From Doel (Belgium)

Sasha puts his head down on the sofa, kicking up a little cloud of dust as he does so. Then he moves his tail against the pillows to say hi to Cécile, his owner and life companion. The beagle and the woman are two of the very few inhabitants left in Doel, an old farmers village on the western bank of the Schelda river, a few kilometers from Antwerp. Founded seven centuries ago between an estuary and the flourishing Flemish town, the peaceful village lays between fields and the riverside, with just few brick houses around the Madonna of the Ascension Church. It could seem just like any other Flemish village, however on closer inspection, it is a ghost town. Deserted streets, empty houses, windows barred with heavy iron grates.

Only twenty out of the eight hundred inhabitants who crowded Doel during the Nineties still live here.

The reason behind the disappearance of an entire community, was the announced expansion of the Antwerp harbour, the second largest in Europe in terms of volume traded. Right where Doel is located, it has been planned the building of a huge new dock, in order to allow large ships transporting containers to unload their cargo. The Maatschappij LinkerScheldeoever, which manages the area of the harbour on the western riverside, acquired all the buildings in the village except for a tiny one floor house owned by a teacher. Those who were not originally wanting to sell were persuaded by billionaire offers: Cécile tells of how a young couple was paid 450 thousand euros for a house valued at only 50 thousand.

Among the very few people left there are her mother Emilienne, 84 years old. In the living room of a house crowded with stuffed bears, she welcomes the rare visitors with her old eyes, which still reveals her antique beauty. “I am the last Doelenaar, born and raised in this village – she tells us while smoking cigarettes one after the other – When I was a child there were 24 bistros, where the passing sailors used to drink.

Then suddenly, at the beginning of the new millennium, everybody started leaving.” During the summer nights there were numerous gangs that would enter into the houses of Doel and destroy everything. Sometimes they knocked at Emilienne’s door, waking her up in the middle of the night. She decided to stay, because “in any other place she would die”.

“Those who were not apt to sell were persuaded by billionaire offers”

As of this article, the building of the new dock has been blocked by a mandate of the State Council, but Cécile and Emilienne are afraid that this situation could change and that the bulldozers could soon reach the village. What they are not afraid of, however, is the presence of a huge nuclear power plant a few hundreds of meters out of the town, built in 1975. A power plant that is supposed to be safe, but that is actually monitored by the scientific community because of cracks on the receptacle on the third reactor, which are continuing to expand.

Many activists who are fighting for the closure of the power plant are also asking to stop the expansion of the harbour, highlighting the risk of putting some of the largest chemical and oil industries in Europe around a nuclear power plant. While they wait for the political and economical players to decide the future of Doel, the last inhabitants go on living their everyday lives, which go by slowly the barges that make their way up the Schelda river.

“The destruction of Doel is blocked by a mandate of the State Council, but things could change“

Cécile and Sasha welcome the tourists that now and then knock at their door, eager to collect information about the ghost village. The City Council, which was merged with a nearbye village, still sends gardeners to take care of the flowerbeds at the corners of the deserted streets. A street cleaner sweeps the dry leaves in front of the cemetery, where the gate is broken and the gravestones are cracked.But under the church bell tower, where the crows make their nests, the spirits of the dead say goodbye to the living as they leave.

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