Thursday, July 29, 2010


Belgium’s got to be one of the quirkiest countries around - so quirky, that by the look of things, it’s unlikely to remain a country for long. It reminds me of those couples that bring home a dog and a maid, fight over the two till the neighbours come home and then get divorced, leaving the house to the dog, the dog to the maid and the maid to the neighbours.

In my very first hour in Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the European Union, I was warned at the airport to be “careful” about my luggage… “Moroccans..!! They just snatch and run”. All the way from the airport to the city, I could see women in braids or head scarves and young Arabs and Africans in clothes two sizes too big. Dirt and construction material lined the roads and the whole place looked rather depressing. If I’d slept through my journey from Delhi to Brussels and woken up in the bus transporting me from the airport, never ever would I have guessed that this was the first city of the first world…

Just for the record, I have had the good fortune of knowing some excellent North African professors who teach in Switzeralnd and Paris and I know that just like there are all kinds of Indians on the railway platforms of London, there would be all kinds of Moroccans and Congolese on the streets of Brussels. Yesterday, the Third World became the Third World because it lost its riches to colonizers who put those riches to good use and emerged as the first world. Today, some from the Third World pack their bags and leave for the First World in a bid to reclaim a fraction of those riches for themselves. Most do so through legitimate means, while others, marginalised and alienated and without the utility badges of their better educated Third World brothers give in to their frustrations and angst and take to crime in the host nation.

And the host nations react with varying degrees of tolerance. You see, they all have a lot of guilt to deal with. Their colonial past doesn’t sit easy with their present day image as the standardbearers of democracy. And a country like Belgium has more than its fair share of skeletons in its colonial cupboard. In the late 19th century, King Leopold II of Belgium, in the garb of a humanitarian, colonised the Central African region that we today know as the Democratic Republic of Congo. He sent in his private army called the FP (Force Publique), equipped with modern weapons and a directive of exploiting the region and looting its mineral wealth and collecting ivory and rubber. The latter especially was a precious commodity at this time because J. Dunlop had just come up with his pneumatic tyres.

The native Congolese men were indentured as bonded labourers, and were responsible for procuring a fixed amount of rubber. Their women and children were held hostage until the men returned with their quota of rubber and were oft en raped or killed or both anyway. Oft en their hands were chopped off as punishment or trophies. The FP was supposed to use bullets only for executing humans, not for hunting. And yet the FP would shoot animals for the pot or fun and then chop the hands off a living person to prove that the bullets had been used to kill a man. Millions… millions died either at the hands of or because of the actions of the FP. A single word of protest could lead to whole villages being burnt. The imperial boot squashed native toes, fingers and heads with unbridled and unrivalled savagery in the Belgian Congo, and the wounds haven’t healed yet. Known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Leopold’s legacy hangs heavy here…DRC lies devastated, assaulted every day because of its riches – for aren’t the most beautiful and bounteous often the ones most ravished.

Now see if you can fathom this…last week I spoke to you of the Holocaust memorial at Breendonk– Belgium still weeps for the thousands who died there during WW II. And yet Belgium is naïve enough to have a memorial statue for King Leopold depicting him as a ruler ‘bringing civilisation’ to an African child. And then some conscientious Belgians cut off the statue’s arms to remind their countrymen of the butchery carried out in Congo in the king’s name.

Later, Antwerp was a big relief after Brussels. In fact it’s a beautiful city with wide roads, leafy boulevards, exquisite mansions and parks. But no one seems to live here. You just don’t see people. Interestingly, some of the biggest houses here are owned by Gujarati diamond merchants. On the streets here too, people remind you about being careful with your bags and wallets. In one of Antwerp’s prime shopping areas I chanced upon a brawl…two Moroccan lads were screaming and rolling on the pavement like nine-pins while a tall Congolese man was laying into them with his bowling-ball like fists. Regular shoppers, Indian tourists, Belgians, and other African immigrants, watched open-mouthed until the big guy walked away with words of advice for the Arab boys, and the Moroccans got up, licked their wounds and disappeared into a store. No one intervened, no cops no security officers, no one.

The immigrant problem is one of the Belgium’s gravest… many second or third generation immigrants make more money on the dole than they would have at low paying jobs and so they live off public money and while away their time looking for trouble. They are full of anger and hate because they feel that discrimination would keep them away from real jobs anyway so why bother and the religious divide doesn’t help. Besides the spiraling debt, Belgium’s immigrant problem is another powder-keg on a short wick, threatening a country teetering on the edge of political collapse because of fractious fault-lines that divide the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north and French-speaking Walloons in the south…

So is Belgium worth the trip? Sure is… as an Indian in Belgium, you begin to realise that India’s relative unity in diversity has indeed been no mean feat. Secondly, it is the land where chocolates and beer I’m told have acquired a unique seductive flavour, thirdly, once you get talking, the people are always polite and ready to help and lastly you should go there for the fairytale lands of Bruges, a town trapped in time and the great green valleys and forests of Ardennes, where roam the once extinct Aurochs, the wild ancestor of European domestic cattle… the sublime beauty of these mountain forests and the quaint charms of the land that time forgot more than makes up for all the quirky bits… so keep walking….


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