Magazine article The Spectator

A Country to Die For

Magazine article The Spectator

A Country to Die For

Article excerpt

THE stately matrons of Brussels hug themselves a little tighter and clutch their snappy Yorkshire terriers more closely to their bosoms as they wait in the queues at the butchers or the bakers at Ixelles and Saint Gilles these days. Every week, it seems, there is another murder here; every day a new revelation, each more gruesome than the last. Bourgeois, comfortable, complacent little Belgium, much to its consternation, is rapidly becoming the murder capital of the world.

Recently Pastor Pandy has been filling the news. A portly, septuagenarian Hungarian clergyman - with an unnerving resemblance to Les Dawson in drag - he is being interrogated over the disappearance of two wives and four of his eight children. Having discovered human bones in the basement of one of his three houses in a seedy street by a canal in central Brussels, and some unidentified meat in his fridge, the authorities have now moved on to his second address to search for more. The press, which has already decided Pandy is a Belgian Bluebeard, speculates gloomily that, besides knocking off his family, he may also have enticed middleaged Hungarian women to his lair with tales of the bright lights of Brussels.

Pandy, though, is not the only one. There is also Patrick Derochette, a petrolpump attendant and convicted sex offender, who was discovered earlier this year to have the mummified body of a nine-yearold Moroccan girl inside a trunk in a cellar of the garage where he worked. Then there is the `Butcher of Mons', who has been industriously leaving bits of his victims stuffed into plastic shopping-bags at appropriately named addresses, such as Worry Street, around the town.

Last but not least, glowering in his prison cell in Neufchateau, is Marc Dutroux, a bodger builder from the southern industrial town of Charleroi, who seems to have been engaged in child abduction and murder on an almost industrial scale. When he was caught in August last year, two teenage girls were freed from captivity in a purpose-built cell in his cellar, but the bodies of four more girls, including two eight-year-olds, were found buried in the back garden, along with the body of a former associate.

Belgium is not supposed to be like this; the crime wave sometimes seems unstoppable. A fortnight ago even the European Commission had to admit the police to one of its creches for the children of its employees because two of the staff were suspected of paedophile activity.

Belgium has always seen itself as a quiet, devout, prosperous and civilised Catholic country, where people are nice to children. Disapproving old ladies reprove you if your child slips your hand in the supermarket. But it is now learning some hard truths about its society and, more particularly, about its institutions and their way of doing things that are making most Belgians feel distinctly uncomfortable.

It is becoming apparent that the Belgian magistracy, which is responsible for investigating crimes, and the country's police forces -- there are three separate ones simply cannot cope. They have not solved a major crime for years, and some of their investigations make the Keystone Cops look like models of efficiency. A parliamentary report earlier this year accused the police of ineptitude in their hunt for Dutroux, who was eventually caught only because of the vigilance of a sharp-eyed nun and a schoolboy when he tried to kidnap one child too many. …

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