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Belgium opens old war wounds

MORE THAN 50 years after the Allied liberation of Belgium, the country's two linguistic communities, the Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons, are embroiled in a rancorous feud over who collaborated with the Nazis, and more compellingly, why.

Words like "complicity", "traitor" and "pariah" reverberate once more around towns and villages as a result of moves by the regional parliament in Flanders to award cash compensation to Flemish men and women convicted as collaborators after the war.

Parliament's vote has reopened a traumatic chapter in Belgium's history, causing deep offence to many Walloons and unleashing what local newspapers have called the "demons" of ethnic and linguistic tension seething beneath the surface of Belgian life.

To add insult to injury, the vote was only passed with support from an extreme right-wing Flemish separatist party, the Vlaams Blok.

The compensation bill, known as the Suykerbuyk law, after the Flemish Christian Democrat MP who campaigned for it, could still be overturned by the courts. The Walloon government, which runs the southern, French- speaking part of the country, Francophone political parties, the Walloon parliament, and the Walloon cities of Dinant and Bastogne, where memories of wartime bombardment are bitterest, have all joined forces to launch a legal challenge. The Belgian senate last week said it would ask the courts to have the measure declared unconstitutional, as only the federal government can legislate for war-time matters.

The sense of outrage the bill has awoken may never heal. "Our own people have seen fit to inflict on us a shame more abject than that of the SS," said Arthur Haulot, a Walloon veteran.

"Let us not forget that of the 70,000 Belgian prisoners of war, 67,000 were Walloon, only 3,000 were Flemish," Jose Happart, a Walloon Socialist MP said.

The bill aims to soften the last remaining effects of the harsh laws concerning "repression of collaboration", which were enacted after the war. Mr Suykerbuyk, the bill's sponsor, insists the change is long overdue. "We should have done it 20 years ago," he told The Independent. The law would give a token state handout worth around pounds 400 a year to surviving "victims of repression" and their immediate families for the rest of their lives.

To claim this aid, they would have to prove both that their collaboration was small-scale, and that they were impoverished as a direct result of the punishment meted out in the post-war years.

Almost half a million Belgians were investigated for alleged collaboration with the Nazis after the war. Three thousand were condemned to death by military courts. Most had their sentences commuted to prison terms. But 242 went in front of the firing squads.

Tens of thousands of others, many of them Flemish, were branded as collaborators, were jailed or fined and lost their civil rights and property. To this day there are men and women who, thanks to delays, still cannot claim a pension, although they may have been pardoned by the appeal courts in the 1960s.

Collaborators have endured decades of ostracisationMr Suykerbuyk insists that allowing people to claim the handout will not rewrite history: "It does not in any way change the fact that they were convicted as collaborators."

But the Walloons see the measure as an amnesty for Nazis and a victory for the extreme right in Flanders. Flemish nationalism, is now more than ever linked in Walloon minds with the far right.

The Walloon collective memory venerates the notion of French speakers as heroic members and supporters of the underground resistance. True, there were a few high-profile French-speaking acolytes of Hitler in the 1930s, such as Leon Degrelle, the founder of the fascist Rexist movement, but the belief is that there was little grassroots sympathy among Walloons for the Nazis.

Flemings dispute this. They point out that Flemish cities such as Gent and Antwerp were important centres in the resistance. "Not all Walloons were in the resistance and not all Flemings were collaborators," Mr Suykerbuyk says.

But on the Flemish side there is also an ambivalence about the whole concept of collaboration. Their philosophy is that it has to be seen in context. "If you took a job from the German battalion stationed in your village, does that make you a Nazi?" Mr Suykerbuyk asked. "For many it was a question ofhow to put bread on the table."

The problem is that there were many card-carrying Flemish Nazis, not to mention sympathisers. The wartime Vlaams National Verbond (Flemish national Union) campaigned for the union of Germany, Holland and Flanders. They encouraged Flemish people to guard bridges against saboteurs and join the German army on the eastern Front. There were outright Flemish Nazis, such as Jef Van de Wiele, and a Flemish branch of the SS, whose members flooded the police and gendarmerie in Belgium the early days of the Occupation.

What the present row has exposed is the fact that many Flemings in 1939 did not see their refusal to defend a country run by a French-speaking elite as "betrayal". They felt no allegiance to a land where their language and rights were suppressed. Many did not know which was worse - the French- speakers who ran the country, or the Germans, who they hoped would at least redress Flemish grievances.

Hugo Schiltz, a former Belgian deputy prime minister and a leading member of the Volksunie, a moderate Flemish party, says: "The real problem is the blinkered Walloon attitude: Francophones still cannot admit that Flemish collaboration was due in part to the injustices of the time. They go on insisting that Flemish nationalism and Nazism shared the same hideous face."