Terror in the park
On Thursday 11 May, Hans Van Themsche (18), armed with €500 in cash, stepped into a gun shop and purchased a hunting rifle, a day after he’d been expelled from boarding school, where he was studying to become an animal carer, for smoking in the dormitory.
According to his own testimony, he then went
hunting for immigrants in
Moments later, Oulemata Niangadou (24), an au
The four-minute shooting spree (between 11.49 and 11.53) was brought to an end by a cool-headed police officer who shot Van Themsche in the stomach when he refused to put down his weapon.
During his interrogation in hospital, Van Themsche confirmed that his rampage was racially motivated. He also appeared to be on a suicide mission. According to news reports, he confided in a fellow student that he was planning to take his own life if he got kicked out of school but “not without taking ten foreigners with him”.
His parents reacted with disbelief. “He must’ve lost his mind,” concluded his father, Peter Van Themsche, in a newspaper interview. “We cannot stress enough how awful we feel for the families of the victims… We’re sorry.”
The father said that his son would not shoot people because of their race. “He had friends of foreign origin,” his father insisted. “I have African friends.”
Despite his protestations, commentators have highlighted the fact that Peter Van Themsche is a loyal militant of the extreme right Vlaams Belang (VB) and his sister (Hans’s aunt) is VB parliamentarian Frida Van Themsche. This is the latest in a series of violent episodes linked directly or indirectly to the ultra-nationalist party.
The VB – whose mainstream ambitions have led it in recent years to sound a more moderate and media-savvy message, while keeping its militant support base out of the public eye – has washed its hands of any responsibility. “Skinheads and extremists are not welcome in the party,” Frank Vanhecke, party chairman, told the De Standaard newspaper.
Many politicians from across the political spectrum and minority groups thought otherwise. Around 1,000 demonstrators massed outside the Brussels headquarters of the VB to protest against “the dangerous politics of the far right” and Some 150 Africans took part in a memorial march in Antwerp.
Antwerp, a wealthy port city and diamond centre with fairly widespread inner city poverty, is the main stronghold of the VB, where it clocks up a third of the vote. Regionally, the party gets just over 20%. Experts attribute its popularity to a mix of racial prejudice, particularly amongst is core supporters, growing financial and economic insecurity, dissatisfaction with the Belgian political landscape, and the desire among large numbers of Flemings for more autonomy or full independence for Flanders.
Ergun Top, a Christian-Democrat politician of Turkish descent, accused the VB of being indirectly to blame by demonising immigrants. Geert De Bruecker, a criminal psychologist, likened the role of the VB to that of firearms. The party does not directly cause people to kill, but it gives ammunition to those on the edge.
“Now the Vlaams Belang are talking about a ‘[lone] psychopath’, but had the perpetrator been an immigrant, then the whole [immigrant] community would’ve been held responsible,” noted Fouad Ahidar, a Flemish member of the Brussels regional parliament, who is of Moroccan descent.
Precisely that occurred last month, when Joe Van Holsbeeck, a teenager, was stabbed to death for his MP3 player in the middle of rush hour in the main hall of Brussels’ busiest train station. VB politicians were quick to point the finger at the apparent North African origin of the attackers (they eventually turned out to be Poles).
In response, Ahidar called on the Moroccan community to come forward with any information it had. He was also behind the idea of the ‘white march’ which drew some 90,000 sympathisers from all backgrounds.
A similar event is planned for Friday 26 May.
It was originally proposed by the parents of Mohammed Bouazza, who disappeared
on 1 May and was fished out of the Schelde river last week, an apparent victim
of racism. The ‘march against violence’ is expected to draw tens of thousands
of well-wishers from the general public,
As a sign of collective grief,
This article appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on Thursday 18 May 2006.
May 2006 – The ‘silent march’ was a moving expression of popular sentiment at the tragic murder of a teenager who has become known simply as Joe. But calls for more police and ‘zero tolerance’ will not prevent a repeat of this tragedy. People need to realise that the system does not have all the answers and it is time for citizens to take on more personal social responsibility. Read on
November 2003 – As a reflection of
December 2002 – Antwerp Arab leader arrested after unrest following “racist” killing. Read on
November 2002 – An Arab community group has
organised patrols on
November 2002 – A new wave of Arab activism is
taking hold in
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