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Bulldozing Belgium

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April 11, 2006

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The last of the Belgian polder—(or below-sea-level)—villages, Doel was reclaimed from the Scheldt River near the North Sea at the beginning of the 17th century. The village that grew behind a sea wall is now under threat of demolition—not from a failing dyke or an unexpected rise in water levels, but from the insatiable need of the expanding Port of Antwerp for more land. The construction of a large dock and container terminal is already under way just next to the village; and there is pressure to build a second terminal where the village now stands.

400 of Doel’s original 900 residents remain, the ones who choose not to take up the government’s offer to sell up and leave—who will be permitted to stay only until early 2007. The government makes no guarantee that the village will be safely habitable beyond this date. More than 300 requests to move into the vacant houses have been declined, and the village has fallen into disrepair, reinforcing arguments of those pushing for demolition.

Approximately 200 squatters have made homes here. The school and hotels have all closed. Of the restaurants, only two cafés remain. The tiny post office and police station are rarely open. Only one shop, an electrical appliance store, is left.

But a mixed band of residents, locals and newcomers, is beginning to fight back. One such campaigner is Marina Appers, who has covered the front of her house with banners. One reads, Over our dead bodies will we leave Doel! “My house must be the most photographed house in Belgium,” she laughs.

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