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The Belgian “ghost town” is fighting to come back to life

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Doel (Belgium) (AFP) – Doel has the reputation of being the most famous ghost town in Belgium. But its few inhabitants, today numbering only 21, now see a glimmer of hope in the rebirth of their village.

If so, it would be a remarkable change of fortune for a place that has been steadily emptying since the late 1970s, when its population was 60 times larger, leaving behind silent streets of crumbling, sealed houses covered in graffiti.

Wedged between the ever-expanding port of Antwerp – the second largest in Europe – and a nuclear power plant, Doel has become a morbid attraction for curious tourists and “urban explorers” who daringly film themselves inside buildings in ruins.

With its silent streets of crumbling and sealed houses covered in graffiti, Doel today has a reputation as Belgium’s best-known ghost town. François WALSCHAERTSAFP

Police patrol regularly to prevent vandals and squatters from setting up shop.

Only two cafes, one adjoining a 17th century windmill, and an immaculate parish church remind visitors that the village still resists oblivion.

“It’s not a ghost town… But if you come here on a Sunday, or especially in the evening, of course you see the empty houses and that’s what most triggers people” to think it looks like it , resident Liese Stuer told AFP.

“I think it’s very important that people know it’s not a ghost town,” says Liese Stuer, one of Doel’s 21 residents. François WALSCHAERTSAFP

“I think it’s very important for people to know that it’s not a ghost town, that they know there are still people trying to live here and trying to settle down,” she said.

expanding harbor

Stuer, 37, a Flemish teacher to foreigners and a freelance graphic designer, moved to Doel five years ago when she partnered with a local. But she used to visit as a child her grandparents, who lived nearby, and remembered it as a posh town.

But Doel’s fate took a turn for the worse in the late 1990s when the Belgian authorities decided to expropriate and raze villages around the port of Antwerp to build a new container quay.

While most residents have left, a die-hard remained and fought through the courts, lobbying hard and promoting street art to bring color to empty houses.

At the end of the 1990s, the Belgian authorities decided to expropriate and demolish villages around the port of Antwerp to build a new container quay.
At the end of the 1990s, the Belgian authorities decided to expropriate and demolish villages around the port of Antwerp to build a new container quay. François WALSCHAERTSAFP

Given the port’s importance to the Belgian economy, it looked like a doomed campaign.

The Flemish regional government has banned people from moving there and vandalism has made the place increasingly insecure for the dwindling population.

But in 2016 Belgium’s Supreme Court rejected the expansion plan, after the European Court of Justice ruled it threatened the marshy surroundings of Doel and the ecology of the Scheldt river that runs alongside it.

The nature and solidarity that unites the people of Doel is what made Stuer stay.

The few inhabitants of Doel now see a ray of hope in the rebirth of their village
The few inhabitants of Doel now see a ray of hope in the rebirth of their village François WALSCHAERTSAFP

“The green you see in the summer: it’s really nice to live here. It’s the place where I want my child to grow up, the people and the environment that I find very warm and welcoming,” said she declared.

“For me, I don’t feel isolated. Not at all. It’s a very connected village.”

But it’s still unclear exactly what awaits Doel.

A city with “scars”

Discussions are ongoing between the authorities and residents. In December, city officials presented a plan to slowly take in new residents and renovate an old beached ship, while building a wharf to the perimeter of Doel.

The Flemish government, which now owns all but one of the houses in Doel, is reluctant to see the town return to a population close to the 1,300 people it had in the 1970s.

“We know that the village will not disappear… It does have the image of a ghost town, but that’s not how it should be,” the Flemish finance minister told AFP. Heritage and Housing, Matthias Diependaele.

Discussions are ongoing, but the municipal authorities have presented a plan to slowly allow the arrival of new inhabitants, while building a quay to the perimeter of Doel
Discussions are ongoing, but the municipal authorities have presented a plan to slowly allow the arrival of new inhabitants, while building a quay to the perimeter of Doel François WALSCHAERTSAFP

But, he said, “we have to look at what we can do with it today”, adding: “The most difficult point is the fact that we know full well that right next to it there will be port activity. 24/7.”

There is no definite timetable for decisions on Doel’s future, there is only talk of firming up plans in the coming weeks or months.

“I really hope they will evolve in the direction of Doel becoming a normal village, with its scars, of course – they will always be visible, the scars of this recent past,” Stuer said, standing in the garden of his house. a short distance from the nuclear power plant.