Terror in the park
A racially-inspired shooting spree last week which left two people dead -- including a toddler -- and one seriously hurt has refocused Belgian public attention on the issue of urban violence and racism, reports Khaled Diab from Brussels
Last Thursday, Hans Van Themsche (18), armed with ê500 in cash, stepped into a gun shop and purchased a hunting rifle, a day after he'd been expelled from boarding school, where he was studying to become an animal carer, for smoking in the dormitory.
According to his own testimony, he then went hunting for immigrants in Belgium's second city Antwerp. His first victim was a Turkish woman, Sonhul Koç (46), who was sitting on a park bench reading her book in the midmorning quiet. Van Themsche shot her in the back, at a distance of six metres. Her condition is critical.
Moments later, Oulemata Niangadou (24), an au pair from Mali, had the misfortune to cross the teenage shooter's path. She was out walking Luna, the two-and-a-half-year-old Belgian girl whom she looked after. Van Themsche shot them both in the back. Neither survived.
The four-minute shooting spree (between 11.49 and 11.53) was brought to an end by a cool-headed police officer who shot Van Themsche in the stomach after he refused to put down his weapon.
During his interrogation in hospital, Van Themsche confirmed that his rampage was racially motivated. He also appeared to be on a suicide mission. According to news reports, he had confided in a fellow student that he was planning to take his own life if he got kicked out of school but "not without taking 10 foreigners with him".
His parents reacted with disbelief. "He must've lost his mind," concluded his father, Peter Van Themsche, in a newspaper interview. "We cannot stress enough how awful we feel for the families of the victims... We're sorry."
The father said that his son would not shoot people because of their race. "He had friends of foreign origin," his father insisted. "I have African friends."
Despite his protestations, commentators have highlighted the fact that Peter Van Themsche is a loyal militant of the extreme right Vlaams Belang (VB) and his sister (Hans's aunt) is VB parliamentarian Frida Van Themsche. This is the latest in a series of violent episodes linked directly or indirectly to the ultra-nationalist party.
The VB -- whose mainstream ambitions have led it in recent years to sound a more moderate and media- savvy message, while keeping its militant support base out of the public eye -- has washed its hands of any responsibility. "Skinheads and extremists are not welcome in the party," Frank Vanhecke, party chairman, told the De Standaard newspaper.
Many politicians from across the political spectrum and minority groups thought otherwise. Around 1,000 demonstrators massed outside the Brussels headquarters of the VB to protest against "the dangerous politics of the far right" and some 150 Africans took part in a memorial march in Antwerp.
Antwerp, a wealthy port city and diamond centre with fairly widespread inner city poverty, is the main stronghold of the VB, where it clocks up a third of the vote. Regionally, the party gets just over 20 per cent. Experts attribute its popularity to a mix of racial prejudice, particularly amongst is core supporters, growing financial and economic insecurity, dissatisfaction with the Belgian political landscape, and the desire among large numbers of Flemings for more autonomy or full independence for Flanders.
Ergun Top, a Christian-Democrat politician of Turkish descent, accused the VB of being indirectly to blame by demonising immigrants. Geert De Bruecker, a criminal psychologist, likened the role of the VB to that of firearms. The party does not directly cause people to kill, but it gives ammunition to those on the edge.
"Now the Vlaams Belang are talking about a '[lone] psychopath', but had the perpetrator been an immigrant, then the whole [immigrant] community would have been held responsible," noted Fouad Ahidar, a Flemish member of the Brussels regional parliament, who is of Moroccan descent.
Precisely that occurred last month, when Joe Van Holsbeeck, a teenager, was stabbed to death for his MP3 player in the middle of rush hour in the main hall of Brussels' busiest train station. VB politicians were quick to point the finger at the apparent North African origin of the attackers (they eventually turned out to be Poles).
In response, Ahidar called on the Moroccan community to come forward with any information it had. He was also behind the idea for the 'white march' which drew some 90,000 sympathisers from all backgrounds.
A similar event is planned for Friday 26 May. It was originally proposed by the parents of Mohamed Bouazza, who disappeared on 1 May and was fished out of the Schelde river last week, an apparent victim of racism. The 'march against violence' is expected to draw tens of thousands of well-wishers from the general public, Belgium's various ethnic groups, political parties and unions.
As a sign of collective grief, Antwerp's cultural institutions plan to wrap ribbons around many of the city's landmarks and have asked everyone to wear a white badge on the day.