About the mysterious disappearance of Arjen Kamphuis
2018 has been a whirlwind of a year. Or maybe not a whirlwind, but a tornado. The phrase, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, is really hitting home with me. To start with the best of times; 2018 will always be the year that my son was born, and all the cliché’s are true, he’s the most wonderful little thing that ever happened to me. Unfortunately the year didn’t end then and there.
And so 2018 was also a year of several painful goodbyes for me. Some I might share at a later time. One in particular I’ve been asked to share my thoughts on.
By now you have probably read about the much publicized case of me losing my best friend Arjen. At time of this writing he has been missing for four very long months. Leads are starting to dry up. As it goes with missing person cases; with every day that passes, chances that we’ll get him back are becoming smaller. It being such a bizarre and dramatic event, and because we can’t know exactly what happened, makes it hard to come to terms with it.
It feels impossible to give something closure and the appropriate time for grief when you still have hope that someone might return.
All three scenarios of what happened are left open; The first being that he had an accident by foot, or kayak and died in Norway. A heartbreaking scenario to imagine that he might have died alone, scared and in pain, with so much left to do and say. In that case chances are that the rough waters took him and we’ll never find him back. Police assures us they have given it their utmost effort to find him, and they’ve have come back empty handed. There is not much else we can do.
Another scenario is, that he was taken by someone. Arjen was known for speaking — often controversial — truth to power, and empowering individuals such as journalists and activists in challenging their governments when needed. I wish I could say that we live in a world where such a scenario could be totally ruled out, but unfortunately, I know better. In that case he might reappear in 10yrs and tell us all about it, but it’s hard to keep your hopes up. Not everyone who gets disappeared resurfaces again. Either way, not a pleasant scenario to have to consider.
The third scenario is that he vanished himself, and for this possibility, too, there are clues to be found.
I choose to believe this scenario, that he is or was alive at the time of him going missing. I’m not sure if this is what I believe or if that’s what I want to believe, but it’s the most positive conviction in a bad situation. It comes down to a gut feeling, but also one for which I can find plenty of rational proof.
People get into mental distress all the time. Being highly intelligent, dealing with stressful situations, and being socially isolated for a couple of weeks are perfect ingredients to make that happen. Something might have snapped in his mind, that would have made him do things he wouldn’t normally do. He wouldn’t be the first, nor the last person who finds himself in such a horrible situation.
With this scenario he did rob himself of his life as he knew it. He has good friends, great colleagues, family that cares deeply about him, many career accomplishments, a comfortable home, and frequently traveled the world to spread his knowledge and make a positive difference. I sometimes catch myself talking about him in the past tense, not because I feel like he’s no longer with us, but because if, and when he comes back, it will be a big rift between life before, and after his disappearance. Maybe the Arjen that disappeared and the Arjen that reappears are hardly the same person. These are all gut wrenching scenarios we have to consider.
He is one of the most kind hearted, skilled, and smartest people I have ever had the pleasure to get to know, and I’m proud to call him a huge influence in my life, and mentor in my professional activities. One thing I’m grateful for is that since we met in 2012, we have spent many, many days together, and I never let an opportunity go by to soak up his extensive knowledge. He lives on in my heart and mind. My son has partially been named after Arjen, and I hope I get to pass on the wisdom and ethics he taught me to the next generation, too. On all those who have met him, he made an impact to remember. He really is one of a kind and him being gone is leaving behind a gaping void in our community.
When things happen in my life and would have normally called him to talk to him about it, as I’d often do, I now have that conversation with him in my mind, and because we’ve had so many long and frequent conversations, I know exactly what his answer would be. When people attack his friends and family online with bizarre and hurtful accusations, I hear his voice in my head going, “No good deed goes unpunished!” as he’d often say, and we’d have a little chuckle about it.
Without much further information, what I have left are my gut feelings, and when I think about how I would feel if he had died in an accident in Norway, I am heartbroken. But that’s not how I feel. I don’t feel heartbroken. Oddly enough. I feel concerned and mildly upset with him. Upset for leaving us in the dark like this. And then I feel guilty for not feeling heartbroken.
I think in life people consciously or unconsciously choose their own destiny, and part of him chose to experience whatever happened to him. He made choices in his life that I would not have made, and maybe all those small choices added up and lead to where we stand now. We all have our demons, and maybe his caught up with him.
He possibly robbed himself of his life and identity, even if he’s not dead. And when someone robs themselves of their life, the people they leave behind are left to wonder what they could have done differently. And so do I.
I blame myself for not asking him how he felt or how he was doing. There were times when I had wanted to, but it felt like an awkward question to ask. Surely if there was something I should know, he’d tell me? Why does it feel awkward to ask your best friend how he’s feeling? Partly because our relationship evolved around discussing politics and having a cynical laugh at the strange state of the world. Wallowing in our emotions was generally not our way of spending a fun day together. But also, because he always gave the impression of being a strong, self sufficient and rational person. Always eager to help others, not so eager to be helped himself. Even that time when he accidentally chopped off his fingertips whilst chopping wood, or when he underwent heavy surgery and was clearly in vast amounts of physical pain, he still brushed it off as no big deal. Just a band aid on it and carry on. ‘There are more important things in the world! No time for self pity!’
When a loved one disappears, no matter how much of a privacy respecting person you are, you are left in the position of having to dig into their utmost private life. Going through their stuff, reading through their inboxes, asking anyone who they’ve ever met for anything of possible relevance, going through court to get a hold of their accounts and finances. You don’t have a choice, you’ll do anything to find out what happened or get them back. And the worst of all, we are now in the position of having to pack up his life into boxes and tying up a very big loose end. Having a son now myself, I can only imagine how much pain his family is in.
As I came to find out by digging deeper than what I felt comfortable with, he was not so open, even to his most intimate circle, about his totally human feelings and shortcomings. If I had asked how he felt, what would he have said? He would have said he was doing fine. I know that’s what his answer would have been. Which is why I didn’t ask, I think. But maybe, if only I’d asked, at least I’d know he had been lying.
My new year’s resolution for the rest of my life is to start asking people how they feel, even if, or especially when, it feels like an awkward or intrusive question to ask. And to ask myself the same question. To start respecting my own (gut) feelings. They are an important pointer in life and when you choose to not to honor them, in yourself or others, bad things will start accumulating until something snaps.
Because no matter how important The State of World Politics, how you are feeling will always be more important to discuss with loved ones. I hope anyone who reads this will remember that during Christmas dinner, opens up, and hug their loved ones tightly.
Friends&Family of Arjen are starting a sticker campaign at our beloved international hacker conference 35C3 in Leipzig around Christmas. All we are asking for with this campaign #StillDearlyMissed is proof of life. Further details are welcomed but not demanded. For those who kindly asked to contribute, here’s a link: https://hack42.nl/blog/2018/12/operatie-findarjen-tijdens-35c3
For press and journalists; if you can not take this piece of writing out of context, and point to this original document, I’d greatly appreciate it.