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Brussels: tour of Molenbeek, where the terrorists have taken root

The densely populated municipality - one of 19 in which is divided the capital - is inhabited by Flemish and French-speaking Belgians, as wells as immigrants from many Countries, most of them North African and Middle Eastern. Residents reject the label of hideout of the jihadists. They took to the streets to reaffirm it

It’s an ordinary day at the at the Gare de l’Ouest (Brussel-West station in Flemish). Icy wind and leaden sky – common here in Brussels -, the buzz of children’s voices echoing in the schoolyard, a lady dressed in furs leading a collie on a leash. Across the street two women, wearing veils, are chatting away. Delhaize supermarket displays discounted goods, while the bistro De Krebbe proposes potage and boulettes (soup and meatballs) in the midday menu. Here in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean there is plenty of cement and few trees. Under the media spotlight worldwide since the tragic attacks of Paris, the populous municipality of Brussels, near the Grand Place, rejects the “terrorist hideout” label and proceeds with the daily routine.

It’s a “normal” municipality. If the newspapers had not published reports on the long list of youths with Arab names who planned their attacks right here (the bombs in Madrid, the shooting at the Jewish Museum, the failed attack on the Brussels-Paris train, until the carnage of a week ago in the French capital) the urban surroundings would closely resemble thousands of similar ones throughout Europe, amidst immigrants from many different countries, American fast-foods, Turkish kebabs and Italian-Egyptian pizzerias. In fact, also Liberal mayor Françoise Schepmans, a woman of great political experience, points out that hers is a “normal” municipality, where “Belgians and immigrants live side by side” (the deputy mayor is called Ahmed el Khannouss). However – she admits, indeed invokes – there is great need “for a stronger presence of the police.” With nearly 100 thousand inhabitants, Molenbeek is about the size of an average European town, comparable to Roubaix, Santiago de Compostela or Ancona. Neighbourhoods with single-family homes and SUVs parked in front of the garage are interspersed with the popular housing compounds of Chaussée de Gand. The three large buildings located along Boulevard Louis Mettewie are 25 stories-high, with eight entrances each: veritable vertical villages.

A closed church stands amidst the mosques. Christmas lights are twinkling along Rue de Ninove, the “Argana patisserie orientale” nearby has shut down. Along the way, there are other shops bearing Arabic signs and several mosques. Further down, a Catholic church is “fermée”, and a scotch-taped note explains:

“In the framework of the restructuring of Brussels’ Church, Mass is no longer celebrated here.”  

The faithful of Scheut-Broeck pastoral Unit can gather in the churches of Notre-Dame du Sacré-Coeur and of l’Assomption. The tram offers a tour of the area, up to the square where on Wednesday, November 18, over two thousand people convened holding candles. They sung chants and reaffirmed, by mouth of the spokesperson of the Cultural Centre of Rue de l’Ecole: “We are a municipality of peace and light and we say no to generalizations and stigmatizations against Molenbeek. The media are ‘hammering’ us, and this doesn’t help.”

Yet another police raid. Joseph Diongre Straat, an enfolding typical neighbourhood of ancient houses, showcases coloured doors framed with working symbols. The voices of customers resound during a break in the cafeteria around the corner. In fact, the umpteenth police raid in an area of Molenbeek (Thursday November 19) is being broadcast in TV, simultaneously with other raids in other areas of the capital, densely populated with immigrants from the Maghreb and Middle-Eastern countries. As soon as I say I’m a journalist the owner flares up:

“We can take no more. Not all of us are terrorists here! What do you want?”

Near my table an old man raises his glance from the newspaper: “Why don’t they send policemen instead of journalists?” A girl with blonde hair, with a strong Flemish accent, adds: “Last evening I took part in the street-gathering. We made it clear that all we want is to be left in peace. Take away the terrorists and that’s it.”

Many questions are raised in Belgium. “To prevent the departures” of youths to Syria, who could be recruited by ISIS, “is not enough”, affirms in the same hours Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel in Parliament. “We must prevent foreign fighters from returning to our Country”, and if they return, “jail is the only option.” Michel illustrates a 400-million plan to step up security, intelligence, police force, control of the territory. He will shut down, he says, “unauthorised places of worship.” In Belgium inflamed public debates raise many questions: how come such a small and peaceful town has become a centre of terrorism? Why have so many of our local youths followed the path of hatred? Was the integration of differences unsuccessful in the “European capital”?

A small symbol of peace. Among the tables of the cafeteria discussions continue. Until the television announces that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, considered the ‘mastermind’ of the attacks in Paris, has been killed by the police force raids in St. Denis

The young terrorist, the speaker explains, was raised with his family in Molenbeek, in a small house of Rue Darimon.

“A few steps away from here”, mumbles the owner of the café, “right behind Comte de Flandre subway station”. It’s my destination to return downtown… As I leave the café, a smiling young girl hands me a sticker: it’s the symbol of “Molenbeek of peace.”

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