A country brought low by horror

The murder of children causes panic and disgust unlike any other crime. In Britain, we have seen it bring about spasms of moral self-examination . But recent events in Belgium have shown us a society veering towards self- destruction. Sarah Helm reports

Only the sound of a pick, tapping away through rubble, breaks the silence along the main street of Sars-la-Buissiere. A lone villager has ventured out to tend his allotment, alongside a dump of rusting trailers and cars. All other inhabitants have gone away or are shuttered inside their red brick terraced homes. Ring a bell and a dog barks. The villagers here have had enough of the digging. They have seen what has been exhumed in the heart of their tiny community, near the industrial town of Charleroi, in southern Belgium, and they have recoiled in horror.

For days the picks and the shovels dug away at the house of Marc Dutroux in the village square, before finally unearthing the bodies of Julie and Melissa, the eight-year-old victims of Dutroux's murdering paedophile ring. "Julie and Melissa", the names of the girls, are always uttered like that, softly, without surnames, as a couple.

Then the picks set to work at Jumet, on the outskirts of Charleroi, where An and Eefje, 17 and 19, were unearthed. Now, suddenly, it seems as if picks and shovels are digging all over Belgium. Even in Ixelles, a very bourgeois neighbourhood in the heart of Brussels, they are digging, expecting any moment to find the body of nine-year-old Loubna at 35 Rue du Conseil.

For many Belgians, it has come as no surprise that the search has moved to the centre of the capital itself. It is here that the politicians live. It is here the parliament sits, and the most powerful judges and police chiefs hold sway. From the moment the Dutroux horror was uncovered, accusation has been levelled at the Belgian authorities in a frenzy of blame and recrimination. There have been strong rumours of complicity and cover up of the Dutroux paedophile ring and its clientele at the highest level, and persistent reports of Mafia links and an international organised trade in child sex.

The outpourings have at times sounded like the ravings of mass hysteria, to be expected perhaps from a deeply shocked and saddened society. But an extraordinary twist in the drama at the weekend suggested that something of this collective paranoia may have been justified. Photographs of yet another corpse were splashed across the Belgian newspapers. This time it was not a child victim. It was Andre Cools, a former deputy prime minister, shot dead in 1991 outside his home, apparently by Mafia-style gangsters. The Cools case, never solved, burst back into the news because arrests connected with his murder were suddenly announced at the weekend: they are believed to have been made as a result of evidence given by suspects interrogated in the Dutroux case. Thus one of Belgium's greatest political scandals has become inextricably linked with the country's most cruel and grotesque crime. Belgium is now reeling and the digging for children's bodies has become a macabre metaphor for digging into the body politic of Belgium itself.

To those who observe Belgium from afar, the story of the Dutroux sex ring appears perhaps to be simply one of those grotesque tragedies which can unfold anywhere, at any time. Like the Fred West case, such horror is bound to produce nightmares, and Belgium has long had a penchant for the surreal. As for the associated corruption scandal, well, what's new, outsiders might ask. Belgian government has long been synonymous in many eyes with corrupt dealing. Yet there is something uniquely traumatic and shattering about the manner in which this drama is unfolding.

Everywhere they look, Belgians see evidence of the macabre. Last week we learned about the "cannibal cafe", where three bodies were found in a restaurant's deep freezer. The case was unconnected to the Dutroux affair, but in Belgium today every suspicion appears to be part of the mass trauma: such is the atmosphere that commentators appear to believe it portends some fatal rupture in the state itself.

Belgium has long learned to accept its image as a dull little country, but it likes to believe nevertheless that it is ordered and secure, and promote an image of a mature democracy in the European club. Yet the Dutroux affair has exposed once again the growing frailty of a state divided between Flemish north and French-speaking south. The affair has exposed appalling rivalry between federal and regional institutions, police forces and justice authorities, which are held partly to blame for the failure to act earlier against Dutroux.

Even King Albert has been caught in the crossfire. "The people we have elected have done this. Even the King didn't help," said a man standing staring at the murder scene last week. Unable to unify his country in its hour of need, the King was not invited to the funeral of Julie and Melissa - both from French-speaking families. The reason given by the families was that the King had failed to help the parents when they pleaded for help during the search. It is also true that many in the French-speaking community are dubbing King Albert the "Flemish King" because he is accused of giving more attention to the north.

Belgians are asking whether a workable social fabric can really be maintained across the French and Flemish-speaking divide. Belgium is also a country that wants desperately to be part of the European pack, and proudly plays host to the European Union institutions and to Nato. Yet while the bureaucrats in Brussels talk of Europol and cross-border policing, the Dutroux affair has cast a spotlight on Mafia crime, burgeoning here in the heart of border- free Europe, just 30 miles down the road. While Belgium long ago recognised it lacked international clout, it has tried hard to compensate by maintaining outward respectability and general decency. Yet now the rot of corruption at the heart of the state is about to be exposed as never before, thanks - grotesquely - to Marc Dutroux and the evils unearthed around Sars- la- Buissiere.

Sars-la-Buissiere is a desolate village lying in a desolate landscape, scarred by slag heaps, the relics of old mines left behind a time when this region of Wallonia was a booming industrial heartland. At first glance it is too easy to see how the gruesome trade of Dutroux might have gone unnoticed in such a community. It is a place where everyone is doing something on the side to get by, where every car parked on the street seems to be on sale as a "bargain". And here as elsewhere in Belgium, people, on the whole, like to mind their own business. "We don't like to meddle in other people's affairs. We don't like to ask questions," admitted Andree Durieux, who runs the only bar here.

At first glance, it is also easy to imagine that the discovery of the child sex ring in such a run-down area would provide easy explanations, to explain, as a terrible consequence of a economic decline. The paint is peeling off the sign which was once the co-operative protection society. Although the richer Flemish communities to the north have been careful - so far - not to claim one-upmanship in the Dutroux affair, the under- currents are clear. Dutroux was from Wallonia. Not from Flanders. The Flemish nationalists want to break away from the French speaking south precisely because of the deprivation in places like Sars-la-Buissiere, which they claim drains Flemish coffers.

But the geographical location of the Dutroux crimes is significant also for the wider developments in Belgium's fast developing political corruption scandal. Located near Charleroi, the Dutroux child-sex ring was bound to have had tentacles reaching into the organised crime. Thousands of Italians poured into this area to work in the mines in the Fifties and Sixties and many have remained, creating a seedbed for Sicilian gangs wanting a foothold in Europe. What better place for organised criminals to exploit freedom of movement in the European Union than from southern Belgium, where EU aid funds pour in to regional coffers, and roads and rail provide ready links with the big ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp. Charleroi is already known as a European narcotics black spot, and gun hold-ups are increasingly common.

It has not yet been established how Dutroux distributed his pornography or who helped him to draw up his list of clients. Nor has it been established how far his ring spread or whether an international trade in teenage girls was operating, as has been alleged, to eastern Europe. But here, near Charleroi, Dutroux would have been readily able to draw on organised crime networks.

No sooner had the Belgium public begun to understand the likely links between Dutroux and organised crime, than they realised the wider implications for the entire Belgian political class. Several major political corruption scandals in Belgium have been spawned in these regions of Wallonia, and leading political figures in the Belgian socialist party, and regional and national government, have been accused of having links to the organised criminals. Despite resignations and periodic public outbursts of protest, the justice authorities have never really got to grips with the endemic corruption in the Belgian political system. Ordinary people have learned to live with it as a part of life. The greatest outstanding Belgian political mystery has long been the unsolved murder of Andre Cools, whose heartland was Liege in Wallonia.

Cools was shot dead at his home in 1991, and it has long been suspected that he was eliminated by political rivals, working with Mafia gangsters, because he had threatened to clean out the political rot. At the week- end five arrests were made in connection with the Cools case. Among the names of those rounded up was Alain Van de Biest, a socialist minister in the Wallonia regional government. And under suspicion are several Italians with known links to the Sicilian Mafia. The investigation into the Dutroux murders has also brought forward Italian Mafia names, including Mauro di Santis. Di Santis's name is also on the wanted list in the Cools murder investigation.

How far the Dutroux case may prove to have been connected to organised crime and high-level political corruption remains to be proven. But the confidence of an entire society is being ruptured further by the day.

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