Revelations of official incompetence and arrogance have tumbled forth during investigations into the Belgian children allegedly murdered by Marc Dutroux. Hundreds of thousands marched in the streets. The Government trembled. And all because of one man's search for his missing daughter.
Seated at the dining room table of a house in the Belgian town of Hasselt, Paul Marchal, a 42-year-old teacher of slight build, with a manicured beard and wire-rimmed glasses, is an unlikely revolutionary. For decades he has taught reading and history to disabled children of the Flemish-speaking community in a province in eastern Belgium known for its fresh air and pungent flowers. Since August 1995, Marchal has commanded the attention of Belgium's public, and, increasingly, its politicians. His declarations make headlines in the national press, the substance of debate in Parliament. He lectures the Prime Minister in private meetings. Twice now, Marchal has been called to court by the king of Belgium. Still he prefers teaching.

"I am not trained in politics, and I do not claim to understand anything about it," Marchal told me when I visited him at his home in January. "I am a schoolteacher, and that is what I want to do, to teach," he added. Marchal believes firmly that politics should be left to professional politicians, but he also feels that when the political establishment fails to perform its most fundamental duty - to protect children - it is the right, indeed the duty, of the citizen to take matters into his or her own hands. "The problem is that our political leaders have forgotten that the state is here to serve the people, not the other way around," Marchal said. His theory of contract between state and citizen derives not from the Enlightenment tracts of John Locke but from a very recent and very cruel lesson in civics that began with the disappearance of his 17-year-old daughter, An, in August 1995.

For more than a year, as Marchal searched for his daughter, he confronted a justice system whose arrogance and insensitivity seemed rivalled only by its incompetence. And for the past six months, thanks in large part to his efforts, Belgium has reeled from what has appeared to be an endless succession of revelations about savageries committed at the various homes of Marc Dutroux, a convicted child molester and multiple rapist who was out on parole.

The police finally arrested the 40-year-old unemployed electrician on August 13, a year after An Marchal vanished. Spliced into video cassettes of Laurel and Hardy and Tom and Jerry at Dutroux's maison horreur in Marcinelle, a suburb of gritty, industrial Charleroi, they found footage of hard-core paedophile pornography. In a basement bunker, they found two girls alive - Sabine Dardenne, 13, who disappeared on 28 May, and Laetitia Delhez, 14, abducted on 9 August.

On 17 August, at Dutroux's principal home in Sars-la-Buissiere, outside Charleroi, the police discovered the buried remains of more of his victims - Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, both 8, who were kidnapped in June 1995. On 3 September in the backyard of a Dutroux associate, Bernard Weinstein, the police found the bodies of An Marchal and her best friend, Eefje Lambrecks. All had been raped; two died from starvation.

But it was not the sheer horror of Dutroux's crimes that transformed the shock and sorrow over these revelations into a fury that sent more than 300,000 Belgians into the streets of Brussels in protest last October. Nor was it just the accumulating evidence that Dutroux's atrocities were known to the police even as they were being committed, or the disturbing indications that their investigations may have been impeded by officials at the highest levels of government - though these played a major part. What above all outraged Belgians was the apparent intention of the authorities to blame police incompetence for the entire affair and to ignore the overwhelming public insistence on a full inquiry.

It all came to a boil in mid-October when the authorities removed the prosecutor of the case, Jean-Marc Connerotte - who had achieved heroic stature for ending the Dutroux rampage - on what many Belgians saw as trumped-up charges. The ensuing outcry shook the nation to its foundations and still threatens to topple a government that most Belgians now dismiss as hopelessly corrupt, unresponsive and untrustworthy.

Since September, when police investigators recovered the skeletal remains of his daughter, Marchal has led a movement to reform the political and legal system he holds responsible for the deaths of An and the other three girls. In response to the public furore, the government hastily appointed a commission of parliamentarians to investigate charges of police negligence. Currently, the Dutroux commission widely known as the "investigation of the investigation" - is trying to determine why the police were unable, or unwilling, to break a criminal network that they had been aware of since at least 1993.

While the commission's full report is not due until spring, many disturbing aspects of the case appear to be beyond dispute. Most prominent, it is "nearly a certainty", according to the head of the commission, Marc Verwilghen, that the lives of the four known Dutroux victims could have been saved had the police acted properly. Verwilghen wondered publicly whether the police investigators were "incompetent, unwilling, or were they prevented from doing their job?" adding: "Was it because they did not know how to solve it? Was it because they did not want to, or, was it because they were not allowed to? None of these options is excluded."

Until August 1995, Marchal lived - like most of the 10 million citizens of this tiny nation - a peaceful, middle-class existence. With his teacher's income and his wife Betty's salary as a clerk at a local bank, Marchal was able to provide his four children with bicycles, pets and, when the budget permitted, two-week holidays on the coast of France or Spain. In the summer of 1995, An asked her parents if she could forgo the family vacation to Spain to accompany six girlfriends, including her best friend, Eefje Lambrecks, to the Belgian coast. They initially opposed the idea, but eventually acquiesced. "An was going to turn 18 that December," Marchal says. "We decided we had to let her go sometime. You can't hold onto your children forever."

On 22 August, 1995, An left with her friends for Ostend. The next day, Marchal received a call from her requesting a recipe for a curried-chicken dish she intended to prepare for dinner the next day. The following evening, at 9.45pm, Marchal received another call, this time from one of An's friends. "She told us that An and Eefje had gone to a magic show the night before and had never come back, that they had gone to the police station to report it, but the police had laughed at them," Marchal recalls, then repeats in a sombre voice, "Yes, they laughed at it."

That same evening, Marchal reported the matter to the police in Hasselt and the following morning drove to Ostend to investigate the matter himself. He found the police equally dismissive. Girls disappeared all the time on the coast, Marchal was told. His daughter had probably met a "nice boy" and was off having fun. But Marchal insisted that the evidence suggested otherwise: An had taken only a T-shirt; she had left behind her glasses and contact-lens solution; the ingredients for the curried chicken where still in the refrigerator.

Dismayed by the indifference of the police, and fearing that precious time was being lost, Marchal searched in vain for clues before returning to Hasselt. That autumn, Marchal took paid leave from his teaching duties at the primary school and devoted himself completely to the search. He quickly found common cause - and compassion - with the parents of Melissa Russo and Julie Lejeune, who were best friends and had vanished that same summer. The parents blanketed Belgium and the neighbouring countries - France, Luxembourg, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain - with posters of their children, raising not only the attention of the public but also the ire of the police.

In January 1996, Marchal received a letter from Luc van Tieghem, the police chief in Bruges, asking him to desist in his publicity campaign, to stop pestering the police and, to Marchal's astonishment, to stop using a colourful French idiom to describe him. "They say I am a difficult man," Marchal says, still simmering with rage at the memory. "Yes, I am a difficult man. When you lose your daughter you become a difficult man. I wanted my daughter back. Until we found her, I believed there was a very good chance that she was alive, and her friend, too. We couldn't lose any minutes. When girls are alive you can't lose any minutes to do something to find them."

On 9 August, 1996, a year after the disappearance of An and Eefje, Laetitia Delhez was abducted while walking home from a swimming pool in Bertrix. This sparked renewed concern in a society that for months had been staring daily at posters of Melissa and Julie, An and Eefie. Two days after Laetitia disappeared, a young man informed the police that he had noticed a suspicious white van in the area and, more important, provided the first three letters of the license plate - "LNE," the initials of his sister.

Jean-Marc Connerotte, a public prosecutor from Neufchateau, traced the license plate and discovered that the van's owner was Marc Dutroux. He was arrested, and after two days of interrogation he cracked. Over the next few weeks, Dutroux provided the police with vital clues about six missing girls, often in the form of parables, fables and even crossword puzzles. Two days after his arrest, Dutroux offered the police "deux filles" and suggested that they search his house in Marcinelle, where they found Sabine Dardenne and Laetitia Delhez in the subterranean bunker - alive, but gaunt and in deep emotional distress. Dutroux then informed authorities that Melissa Russo and Julie Lejeune had also been held captive in his basement, but had starved to death while he was imprisoned in early 1996 for car theft. (His estranged wife, Michele Martin, later said that she knew the girls were there but was too frightened of what she might find to open the basement door.) Their remains were unearthed in the yard of Dutroux's house in Sars-la-Buissiere.

When asked about An Marchal and Eefje Lambrecks, Dutroux mentioned the house where his associate Bernard Weinstein had been living. "Ici vous pouvez trouver des choses qui peuvent vous interesser," Dutroux told them - "Here I think you can find something interesting." Recalling that he and Weinstein had kept the girls for sexual recreation, Dutroux claimed that Weinstein had murdered both and offered to take the police to the house and show them the graves. "Had I been Weinstein, I would have buried them there and there," Dutroux instructed the investigators, pointing to five potential "hot spots".

When three days of digging revealed nothing, the police returned on September 3 with Dutroux. Standing in the yard, now cratered with excavation, he admonished the police for their failed efforts. He then pointed to the exact spot he had stood on his previous visit - beneath which the police then found the bodies of An and Eefje, plastic bags over their skeletal remains, duct tape where their mouths had once been. The police also uncovered another victim - Weinstein, whom Dutroux claimed to have drugged and buried alive.

If this was all there was to the story, the victims' parents and the country would have mourned their loss, Dutroux would have been dealt with and life would have returned pretty much to normal, without mass marches and parliamentary commissions. But last autumn, as Belgians struggled to fathom the savagery of Dutroux's crimes and collectively grieved for the deaths of Melissa and Julie - their funeral, broadcast live, was watched by millions - they were confronted by a staggering revelation: the police in Charleroi had known that Dutroux was a potentially dangerous criminal - he had previously served only half of a 1312-year sentence for the abduction and rape of five girls in the mid-1980s.

But that wasn't all. They had also been warned repeatedly by Dutroux's mother, who called her son an incorrigible "criminal", and by an informer who told them of Dutroux's intentions to abduct and sell young girls for commercial purposes, which, it has turned out, ranged from prostitution to pornographic films to, possibly, ritual sacrifice. (In Weinstein's house, Charleroi police officers found an undated letter that they believed was a request from a satanic cult for young women to serve as human sacrifices.)

According to the informer, Claude Thirault, who knew Dutroux, the police had known of Dutroux's intentions as early as the summer of 1993, when Thirault told them that Dutroux was constructing a basement bunker to hold the slender girls with long hair he had said he was seeking. (In fact, in 1993, police investigators noticed the construction but accepted Dutroux's explanation that he was building a new drainage system.) Dutroux offered Thirault up to 150,000 francs (pounds 2,700) - and even provided him with a crash course in child abduction: seize them from behind, place a sedative-soaked rag under the nose, then throw them in the back of the car, and make certain you have activated the child-proof safety locks. In June 1995, just days after Julie and Melissa disappeared, Thirault went to the police. "I reminded them of my report of two years ago, about the drains in the basement," Thirault says, "and told them they should check Dutroux if they wanted to get the two missing girls back."

Police documents confirm Thirault's claims. Sometime in 1994, under the code name Operation Othello, the Charleroi police put Dutroux under surveillance. By the summer of 1995, they finally got around to relaying the following information to other municipal police departments: "It has been reported to us that the suspect is intending to construct a prison cell in the basement of one of his houses in Charleroi, in which he is intending to keep children before selling them abroad."

Nevertheless, the police were alarmingly slow to respond to the disappearances of the young girls. A week after Julie and Melissa vanished, in June 1995, Martine Doutrewe, a public prosecutor for Liege who was charged with investigating their case, left for a month's vacation in Italy without having taken any action. That August, just days after An and Eefje were abducted, the Charleroi police issued a nationwide warning about Dutroux, noting his intentions and even providing a description and the license plate number of his van. The 24 August, 1995, dispatch was marked "Not urgent." Later that autumn, Charleroi police officers went to Dutroux's Marcinelle house to arrest him for car theft. While there, they heard the screaming of children - most likely Julie and Melissa - but accepted Dutroux's assurances that they were the voices of his own girls playing.

It's not surprising that Belgians' festering dismay with the authorities turned to rage when Connerotte was pulled from the investigation. The reason given was his "partiality": he had attended a fund-raising dinner for the victims' families. In Liege, firemen turned their hoses on the local court building in a symbolic act of cleansing. In Hasselt, marchers pelted the courthouse with potatoes and eggs. The following week, in response to a call from the victims' parents for a public commemoration of their murdered children, Belgians jammed the streets and squares of Brussels in mass protest. Amid a stunning sea of white balloons, white roses, white shirts and trousers and shoes, and the resounding silence of this speechless mass - the parents had requested that there be no chants, no slogans, no protests - there emerged more than solidarity and sympathy.

The "White March" is increasingly being seen as a pivotal moment, engendering a new political consciousness among the Belgians - le nouveau citoyen in the French-speaking south, de nieuwe burger in the Flemish north, and establishing the parents of the lost children as the vox populi. In addition to creating the Dutroux commission to investigate the bungled police investigation, the government tried to bolster public confidence by broadcasting the commission's proceedings live on national television. Like so much else the government has tried in the Dutroux affair, its efforts backfired spectacularly.

Just days before Christmas, Martine Doutrewe, looking composed and carefully coiffed, testified before the Dutroux commission. In front of television cameras, she categorically denied having been warned about Dutroux by the police, while a police officer insisted that she had been warned. Stonefaced, Verwilghen, the head of the commission, stared at the two and said: "One of you is not telling the truth. Let me remind both of you that you are testifying under oath. Do you stand by your statements?"

Although a full accounting must await the release of Verwilghen's report, Belgium is rife with theories of what went wrong. Some blame competition among police departments, which were reluctant to share information. Others blame a culture of bureaucratic arrogance that encouraged public officials to have little concern or regard for the citizens they are charged with protecting. Beyond the allegations of police insensitivity and incompetence, for which there seems to be overwhelming proof, it is widely speculated that Dutroux not only received protection from the police but that he may also have had links to government and business circles in Brussels.

On August 16, three days after Dutroux's arrest, Jean-Michel Nihoul, a notorious Brussels businessman, was arrested and accused of kidnapping and sequestration of children. In the ensuing weeks, the police rounded up more than 10 additional suspects on charges ranging from car theft to criminal association to rape and murder. Among those arrested were two Nihoul associates: his former companion Annie Bouty, a disbarred lawyer, who was charged with criminal association, and Marleen De Cockere, another former companion, who was accused of drug trafficking as well as criminal association. Bouty and De Cockere have been released from custody but still face trial, as does Nihoul, who is currently serving a three-year sentence on an unrelated matter.

The possibility of a connection between Nihoul and Dutroux has proved a particularly rich source of speculation. He was known in the 1980s for his lavish parties - supposedly attended by prominent businessmen, lawyers, doctors and government officials - at a magnificent rented chateau in the Ardennes. These events are said to have included "carnality shows" and, often, orgies that were regularly videotaped by Nihoul.

Following Nihoul's arrest in August, the police searched his residence and secured 300 videos, some said to contain footage of high-society figures and others of child pornography. Last autumn, segments of one such video showing a middle-aged man beating a 9-year-old were broadcast on the German television network RTL.

Nihoul denies any involvement with Dutroux, but he doesn't deny his sexual interests. "He is an orgy enthusiast - it's no secret," his lawyer, Virginie Baranyanka, admitted in the autumn. "But they take place only with consenting adults." Nor does Nihoul deny his connections to senior government officials. "I had excellent contacts in political circles," he said recently. "I often acted as an intermediary with the Justice Minister for people who wanted visas or reductions in their sentences. I had connections of the sort one does not talk about."

Although investigators have yet to establish a clear link between Dutroux and government officials - either as consumers or protectors - some Belgians are saying that the worst is yet to come. "They have Dutroux and they have the bodies of the girls," says Jeroen Wils, a crime reporter with one of Belgium's leading Flemish-language newspapers Het Nieuwsblad. "Phase one is finished, but there will now be a new explosion. If the information we have is correct, it will make Dutroux look like a small potato. If there are members of the government involved in this, I don't know what the reaction is going to be. You have seen the White March. The people have had enough of scandals."

In Belgium last month, Belgians were still shaking their heads about Doutrewe's televised testimony and the police were excavating abandoned mine shafts near Charleroi where Dutroux had said they might find something "interesting". As of early February, no human remains had been found. Paul Marchal was again sending tremors across the political landscape. In the autumn, he publicly demanded that the prime minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Virginia. Dehaene went. In December, Marchal said, in interview with a German newspaper, that the parents of the lost children were contemplating the creation of a "White Party", a populist movement that would clean up Belgium. Within days, Dehaene appeared on television to tell the nation that he did not fear Paul Marchal and his "Witte Partij".

That was before he checked the polls. A recent survey indicated that, given the opportunity, as much as 56 per cent of the French-speaking population would vote for the "blancs". In the French-speaking south, where on a good day the dominant party in the ruling coalition commands more than 30 per cent of the electorate, and where 80 per cent of the population expresses a strong distrust of government, Marchal and the other parents of murdered children hold an extraordinary, if unofficial, political mandate. In the press, they have become known as the "white shadow cabinet".

I arrived at Marchal's home on a bright but bitter January morning, 10 minutes ahead of the daily post - two armloads of letters and packages, nearly 200 in all, but far fewer, Marchal said, than the 70,000 he received in the autumn. Marchal laid the letters on the table and immediately gleaned from the pile a simple brown envelope. It was from the Belgian tax authorities. As he opened the letter and glanced down a row of figures, Marchal remarked, "They can't find your daughter, but they always know where to look when they want your tax money."

Throughout the morning and afternoon, Marchal's phone rang incessantly. The tape machine picked up and recorded the messages. As we talked, Marchal monitored the calls, half listening to the messages. There was a call informing him that a song about missing children produced by Marchal as a fund-raising device had reached number 12 in the hit parade of a Belgian radio station. There were several calls for interviews. At one point, a woman, speaking in a low, strained voice, said that her 14-year-old daughter disappeared three days before, that she had reported the incident to the police, but wanted to know if Marchal could age ended, Marchal noted the phone number and immediately returned her call on the cellular phone he keeps in his pocket. He listened carefully to her story, then told her to collect as many photographs of her daughter as she could and come and see him that evening.

When Marchal hung up, he fell silent and stared for a moment at the table. At 3 o'clock our discussions were again interrupted. A Belgian television team had arrived.

In the interview that followed, Marchal, seated on his living-room sofa, unleashed a tirade against the lethargy of the Belgian government. He complained that politicians were still dragging their feet on necessary reforms, noting that last autumn the government was able to cobble together a law to help a minister involved in a recent scandal but that after months the necessary reforms to protect children remained incomplete. He talked about the urgent need to create a European centre for missing children, similar to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia and about eliminating the statute of limitations on crimes against children. "As the law now stands, a criminal cannot be prosecuted after 10 years," Marchal said. "A child must live with these crimes the rest of its life."

Marchal noted that the people of Belgium are no longer "powerless" or "apathetic", and that, if necessary, he would again summon them to the streets. "The next time I will call another White March and at least half a million people will be there," he said. "The next time, in front of the cameras, I will ask the politicians to keep their word." And as for the White Party? "I am convinced that if we create a White Party now, 70 per cent of the people would vote for us. I am convinced that if we do it in two years that we would get 80 to 90 per cent."

It is unrealistic to assume that a White Party, if created, could ever achieve such a broad mandate, but there is a basic truth underlying Marchal's exaggerated expectations. The political system has been shaken to its core and a new political consciousness has emerged. Like American politics after Watergate, la politique apres Dutroux in Belgium will never be the same

The New York Times Magazine 1997