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Bulldozing Belgium
A photo essay by Kevin Saidler
Page one, page two
The Belgian village of Doel was reclaimed from the river Scheldt at the beginning of the 17th century. Three-hundred years later and the village that would grow behind the sea wall is under threat. The threat comes not from a failing dyke or an unexpectedly sudden rise in water levels, but rather from the expanding Port of Antwerp and its insatiable need for more and more land along the Scheldt in which to grow. Now, Doel, the last of the Belgian polder villages on the banks of the Scheldt near the North Sea, faces possible demolition. The construction of a large dock and container terminal capable of receiving deep-sea ships is already underway on a site immediately next to the village, and the Port Authority proposes building a second one where the village now stands.

400 residents remain in Doel from an original population of 900. These residents are the ones who chose not to take up the government’s offer to sell up and leave, and will be permitted to stay in Doel until early 2007. Only until that point will the government guarantee that the village remains fit to live in. More than 300 requests to move into the vacant houses left behind have been declined, and the village has been allowed to fall into disrepair which, in turn, reinforces the arguments of those arguing for demolition.

Kevin Saidler’s photographs of Doel throw up many peculiarities. Sometimes we find ourselves wondering if we might be looking at a scene from some war zone instead of a village in one of the wealthiest regions of the EU. The word ‘Occupied’ daubed in paint on the front door of a house to ward off any potential squatters invokes a sense of chaos and lawlessness.

The atmosphere in the village is bizarre, abnormal: asylum seekers wander aimlessly around the seemingly deserted streets, dumped here by local authorities; an international circus has moved in; small-time construction companies regularly strip vacated houses of anything of any value; weekend disaster tourists descend on the village and approximately 200 squatters have moved in - some in the mould of the traditional ‘dreadlocked’ perception of squatters, others, secretaries and shop assistants in search of free accommodation having been priced out of the housing market.

The school, restaurants and hotels are all closed. The tiny post office and police station are rarely open. Only one shop is left – an electrical appliance store – and only two cafés remain. But a mixed band of residents, both locals and newcomers, are beginning a fight-back. One such campaigner is Marina Appers, who has decorated the front of her house with banners such as ‘Over our dead bodies will we leave Doel!’ “My house must be the most photographed house in Belgium,” she laughs. But for the organisation she represents, Doel 20/20, this is no laughing matter. “The extension of the harbour has to stop here” she argues whilst pointing to the enormous sound barrier built to protect the villagers from the sound of the construction of the Deurganck dock.

Doel’s new residents have given the apparently doomed polder village a ‘kiss of life’ as the decision on its future due next January approaches. Every time a ‘squatter’ moves in and restores a vacated house, Doel begins to resemble the village that it once was - and the case to demolish it for what it has become - is consequently weakened.