Last week the bodies of the missing Belgian stepsisters Nathalie and Stacy were found. Comparisons with the notorious Belgian paedophile Marc Dutroux were inevitable, and in the wake of a series of senseless acts of violence, crime is once again headline news in Belgium. The Prime Minister, Verhofstadt, has suggested stiffer punishments, but Belgian student Loes Mertens believes that it is above all a social problem.
Loes came to Wageningen to study when she was seventeen, as the Netherlands has a reputation for a high level in environmental sciences. Another reason was not to have to undergo the stress of the Belgian university system, where you do exams once a year in all subjects. She wanted to study in a more relaxed way, but after a year of Environmental Sciences she left for Africa by car. ‘Paris-Dakar in five months,’ as she puts it. After a period of voluntary work in Mauritania and learning a lot about Land Rover mechanics on the way, she returned to Droevendaal in Wageningen and started a degree in Organic Production Sciences. Whether she regards the Netherlands as home? ‘If I say I’m going home, I mean Droevendaal.’
‘Sometimes it seems as though people are more outraged by something that happens close to home than when atrocities occur in faraway places,’ Loes starts cautiously on the subject that she would rather was not so strongly identified with Belgium. ‘It surprises me that the awful things that happen nearby are blown up so much in comparison with horrors that take place in far off countries. But I suppose people perhaps feel connected in an indirect way to what happens close at hand, and perhaps there is a feeling that it is easier to do something about these dreadful issues.’ People seem to find it more difficult to identify with something that happens far away. I hope the realisation that violence occurs on our doorstep will also lead to an increased feeling of responsibility among the public.
After all the media attention surrounding the arrest of the Belgian paedophile Marc Dutroux ten years ago, Belgium is now often regarded as synonymous with sexual offences in the foreign press. ‘The question arises of course whether this stigma is justified,’ ponders Loes, ‘After all offences of this nature are committed everywhere and not just in Belgium.’
‘But the Belgian press is also devoting an awful lot of attention to the story, and people talk about it all the time,’ she continues. ‘There have been a number incidences of public violence in recent weeks, so naturally there is a lot of attention focused on violence at the moment. But despite the fact that many are quick to draw the conclusion that it is a race problem, the Belgian media is quite discrete in its reporting. The Belgians are more discrete than the Dutch in this kind of discussion I find.’
Loes has most difficulty with the reactions from political circles. The Belgian prime minister wants to make changes to the law concerning the rehabilitation of prisoners, so that the ministry of justice can detain them longer, but Loes thinks that this approach avoids the main issue. ‘Don’t they see that violent crime is a social problem, is my reaction when I hear these arguments. Most people who commit violent crimes come from a background where this kind of behaviour is common and is reinforced. If you want to do something about the problem you have to do something about the social conditions.’
You can also ask what the cause is in the case of the stepsisters Nathalie and Stacy, thinks Loes. ‘That both parents were sitting drunk in a café when the girls disappeared does not change the question of guilt, but is part of the problem. It is a question of events that take place in social milieus where the milieu itself also a problem: neglected neighbourhoods where domestic violence and criminality are the order of the day.’
All in all, Loes is convinced that the events are not just a typically Belgian affair and therefore do not merit so much international attention. ‘In the end many countries have similar social problems. What I find a much bigger problem for example, is the fact that there are two and half thousand suicides a year in Belgium, making it the country with the highest suicide rate in Western Europe. Maybe that is a result of Belgian discretion, people keep things to themselves. When it comes down to it, perhaps the Dutch directness has something going for it.’