'We've lost a generation. Part of us has been sawn off'

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John Lichfield visits the Belgian town where the loss of 22 children, including one British boy, in a coach crash is slowly sinking in

In front of St Joseph's church in Kolonie-Lommel there is a war memorial which calls on passers-by to “remember forever” the “children of this village” who were killed in the 1914-18 war. Twenty yards to the left, outside the neat, low buildings of the Stekske elementary school, another memorial grew like weed yesterday: a 40-yard-long carpet of flowers, balloons, children's drawings, poems, candles and teddy bears.

One drawing showed a five-year-old's sketch of mountains and a shattered bus, surrounded by 15 names. "Nicolas, Amy, Emily, Bart, Joren, Luc, Eline, Emma, Roma, Emma, Michiel, Ilana, Kevin, Cor, Jennifer ... We zullen jullie missen [We will miss you all]," the drawing said.

Kolonie-Lommel, a neat, wooded, suburban village of 3,000 people, running along the Belgian-Dutch border, has once again been left to mourn a lost generation of children. This time, fate has dealt the village an even more savage blow than the ravages of war.

There are 10 names on the 1914-18 war memorial. Of the 22 children aged 11 and 12 killed in a coach crash in Switzerland on Tuesday night, 15 came from a single class, Class 6, at Stekske. The seven other members of the class were injured, and two staff were killed. "To lose almost a whole class, a whole generation of kids who grew up together in this school and in the streets and lanes around here, is incomprehensible," said Mark, a 36-year-old Dutch engineer, whose two children added colourful drawings to the pile beside the school railings yesterday.

"Many of the families here are Dutch, like me, who have crossed the border for better, or cheaper, houses. But, whether Belgian or Dutch, this is a very tight, very friendly community and this is a very friendly school. Even if we had no loved ones on the coach, it is like part of ourselves has been sawn away."

All the older children at Stekske have to adopt an official friend, or "buddy", from the younger classes. Mark's six-year-old son, Jesse, lost his much-loved 12-year-old "buddy" in the still unexplained crash near Sierre, in the Swiss Alps. "The youngest children, like Jesse, haven't really grasped the meaning yet," Mark said. "To them, it as if Class 6 is still away on its ski holiday. For the adults, for the parents especially, the pain, the real pain, is just starting."

Belgium, a much divided country, was united, at least briefly, in its grief yesterday for the 28 victims of the Sierre disaster. The entire nation, Flemings and Walloons, Dutch-speakers and French-speakers, natives and immigrants, paused for one minute at 11am to remember the dead.

Outside the town hall in the main town of Lommel, six miles south of Kolonie-Lommel, 200 people, including town hall staff and passers-by, held hands in a silent line. Several of the women wore Islamic headscarves. When the silence ended, Frank, a 43-year-old Dutch-speaker, gave an interview in halting, tearful French to a Belgian francophone TV crew. "It is almost impossible to find something that brings Belgium together, but this terrible accident has done that," he said. "Maybe, who knows, it may do us some good."

The bodies of the 28 victims – 22 children, four teachers and two bus drivers – were flown home yesterday in two Belgian Air Force C-130 transport aircraft. Another 28 children were injured. All returned on Thursday or yesterday, except for four who remain critically ill in hospitals in Switzerland. Seven of the dead children came from a second primary school, Sint-Lambertus at Heverlee, near Louvain. One was named yesterday as Sebastian Bowles, 11, who was half-British and half-Belgian. His family moved to Louvain from Crouch End in north London two years ago.

The ski holiday or "snow class" for children in the final year of primary school is a long tradition in France and Belgium: a kind of rite of passage to secondary school. The cause of the coach disaster, as the two school groups started their journey home on Tuesday, remains a mystery. The brand new coach collided head-on with a wall in a safety-area within a motorway tunnel.

Motorway cameras indicate that the coach was travelling at no more than 70kph, well within the speed limit. No other vehicle was involved. There have been reports that some of the surviving children had seen the driver trying to fit a disc into a DVD player just before the crash. These reports, implying that the driver might have lost control while fitting the disc, were all but dismissed by Swiss authorities yesterday. They pointed out that the coach was split-level and that passengers therefore could not easily see the driver. No trace of alcohol was found in the driver's blood and a post mortem uncovered no signs of a heart attack.

The sprawling town of Lommel, population 30,000, has been stunned by the disaster. Mieke Rimboldt, 50, who came to pay her respects outside the school yesterday, said: "This is a very mixed community, Belgians and Dutch and some Germans, but it is a young population, with lots of kids. Everyone here is suffering as if these poor children were from our own family, though none of us can imagine what the parents are suffering." Lommel was originally a hardscrabble glass-making town. Some of the most elaborate and specialised glass in the world is still made here. In recent years, the area has become more prosperous and suburban as young Dutch families have crossed the border from Eindhoven in search of better homes and bigger gardens.

Kolonie-Lommel, the part of the town nearest to the border, is 40 per cent populated by emigrants from the Netherlands. Of the 15 local children killed in Switzerland, nine were Belgian and six were Dutch. The website of Stekske school boasts its ability to make children from all backgrounds feel at home (stekske in colloquial Dutch or Flemish means, roughly speaking, "little stake" or "little piece of territory").

"Stekske is a school where we do everything to make you feel good," the website says. "A kindergarten and a primary school where every child gets what it deserves, where each child can find his stek. Your own space, your own place. A Stekske for everyone!"

Mark, the Dutch engineer, said: "This is a wonderful school and village. I came here from the Netherlands because I feel freer here. There's more space, more trees. People are friendlier. Every time I cross the border coming home from work, I feel I'm going on holiday. All of that makes this disaster more painful. But it will also, I hope, help us to recover as a community, even if nothing can help a parent who has lost a child."

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