On a warm summer’s night, five shadows flit through Frederik Street, towards the south of Amsterdam’s town centre. Their new home lies just within reach – tonight they might be lucky. The target in question has a metal front door, spray-painted in green. They get to work with a crowbar. As the door gives in, the last obstacle is out of the way.
Dutch laws on squats
'We spent months planning our expedition,' explains Anna, a Polish squatter. 'Planning' means 'countless patrols around the building and numerous calls to the authorities; we wanted to make sure that the house was definitely uninhabited.' According to Dutch legislation, a house must be empty for a year before it can be 'squatted'. Once it has become a squat, the owners find it very difficult to rid themselves of the uninvited guests. 'One day we will have to move out of here again. But until then all the owner can do is plead before the court to obtain a eviction warrant, which can take years,' explains Anna. The 21-year-old is evidently satisfied with their achievement. All the walls are covered in plaster and the floor is hidden under rubbish and dust. 'It is clear that we will have to do some renovation work here so that we can get it looking really good,' she says, whilst shooting her fellow Poles Kasha and Tomas, Dutchman Peter and Czech friend Chechv a challenging look. These are her future flatmates.
Just how many other eastern Europeans have moved to the Dutch capital in the last year and joined the squatter movement? 'I came to Amsterdam to live in a squat,' says Anna. 'I like the culture and the experience will certainly be beneficial for the future.' She has already made plans for the future. 'I would like to open a centre in Poland for disadvantaged youths. Living in a squat is good experience all right.'
Many young people today believe living in squats teaches tham about life more than about political activism. 'As a foreigner I cannot be politically active, I know very little about the problems here,' muses Anna. Peter, who has just rolled a joint, adds: 'Our generation have set ourselves apart from the squatters of the eighties. We no longer plan big campaigns, but are simply looking for a place to live.' Toady squats are also far less crowded. 'Whereas before there would be sometimes twenty people to a room, we make sure that each person has his or her own room,' says Peter.
No political fire
Eric von Duivenvoorden belongs to the old squatter school. The 43 year-old journalist has recently published a quasi-biographical book about the squatter movement in Amsterdam. He himself lived in a squat from 1980 until 1985, a period which was known as the golden years. He misses the political fire which the contemporary generation lacks. 'Squatters are in danger of shrinking away and becoming an insignificant sub-culture,' he says. According to Duivenvoorden, there are currently just under 500 squatters living in the city, where once there were at least 20, 000.
For Duivenvoorden and his fellow fighters, the movement is about changing the world. 'We were quite radical and extremely politically minded. We had many a confrontation with the authorities.' The movement came about due to the lack of living space in the Dutch capital. However, the squatters found it unjust that there were numerous empty dwellings in the centre and they felt the need to protest. 'Many homeowners were intentionally holding out for higher rent or a better sale price for their property,' explains the journalist.
Van Duivenvoorden remembers barricades, street protests and the first big success. 'Eventually the government had to give way and accommodate us. Council housing programmes were created and many squats were legalised.' Legalisation means that the squat was purchased by the council and its inhabitants were given dwelling rights. Today, many of these legalised squats are alternative culture centres. 'The political legacy of the squatter movement is huge in the Netherlands,' continues Van Duivenvoorden. He emphasises that the movement continues to be of great importance. 'There is still a dramatic housing shortage which must not become a precedent. In spite of their low numbers, the squatters retain their power in this struggle. They are a band of ghost-like police taking action against empty standing living space. Homeowners must stay on their guard.' Van Duivenvoorden hopes that the Amsterdam squats will influence other European countries. 'It would be terrific if a squatter movement emerged in eastern Europe.'
Katrin sits on the late night train between Frankfurt and Würzburg without a valid ticket. The 26 year-old Slovakian, who is on her way to visit a friend in Prague, has just left a squat in Amsterdam. 'I lived there for two years and now I need a break.' She describes squatting as a 'great experience of freedom'. Can she imagine the movement taking place in her homeland - she is pessimistic. 'A friend of mine once stayed in a squat in Bratislava and an anti-terrorist unit removed them by force.' The young Slovak maintains that eastern Europe is 'far removed from a liberal lifestyle.' That is why she would like to return to Amsterdam soon. 'Perhaps I may even set up a squat in Barcelona.'
In collaboration with Thijs Lammers, from cafebabel.com Amsterdam