In Divided Belgium, Some Find That Trauma Unites Them

Mar 28, 2016
Originally published on March 28, 2016 2:24 pm

Turn on the radio in Belgium and you get news of the terrorist attacks in French and in Dutch. Belgium is divided into Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. There's a German-speaking area, too.

To make things more complicated, Brussels, the capital, is subdivided into 19 municipalities, each with its own government. And there are six local police forces.

It all adds up to a decentralized system, a dismantled federal state. And in light of last week's attacks, some have even gone so far as to suggest Belgium is a failed state.

Longtime Belgian political observer and writer Geert van Istendael flatly rejects this.

"Libya is a failed state. Somalia is a failed state. It's not comparable. Belgium is doing well. It's making mistakes. And I'm one of the most vociferous critics of Belgium," he says.

As van Istandael puts it, "there's something rotten in the state of Belgium."

For starters, the lack of communication between the various secret services. A shrunken federal police force and impoverished justice system, casualties of decentralization.

"This, of course, is now causing problems to cope with, completely new challenges and problems and new dangers. The danger is there. We knew it," he says.

As for whom to blame, along with the federal failures, van Istandael includes local politicians around Brussels who ignored the rising tide of radicalism in their midst.

"They looked away. They didn't want to face problems," he says of the politicians. "They looked away and some people said, 'Yes, there is a societal problem, of integration and now there's a radicalization going on.' They said, 'You're a racist.'"

That's all hindsight. For now, van Istandael is struck by something he didn't expect:

"These attacks unified Belgians. It's very surprising to me. We are the country of division. That's our reputation in the world. But somehow – these guys who attacked us and killed foreigners and Belgians — these guys will not disunite us."

For the past week, in the heart of Brussels, people have left bouquets, cards and stuffed animals at a makeshift memorial in front of the city's stock exchange.

Christophe de Valensart, who is helping his daughter Thais, 7, light a votive candle, says he brought her here to show that people are capable of love. United against barbarism, as he puts it.

People have draped the stock exchange with dozens of flags from all over the world.

De Valensart picks his daughter up in his arms and reminds her of the first question she asked when she saw the memorial: why are there so many flags?

He reminds his daughter, "I told you that in our country, there are a lot of cultures. It's multi-cultural. And in our country, that's what makes us rich."

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Last week's terrorist attacks in Belgium have highlighted major weaknesses in the country's security system. Key players in the bombing and the November attacks in Paris were part of a known extremist network centered in Brussels. Many blame a dysfunctional, fractured Belgian government. They say key intelligence was not shared and dots were never connected. From Brussels, NPR's Melissa Block reports.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Turn on the radio here and you'll get news of the terrorist attacks in French.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking French).

BLOCK: And in Dutch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Dutch).

BLOCK: Belgium is divided into Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. There's a German-speaking area, too. To make things more confusing, Brussels, the capital, is subdivided into 19 municipalities, each with its own government, and there are six local police forces. It all adds up to a decentralized system, a dismantled federal state. And in light of these attacks, some say Belgium is a failed state. Longtime Belgian political observer and writer Geert van Istendael flatly calls that stupid.

GEERT VAN ISTENDAEL: Libya is a failed state. Somalia is a failed state. It's not comparable. Belgium is doing well. It's making mistakes, and I'm one of the most vociferous critics of Belgium.

BLOCK: As van Istendael puts it, there's something rotten in the state of Belgium. For starters, the lack of communication between the various secret services - a shrunken federal police force and impoverished justice system, casualties of decentralization.

VAN ISTENDAEL: This, of course, is now causing problems to cope with completely new challenges and new problems and new dangers. The danger is there. We knew it.

BLOCK: Is it fair to say - is the criticism fair that balls were dropped, connections were not made in the investigation...

VAN ISTENDAEL: Yeah.

>>BLOCK ...That these were people who were known, were on lists, were living here...

VAN ISTENDAEL: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...In the heart of the city and they were not stopped?

VAN ISTENDAEL: That's a fair criticism, yes.

BLOCK: As for whom to blame, along with the federal failures, Geert van Istendael includes local politicians around Brussels who ignored the rising tide of radicalism in their midst.

VAN ISTENDAEL: They looked away. They didn't want to face the problems. And if some people said, yes, but there is a problem, there is a societal problem, there is a problem of integration and now there's a radicalization going on, they said you were a racist.

BLOCK: That's all hindsight. For now, van Istendael is struck by something he didn't expect.

VAN ISTENDAEL: These attacks unified Belgians. That's very surprising to me. We are the country of division. That's our reputation in the world. But somehow, these guys who attacked us and killed foreigners and Belgians - these guys will not disunite us.

BLOCK: For the past week in the heart of Brussels, people have left bouquets, cards and stuffed animals at a makeshift memorial in front of the city's stock exchange. And it's there this morning that I find Christophe de Valensart helping his 7-year-old daughter, Thais, light a votive candle. He tells me he brought her here to show that people are capable of love, united against barbarism, as he puts it. People have draped the stock exchange with dozens of flags from all over the world - Turkey, Tunisia, England, Senegal. De Valensart picks his daughter up in his arms and reminds her of the first question she asked him when she saw the memorial.

CHRISTOPHE DE VALENSART: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: She wanted to know, why are there so many flags?

DE VALENSART: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: He reminds his daughter, I told you that in our country there are a lot of cultures. It's multicultural and in our country, that's what makes us rich.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

THAIS: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.