downed and crashed in eastern Ukraine where soldiers loyal to Kiev are fighting pro-Russian separatists.
Not even U.S. intelligence has so far delivered conclusive proof that the Russian government is behind this act of terror. In the Netherlands, on the other hand, many believe that Putin and his cohorts are responsible. When on Wednesday the first victims’ coffins were brought back from Ukraine to the military airport in Eindhoven, thousands of Dutch people stood on the streets to pay respects as the vehicles transporting the coffins drove by.
It was like a funeral cortege for MH17’s dead. And as people wept, and people spoke of the "Dutch 9/11," the finger-pointing at Russia grew. The collective mourning is punctuated by anger, almost all of it directed at Russia. The anger is shared by some prominent politicians and sports personalities, as well as regular folks. And the anger needs outlets.
One mayor lets loose
Last week it was Putin’s daughter, Maria, also known as "Masha," in the crosshairs. The 29-year-old reportedly lives in the posh neighborhood of Hilversum. "We could deport her. That would send a whole other signal," said mayor Pieter Broertjes in a radio interview. A few minutes later he backtracked on Twitter, but the fire had already been lit.
Throw Putin’s daughter out of the country? Many of the Dutch believe it’s a good idea. And yet it isn’t even certain that Maria Putin really lives or lived in Hilversum or if it’s all empty talk. According to the Bild am Sonntag newspaper she left the Netherlands and is now back in Moscow.
Russian citizens Vladislav Sadykov, Irene Boesten and Marina Smirnova (with their dog named Putin) in Maastricht — Photo: Tim Röhn
John van't Schip, a former soccer star, also joined the debate. "I call on our football association, the KNVB, the government and FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to boycott the World Cup in Russia in 2018," the 1988 European champion wrote on Twitter. This was met with widespread approval, as was the idea of immediate economic sanctions against Russia.
Writer Bas Heijne wrote that the Dutch government has "coddled ... the dictator" Putin for too long.
Thirty thousand Russians live in the Netherlands. Marina Smirnova is one of them. Together with friends she is currently building a Russian community in Maastricht, which has an overall population of 120,000. Forty Russians turned up for a get-together at the newly-opened Russian consulate in Maastricht, and in August there’s going to a big summer party to which only Russians are invited.
Student Vladislav Sadykov says they want to inform people about Russia and reduce prejudice. "We understand the Dutch and their grief. We know what it’s like to lose loved ones," says the 26-year-old remembering the terror attacks in Russia in years past.
Nevertheless neither he, Smirnova nor Irene Boesten, the third Russian sitting in Café Zuid on this afternoon, can understand the anger people feel towards their country.
It’s too simplistic, they say, to keep claiming that Russia is involved: "Why don’t they wait for the outcome of investigations?" Media coverage is "laughably one-sided" says Boesten, 30. Still, she says, she has been able to persuade her Dutch husband of "the truth" and his anger at Russia has calmed.
A dog named ...
One certainly couldn’t say that’s what happened to most of the Dutch. In Groningen, the owner of a Russian grocery store was heckled by an angry group of locals reportedly screaming "the Russians murdered."
"Luckily," Nicolaas Kraft van Ermel, told Die Welt, "so far the attacks have only been verbal. I know of no Russians who have been physically attacked."
Van Ermel works for the Dutch-Russian Center in Groningen, which among other activities advises Dutch companies thinking of doing business in Russia. "We’ve received hate mail, and I’ve been encouraged to quit my job," van Ermel says. "The mood has changed. Now, Russia’s being blamed for everything."
All the events of the recent past have been thrown into one pot: the MH17 disaster, the arrest of Dutch Greenpeace activists trying to prevent a Russian oil tanker from docking in Rotterdam, even the tough measures taken against homosexuals in Russia. Russians living in the Netherlands are being blamed for all that as well.
It's gotten to the point where Marina Smirnova is worried about her personal safety. "I hope nobody goes after us with baseball bats," she says only half-jokingly.
Vladislav Sadykov believes that investigations will show conclusively that the Russian government was not responsible for the crash of the plane. He says that some Dutch people are beginning to come round to his point of view. Anyway, he’s not afraid.
Irene Boesten thinks that everything will take care of itself once the Dutch recognize that the Western media are not the only sources. The Russian press is better, she says, stroking the dog she has brought with her.
The Cocker Spaniel is black, one-and-a-half years old. His name is Putin.
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.