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Aftermath of Racist Killing Spree Lingers in Belgium

  • Nina-Maria Potts

Belgium is still reeling from the aftershock of the racially motivated killings of an African nanny and her two-year-old charge. The 18-year-old murderer said he set out to kill foreigners.

It might have ended there, but the accused teenager was raised in a family that supported one of Europe's most successful anti-immigration political parties, the Vlaams Belang, or "Flemish Interest."

The leaders of the Vlaams Belang have denied any responsibility for the killing, but in the wake of the tragedy, politicians and members of civil society are asking whether the increasingly heated debate about multiculturalism and identity has given license to racial hatred.

On May 11, Flemish teenager Hans Van Themsche walked into a gun shop in central Antwerp and bought an American hunting rifle for 500 euros.

All he needed was his ID card. In Belgium guns may be taken home immediately after purchase -- the details are sent to the police for checking later.

The exchange took all of five minutes.

He then started stalking the streets in search of anyone who looked foreign. Themsche found a woman of Turkish origin reading on a park bench and shot her in the chest. She survived the attack but is still in intensive care.

Minutes later, Hans Van Themsche shot and killed a 24-year-old pregnant nanny from Mali and the two-year-old girl she was looking after.

The killings shocked Belgians, sparking concern that this is part of a rising trend of racist violence. Thousands recently turned out in Antwerp to march silently against racism. Fauzaya Talhaoui, a Flemish Senator of Moroccan origin, says it was the only way to unite a shattered community.

"It is so important that we stay in dialogue with each other, that we support each other,” she said. “A lot of people in Antwerp, in Flanders, in Belgium, really feel excluded because of their skin color."

Hans Van Themsche's motives could be rooted in his upbringing. His family loyally supports the anti-immigration Vlaams Belang party. The victims' families blame Vlaams Belang— Belgium's second largest party— for the killings.

Party spokesman Philippe Van Der Sander denies the charge. “We say what the people think in cities where there is a lot of immigration and criminality. These problems must be solved,” he said. “It is not to say that because we are the messengers, we are to blame.”

There have been other racist attacks in other cities, but this killing has profoundly shocked and shamed the country, plunging native Belgians into a period of intense soul-searching, and prompting immigrants to look over their shoulders.

Fauzaya Talhaoui said Muslim women in particular feel threatened. "What if I am going along the street? And someone puts a gun to my head just because I am wearing a veil? I don't feel secure, I feel very, very unsure," she said.

These are unsure times for immigrants- and native-born western Europeans. Riots in France, less tolerance of immigrants in Holland – and now murder in Belgium.

Perhaps the fact that so many people turned up to march on a rainy day in Antwerp, shows that for the majority of Europeans, that kind of event is shockingly rare, and they want it to stay that way.

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