Apparently just a tragedy for Flanders. Wreckage of the trains that collided in Hal, Belgium, 15 February 2010, with 18 confirmed casualties. (AFP)

Walloon and Flemish trains collide

The collision between two trains in a Brussels suburb which killed at least 18 people on 15 February has sparked a war of words between representatives of Belgium's French and Dutch speaking communities — a reflex which drives Le Soir to dispair.

Published on 16 February 2010 at 16:02
Apparently just a tragedy for Flanders. Wreckage of the trains that collided in Hal, Belgium, 15 February 2010, with 18 confirmed casualties. (AFP)

Yesterday's train crash is a national tragedy: one of those moments when intercommunity squabbles should graciously give way to the expression of shared sorrow. The Dutroux affair, the death of King Baudouin, the murder of Joe Van Holsbeeck, the catastrophic explosions in Liège or Ghislenghien — all of these tragic events prompted a fleeting consciousness of collective destiny; and Monday's tragedy in Hal, which elicited messages of sympathy from across the political divide, should have been no different. Politicians were quick to respond to the scale of the disaster. Prime Minister Yves Leterme cancelled his official visit to the Balkans. King Albert II cut short his Carnival holiday in the south of France. The federal government immediately sent three ministers. And communiqués of condolence were issued by all of the political parties. However, it did not take much to spoil this expression of consensus.

Shortly after the accident, the Minister-President of Flanders Kris Peeters, who was on an economic mission to California, issued a press release in which he congratulated emergency services for their rapid response, and — in a remarkable display of sensitivity — added that the accident was "yet another tragedy for Flanders." On a visit to the scene of the accident, the French speaking Minister-President Walloon, Rudy Demotte, announced that when his Flemish counterpart had spoken to him on the phone "a few minutes earlier," he had once again described it as "a tragedy for Flanders." Demotte needed no encouragement to take up the gauntlet. "I immediately told him it was a tragedy for Wallonia too. In fact, everyone in Belgium has been affected. The travelers on those trains came from all over the country. And it is by no means certain that there were fewer people on the train because it is the first day of Carnival. A lot of people choose to travel on the first day of the holiday... ."

Having explained that emergency services are coordinated by the federal government, and that — depending on their status as Francophone or Dutch speaking — the injured would be sent to different hospitals in the region, the French speaking Premier felt obliged to add: "This is highly symbolic! One train was traveling from Flanders, the other from Wallonia, and they collided head on. This tragedy has affected everyone." On Internet social networks and forums, Kris Peeters inept commentary prompted a number of acerbic responses i.e. "This gentleman has got it into his head that Belgium no longer exists." In general, Francophone political leaders steered clear of sterile controversy in statements that spoke of a tragedy for Belgium. "A harrowing day for Belgium, announced the CDH (the Walloon Christian democrat party). "A tragedy for the entire country," exclaimed the representative of Ecolo [the Walloon Green party]. As for Kris Peeters, he finally opted to continue his economic mission to California, having concluded that the situation was under control.

Should an accident involving members of both communities be cited as a "symbol" of Belgium? The fact that the trains began their journeys in Wallonia and Flanders, and the mixed background of their passengers, might suggest as much. And then there is the actual site of the accident, which was close to the linguistic border. The emergency plan to rescue and hospitalize the injured involved teams from three regions (Flanders, the Walloon Region, and Bruxelles-Capitale). Some commentators even speculated that the drama may have been prompted by a "linguistic" error — like the tragedy in Pécrol, when a French speaking signal operator failed to communicate effectively with his Flemish speaking colleague. However, in conclusion we can say with certainty that it was and remains a Belgian tragedy, even though Kris Peeters' response shows that virtually any event can be appropriated by communitarian politics.

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