‘Ik begrijp je niet’, the police said

Photo by Reyer Boxem

Harassed by a naked man

‘Ik begrijp je niet’, the police said

When international PhD student Gabriela was sexually harassed in the Nieuwe Boteringestraat, she tried calling the police. But the officer she spoke to couldn’t understand her. What if this happens again? Where does an international seek help?
1 July om 9:32 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:21 uur.
July 1 at 9:32 AM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:21 PM.
Avatar photo

Door Yelena Kilina

1 July om 9:32 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:21 uur.
Avatar photo

By Yelena Kilina

July 1 at 9:32 AM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:21 PM.

She can still see him in her mind’s eye. Tall, white, well-dressed, in his mid-thirties. He was walking on the sidewalk at the Ossenmarkt at 2 a.m. on Saturday morning. He didn’t seem to pay any attention to her and it’s a fairly safe part of town, so she didn’t immediately think anything was amiss.

International PhD student Gabriela – not her real name – was on foot, too. She was walking her bike along because her chain had come off. ‘I was alone and couldn’t fix the bike in the dark, so I just walked.’ 


When she had reached the Nieuwe Kerk, she heard someone shout behind her. ‘Look at me!’ She turned, thinking it might be a friend of hers who lives nearby. But it wasn’t him. Instead the tall guy from before had come up next to her and he was completely naked. 

For a couple of seconds, Gabriela just froze. Then she turned away and started screaming for help. ‘I can hardly remember how I managed to get my phone’, she says. ‘But somehow I succeeded in calling a helpline, while running with my bike at the same time.’

Somehow I succeeded in calling a helpline while I was running with my bike

In her panic, she somehow dialled the American emergency number, but a recording told her to call 112. She tried again and was quickly connected to someone who asked her in English about her location and put her through to the Groningen police station. ‘I was so relieved I was no longer alone’, she says. Gabriela, who’s bilingual in English and her native language, automatically started recapping in English: ‘I am scared, I am on this street, there is a naked man, I need help.’ 

But the only thing the local police officer said was: ‘Ik begrijp je niet’ – I don’t understand you. ‘That made me feel even more scared, because now I couldn’t make myself clear to someone who could have possibly helped me.’ 

Dutch words

Frantically, she tried to put some words together in Dutch. ‘Ik loop naar mijn huis’ – I am walking home. ‘Er is een man’- There is a man. ‘Geen kleding’- No clothes. 

It was no use. The only thing she got from the policewoman was that she couldn’t understand Gabriela. ‘She said that she could hear I was panicking and that I was scared, but why didn’t she offer any assistance?’ 

Still, she stayed on the phone with the officer, so her location could be tracked if something happened. Only after she had arrived home and the policewoman had asked her if she still needed her did she break the connection. ‘It felt odd to continue speaking with her, so I put the phone down’, says Gabriela. 


It’s been almost two weeks since the incident, but Gabriela still isn’t over what happened. What if she hadn’t lived as close by as she did? ‘I don’t know how things would have gone.’

She doesn’t feel safe anymore, especially because the police didn’t try to find the offender. What if the guy lives nearby and she sees him again? What if he recognises her? Or if someone else gets harassed in the same way?  Why didn’t they do a search of the neighbourhood to find him?

Most importantly, who can she call next time she is in trouble?

I don’t know how things would have gone if I hadn’t lived close by

Gabriela filed two complaints with the police. One about the indecent exposure and the other about the fact that she was denied help. ‘The police officer I filed the complaint with was surprised at what had happened’, she says. ‘He said people in the police department are trained in English and Dutch. I was told that they can’t deny me assistance.’ 

But the fact remains that it did happen. 

Gabriela discovered that there was video surveillance on the street where the incident happened. Because she had ‘zero faith’ in the police following up, she went to the business that owned the camera herself and convinced an employee to check the video.  ‘He managed to catch the person on the video. He captured his face.’ Still, the police didn’t act. 


‘If something like this happens again, I really wouldn’t know who to call for help’, Gabriela says. She is considering taking self-defence classes, so she can protect herself. ‘I can’t trust the police to come and help me next time.’

The police in Groningen have confirmed the incident has happened, but they won’t disclose details about the investigation because of privacy regulations. ‘We regularly receive calls from non-Dutch speakers, which we try to answer as professionally as we can’, says a spokesperson. Those who need a translator, however, can expect one only in ‘scheduled situations’.

If our assessment is that the situation is urgent, we always send police

In an emergency situation, the location of a mobile phone can indeed be tracked down, but it’s up to the police to decide whether to come or not. ‘If our assessment is that the situation is urgent, we would always send police to that location.’

‘I’m surprised they said their assessment of the situation was not urgent’, says Gabriela. She is still worried. She has been taking Dutch language classes on and off for two years, but when push came to shove, she still wasn’t able to communicate with the police. She’s heard stories of friends with similar issues. ‘I think many English speakers don’t feel that they are really being helped.’

Do you need help after sexual assault?

If you’re in immediate need of help, contact the Centrum Seksueel Geweld (Sexual Assault Centre) at 0800-0188 (available 24/7). They offer free specialist care to victims of sexual assault and rape. Slachtofferhulp (Victim Support Netherlands) provides emotional assistance, guides you through the criminal proceedings and can help you with compensation. They can tell you about what the police can do for you and where you can ask for further help, including legal assistance with a sex offence.


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