In the days after the attack, third-year medical student Saad told EM how he holed up in a WC at Erasmus MC during that awful day and hid there, fearing for his life. Now, six months later, he is still not sleeping well. “Though that’s really not just to do with the attack – I was always a bad sleeper”, he says with a smile, putting it into perspective. “But I did notice that it got worse after that day. I would lay awake thinking: what if he had come in?”

Burn marks

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He shows what remains of the attack at the learning centre. On the once pristine white ceiling, soot stains can still be seen from the fire.  In one study area, the carpet is missing and students sit with their feet on the concrete floor. “I think the carpet was removed here because it had burn marks on it”, explains Saad. One corner of the centre is dominated by a plastic-wrapped scaffold: the site of the fire. As of recently, the plastic is adorned by a work of art – though Saad is not quite sure what it represents. He comes to the learning centre almost every day – like many medical students, he considers it his second home –

When he thinks back to that day, the first thing that comes to mind is the ‘stampede’, as he calls it. By that, he means the sound of students running just after Fouad L. threw a Molotov cocktail, which set the centre on fire with a loud bang. “I don’t remember the bang; maybe my brain is protecting me from that.”

Sitting ducks

Together with another student, Saad hid in an accessible toilet on the floor above the learning centre.

In the toilet, Saad and his fellow student were ‘sitting ducks’: easy targets. He had no idea what was going on outside the room. “A few times, we heard footsteps running back and forth. We kept quiet then, because we didn’t know whether it was an attacker or someone from the police.” In the toilet, Saad was in constant contact with a member of the emergency centre staff, who assured him that police officers would always identify themselves. “So we were acutely aware that these might be our last moments on Earth”, Saad says. To this day, Saad does not know whose footsteps he heard.

Police! Police!

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The situation became even more dire when increasingly thick smoke started billowing from under the door. “We didn’t know whether to stay, and run the risk of suffocating from the smoke, or leave the toilet and possibly come face to face with the gunman. The 112 operator advised us to wait as long as possible – until the smoke really became too thick to breathe – so we stayed put anyway.”

After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, Saad heard a man calling out: “Police! Police!” “That was actually the scariest moment”, he recalls. “Nevertheless, Saad cautiously opened the door.  The two students walked out with their hands on their heads. to his left. There was a wide-open door to the right. “I was keenly aware that someone might still come out of there.” It was only when he peered around a corner into a corridor that he found himself looking straight into the eyes of four heavily armed officers. “Fortunately, the officers did not mistake him for a gunman but escorted him to safety.


Now Saad is once again standing at the door of the toilet where he went through his ordeal that day. It is not the first time he’s been here since September. Still, as he pulls the door shut behind him, he notices that his pulse is a little faster than normal. “But it’s not as bad as when I came back the first time.”

After the attack, he often spent long hours lying in bed.  The Sunday after the attack, Saad was scheduled to return to work at the hospital. “In hindsight, that may not have been the smartest thing to do, but I thought: I’m capable of working, so I’m just going to give it a try. I don’t want to let what happened knock me off track.”

Victim Support

He did, however, visit Victim Support that day, which was on standby in a special room in the hospital for those in need of a chat. “I was mainly looking for a sense of peace, for everything to be okay again, so to speak. But I couldn’t quite figure out how I was going to get there. How am I going to make peace with this? How do I just get on with my life again? They were very sweet people who were very good listeners, although afterwards I didn’t feel it was going to help me personally.” As a result, that conversation was a one-off for Saad. Although what-if scenarios sometimes play through his mind from time to time, his religion and his father have helped him cope with such thoughts. “My father said: there’s no such thing as what if. It happened the way it happened. And it could also have gone less badly than it did. And my faith – I’m Muslim – also tells me that it happened the way it was meant to happen, and there was never any other possibility. Those thoughts have helped me a lot with this.”

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