Thursday, November 10, 2005


In Flanders FieldsOn November 11, 1918, World War I ended. The most horrendous theatres of operations were in Belgium and France, where the trench warfare and successive offensives by the warring parties against well dug in adversaries, as well as the use of new cruel weapons (gas, flamethrowers, aeroplanes) and methods (massive indirect artillery fire) caused the loss of millions of men on both sides. The British lost 700,000 men, the better part of a generation, in West Flanders (battles around Ypres) and on the Somme river in North France. We Belgians owe them eternal debt.

The famous war poem "In Flanders Fields" was written by the Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. He wrote it on the back step of an ambulance, particularly affected by the death of a fellow offiver a short while earlier. "In Flanders Fields" is therefore unique, since born directly out of pain and sorrow.

By 1917 a stalemate existed along the Western Front, with on one side the combined British, French and Belgian armies, and on the other side the Imperial German Army. Neither side was able to end the status quo, and prospects for a peace looked very bleak. Then came President Woodrow Wilson's address to Congress where he declared war on Germany. Soon General "Black Jack" Pershing was on his way to Europe, and many 20,000 strong infantry divisions would follow him. The American engagement on the Western front essentially ended the bloody impasse, and by fall 1918 Germany was forced to surrender.

US Forces lost about 117,000 men KIA in liberating France and Belgium. But not only owe we western Europeans the US for this bloody sacrifice, but also for the massive relief operation set up by President Wilson, who already during the war sent Herbert Hoover to the Continent to assess the needs and set up organizations for distributing food and aid packages. Since the country most affected was my own, the first organization to see the light was the CRB, or Commission for the Relief of Belgium:

Trapped between German bayonets and a British blockade, Belgium in the fall of 1914 faced imminent starvation. Hoover was asked to undertake an unprecedented relief effort for the tiny kingdom dependent on imports for 80 percent of its food. This would mean abandoning his successful career as the world's foremost mining engineer. For several days he pondered the request, finally telling a friend, "Let the fortune go to hell." He would assume the immense task on two conditions-- that he receive no salary, and that he be given a free hand in organizing and administering what became known as the Commission for the Relief of Belgium.

The CRB became, in effect, an independent republic of relief, with its own flag, navy, factories, mills and railroads. Its $12 million a month budget was supplied by voluntary donations and government grants. More than once Hoover made personal pledges far in excess of his total worth. In an early form of shuttle diplomacy he crossed the North Sea 40 times seeking to persuade the enemies in London and Berlin to allow food to reach the war's victims. He also taught the Belgians, who regarded cornmeal as cattle feed, to eat cornmeal. In all, the CRB saved ten million people from starvation.

87 years have passed since the end of the conflict, and that is a long time. In my country, there are those who therefore even openly state that we should not feel perennially indebted towards those who once freed us of brutal oppression. Let them go to hell.

For what it's worth: THANKS.


Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Map of BelgovakiaI once commented that all Smurfs are Belgians, but that not all Belgians are Smurfs. While I consider myself the one and only author of this jewel of perennial wisdom, unfortunately the same cannot be said of the one contained in the title above. It’s a saying generations of Belgians, be it Flemings or Walloons or indeed the "Brusseleirs" themselves, have grown up with, and this catchy phrase is in fact an astute observation of the fact that virtually every major occurrence in the French capital produces a watered-down resonance in Brussels.

Alas, so it was over the past days, although by and large I consider myself lucky that after all Brussels got the dripping part. The by now nationwide riots in France, begun in Paris, have indeed led to some amok in Brussels and a couple of other cities, but as yet nothing comparable to the proto-civil war currently raging in our southern neighbor. Here is a quick overview:

a.) Sunday evening on November 6, five cars were torched near South Station in Sint-Gillis, a Brussels community. Perpetrators unknown, no clashes.

b.) Monday evening there was again torching in Sint-Gillis, of three cars this time, plus a sofa (!) in Vorst, another one of Brussels 19 communities. Furthermore some stoning of police vehicles and a car turned upside down in Anderlecht. According to the Mayor of Anderlecht, Mr. Simonet, the situation was under control.

c.) That same evening, a car was set alight in Dilbeek, just west of Brussels. Of the perpetrators no trace.

d.) Tuesday morning at around 4am a car was burned in Sint-Niklaas, a town in the Northwest of Flanders. The perpetrators seem to have been two teenagers.

e.) This very evening, Tuesday 8 November, two cars were torched in Ghent, plus one van in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek (yet another Brussels community), as well as one in Antwerp. In the centre of Brussels a molotovcocktail was thrown towards a car but if failed to set it alight. There are also some scattered reports on attempts to burn torched - Antwerp

Now, while at first glance this looks like an escalation in the making, I am still moderately optimistic about the situation not getting out of hand. In virtually all the cases, the cars set alight were standing at remore places out of sight, with no sign of the perpetrators. No mobs were seen either. In the words of Fernand Koekelberg, spokesman for the Crisis Center:

Every time it's about isolated cases. There were no injuries and no mobs. The perpetrators could not be found.

To me it all looks like some cells or individuals are trying to set the fuse alight but are failing so far. While nationwide the situation is certainly tense, due to some incidents over the weekend, and possibly also because there’s a major trial going on against thirteen alleged terrorists of the GICM (Groupe Islamique Combatant Marocain), I have the impression that Belgian youths are less savvy for car-B-Q than their French counterparts. If the powderkeg was just waiting for a spark it would have gone up over the weekend already. What we have now are a dozen of doused fuses. Part of the explanation may be simply numbers. After all, nowhere in Belgium, pop. 10,350,000, are there such dense concentrations of impoverished immigrants as in Frances banlieues. Another part of the explanation may be that in "our" ghettos the living situation is still far better than in France, with housing projects kept modest and maintainable – and unemployment rates still below the appalling figures in Clichy-sous-Bois or Aulnay-sous-Bois (up to 40%). What we have seen thus far in France is only the culmination of a process that has been in the making for a long time, and that was kept smartly hidden by French media. While 2,700 cars burned over the weekend is a gigantic figure, what to make of the grand total of 29,000 since January???

Currently we seem to see the beginning of a stabilisation of the violence in France, and I hope – I expect - over here it won’t develop beyond the sporadic incidents noted so far. I guess in three weeks the hotheads will be writing their memoirs, pleasantly musing how they were able to make France tremble on its feet, a country that until now acted as if it were still a superpower. Already one can see that the ruling elites have learned nothing from the disaster. And a disaster it is, with uncounted billions of euros of damage in three hundred cities and towns.

French PM De Villepin spoke before the National Assembly today, announcing what sounds like just more of the same. Thirty billion euros will be spent in the banlieues on programs intended to "help young people" (these "reach-out" programs have existed for thirty years and have helped jack shit). The French Employment Agency will focus on 239 hot zones to help provide jobs for 1.5 million people (a government can’t provide jobs other than the ones needed for its administration). Yet another agency for "social cohesion" will be created which will go into the riot zones, be in direct contact with mayors and officials, and provide programs to deal with hot-button issues like joblessness and discrimination. Hallelujah! That means thousand more of so-called "straathoekwerkers" - litterally street corner workers - i.e. guys paid by the gumint to hang out on the streets and talk, say "maintain contact" with the disgruntled. In practice these street corner workers are social aberrations themselves, more often than not spouting nonsense that the youths' misery is the fault of society and thus neatly offering them an alibi to certainly not look for the faults by themselves.

In other words, it’s the just more of the crap that produced all the stink. The only measures I deem useful are extra money for apprenticeships for students leaving school at 14 and funds for 100,000 scholarships.

But overall, this stinks of Fallujah in April 2004. Plus, it produces a sinister precedent. Essentially the thugs are rewarded for having caused trouble. They have broken the law and yet they will be showered with more State Manna. Sooner or later the riots will start again, only requiring then possibly 95,000 security personnel rather than 9,500. Mark my words, the problems won’t be solved – because the core problem isn’t addressed: accountability of the immigrants themselves. E.g., no one dares speak of the responsibility of the parents of the hooligans. When as a father you allow your 8-year old offspring to roam the streets at 3am in the morning, YOU ARE A DISGRACE. When your teenager has just busted a bus stop and as a mom you go out on the streets yelling and cursing at the police officer who has reprimanded the little bugger, YOU ARE A DISGRACE. When as a 14-year old you decide to leave school, after having wreaked havoc in the classrooms for 6 years and generally having tortured your (white) teachers, YOU ARE A DISGRACE. Don’t come complaining at 20 that society treats you unfair because you are a miserable wreck unable to find a job requiring more qualifications than broomhandling.