Grisly Crimes Undermine Belgian Unity
In a dank basement by the oily waters of the Brussels-Charleroi canal, police diggers in black jumpsuits uncovered the latest trove of horrors: a skull, a wisdom tooth, bones from fingers, three kneecaps, scraps of undergarments.
For Boutiri family members--Moroccan immigrants next door--the grisly find filled them with such terror that they have put their two-story stone home up for sale.
“We feel we are living in a cemetery,” said Zora Boutiri, 23, a clothing saleswoman whose mother is now too afraid to get out of bed for middle-of-the-night Muslim prayers. “Where will the next body be found? On our roof? In the canal out front?”
As chilling fogs linger in the streets of Brussels, police investigators are assembling gruesome details of the latest installment in a nation’s nightmare.
The killers this time are believed to be an immigrant Protestant clergyman from Hungary, the Rev. Andras Pandy, and his oldest daughter, with whom he allegedly had an incestuous relationship.
The victims, and no one is sure yet how many there are, appear to have included Pandy’s first and second wives, four of his eight children and an unknown number of others.
Once again, small and supposedly tranquil Belgium is being forced to face macabre evidence of its darkest side and to ponder what it means for a land rent by linguistic and ethnic division.
“We have come to expect only bad news in Belgium,” Boutiri said.
It was only a little more than a year ago that 350,000 people, a huge assembly for a nation of 10 million, marched in silence through the streets of Brussels to express their anger and outrage over another case: the official bungling and possible high-level cover-up in the investigation of kidnappings of a number of children.
Too late, the bodies of four girls who had been abducted and sexually abused were found in jury-rigged dungeons in the southern city of Charleroi. Marc Dutroux, a 40-year-old unemployed electrician who had already been to prison for kidnap and rape of minors, and his schoolteacher wife and convicted accomplice in the earlier crimes were charged in the deaths.
A parliamentary inquiry into the Dutroux affair found numerous instances of institutional bungling and corruption and concluded that police and judicial agencies failed so abjectly as to “put at risk the state of law.”
“Corruption and spinelessness are eternal,” Hugo Claus, this country’s most celebrated Flemish-language writer, said in a recent newspaper interview. “Stupidity and mediocrity accompany our existence. And in Belgium, this is amplified.”
In recent years, it has seemed increasingly likely that this Maryland-sized kingdom, formed in 1830 from an unlikely amalgamation of French-speaking and Flemish-speaking territories, is fated to break up or survive only as a loose confederation.
Last year’s “White March” on behalf of Dutroux’s victims at first seemed to weld the country together like nothing before.
“People said at the time, ‘There are still Belgians,’ ” said Regine Brandon, a 36-year-old Flemish woman from the coastal town of Knokke-le-Zoute.
But the momentum quickly died.
“Those who believed the White March meant that Belgium would be re-cemented were totally mistaken,” said Claude Javeau, professor of sociology at the Free University of Brussels. “Belgium is now in decomposition; that’s clear.”
Dutroux’s arrest in August 1996 did not end the hideous discoveries, which have only stoked “suspicions,” in Javeau’s view, that the current governmental and legal systems have failed.
Last March, the body of a 9-year-old girl, Loubna Benaissa, was found in the cellar of a gas station in Ixelles, near here. She had been missing since 1992. A 34-year-old neighbor whose family owns the gas station was arrested on charges of abducting, raping, torturing and murdering her.
In Mons, a southern town that is home to a major command post for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a killer dubbed the “Dismemberer” left bags of severed body parts cut from at least four young women’s corpses. The killer, unidentified and at large, is so gifted with a knife that authorities suspect he had medical training.
In any event, he has a warped sense of humor: Some of his grisly cargo was dumped in spots with names such as “Legs Street” and “Sorrow Road.”
Now, Belgians’ attention has been riveted by the alleged crimes of the stout, disheveled and bespectacled Pandy and his 39-year-old daughter, Agnes, a quiet, diligent employee in the maps department of the Albert 1st Royal Library.
Pandy was arrested Oct. 17 on a complaint filed 15 years ago by Agnes. The young woman claimed that her father had been her lover and blamed him for the disappearances of six people: her mother; Pandy’s second wife; and four of her siblings or step-siblings.
The original investigation, closed in 1993 for lack of evidence, was reopened earlier this year by prosecutors anxious to prevent a repeat of the bungling that marred the Dutroux affair.
But the original story told by Agnes Pandy did not seem to hang together to Police Commissioner Francois Monsieur, head of the Brussels Judicial Police criminal unit. He suggested that she take a walk outside, with police a few paces behind, and rethink her story.
Half an hour later, she returned and reportedly said: “I am going to tell you how we killed five people.”
According to Agnes, she became the sexual partner of her father at age 13. In 1986, when she learned that her stepsister Timea, born in 1964, also was involved in an incestuous relationship with her father, she told police recently, she tried to bludgeon Timea to death.
The young woman survived and now lives in Hungary.
According to Agnes, the first to die in a killing spree that lasted from 1986 to 1989 was her father’s second wife, Edith Fintor, born in 1942, and Edith’s 14-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Andrea. Then Agnes told pOlice that she shot in the head her own mother, Ilona Sores, whom Pandy had divorced in 1967.
Agnes and her father then allegedly killed Agnes’ brothers Daniel, 27, and Zoltan, 22. Another half sister, Tunde, born in 1971, disappeared in 1990, but Agnes claims not to know what happened. With the other family members, she says, her father gave the orders and she did what she was told.
Agnes told investigators she and her father dismembered and then destroyed or disposed of the bodies.
After the pastor’s arrest, police digging in the basement of his former residence next door to the Boutiris unearthed the bones of at least three people hidden under a thick concrete slab, then stopped excavation work temporarily for fear that the walls would cave in. Searches at two other Brussels properties belonging to Pandy found no human remains.
Jos Colpin, spokesman for Brussels prosecutors, said it is still not clear whether the bones belong to members of the pastor’s family or to other missing persons. Police now say they believe that there may be a total of 10 murder victims, perhaps including potential brides that Pandy recruited through personal ads he placed in Hungary and Slovakia.
The clergyman and his first wife fled Hungary in 1956, the year of an abortive anti-Communist revolt, and settled in Belgium two years later. People who knew Pandy describe him as authoritarian, secretive, charming, a swindler and a freeloader.
“He was unfathomable, mysterious, always apart from the others,” said Ludovicus Van Malcat, a school inspector for the United Protestant Church who sat in on classes in religion that Pandy used to give to 11- to 18-year-old students in Belgian public schools. “He always had this little smile, like Buddha.”
He also appears to have set out with meticulous planning to cover his tracks. According to authorities in Hungary, Pandy had three young people he hired there play the role of his children during visits by them to Belgium, using the pretext that somebody was planning to make a movie about his life. He reportedly supplied a typewritten “screenplay” setting out what they were supposed to say.
Police have also found a score of letters, apparently forgeries, that try to reassure the recipients that the writer is in Miami, Brazil, Israel or some other location, but doing fine.
Since Pandy’s arrest, police in Hungary have sent their Belgian counterparts a list of 185 women who disappeared in the East European country beginning in 1985.
Pandy, who took Belgian citizenship in 1968, has proclaimed his innocence and maintains that the missing relatives left of their own free will.
“He keeps repeating that he had nothing to do with this business, that there is a big misunderstanding,” Brussels Deputy Prosecutor Hilde Vandevoorde said.
Retired since 1992, he probably would have lived out the rest of his years in quiet contentment had not the mistakes made during the Dutroux investigation, which were exposed by a special committee of parliament, compelled magistrates to dust off their old missing-person cases for a second look.
To many, whether Belgium’s police and judges can ever recoup the confidence of the public seems increasingly doubtful. An “immense ditch” has been dug between citizens and institutions, according to Jacques Gevers, editor of Le Vif, a French-language weekly.
A recent opinion survey by the Brussels evening newspaper Le Soir found only 21% of respondents still had confidence in the federal government and justice system.
In April, the parliamentary panel named 30 officials it said had failed to uncover Dutroux’s misdeeds. None so far has been punished, and Melchior Wathelet, then the justice minister, has been elevated to the European Court of Justice.
Worse, though hard evidence has yet to be produced, the conviction remains stubbornly widespread that members of the upper crust--government ministers, the Roman Catholic Church, the court of King Albert II--belonged to child sex rings or protected them.
“If the prime minister were identified as having been part of a pedophile network, some people would be even disappointed, and say, ‘Is that all there is to it?’ ” one Flemish-speaking Brussels office worker said.
Last month, the troubled country marked the anniversary of the end of World War I, a veritable slaughter in which 10% of those in the Belgian army, or 40,000 soldiers, lost their lives. Only a few patriots hung out the nation’s black, yellow and red flag.
Dahlburg was recently on assignment in Brussels.