Chechen and Belgian refugees: Lots in common, if 90 years apart

News Stories, 3 November 2004

© M.Van Coile
The "Fleeing throughout time" photo exhibition in Zemst featured local refugees during World War I as well as today's refugee crises, like in Chechnya and Darfur.

ZEMST, Belgium (UNHCR) A photo exhibition now running in the North Belgian town of Zemst is bringing back memories of war and exile very close to home, showing both the local and global face of refugees.

The exhibition, titled "Fleeing throughout time" ("Vluchten is van alle tijden"), is divided into two parts. The historical part shows pictures of the parents and grandparents of today's inhabitants of Zemst ancestors who were forced to flee the fury of the First World War as the German army advanced in the late summer of 1914.

The modern part features photos from the UNHCR archive showing the refugee crises of today in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Western Sahara, Darfur and how refugees are received in Belgium. The two parts of the exhibition are linked by a reproduction of "Exodus June '40 France", a monumental black-and-white fresco made by Belgian artist Frans Masereel in 1942, depicting how his family and thousands of his compatriots fled to the south at the outbreak of World War II.

The exhibition has two purposes, says Josée Goethals of local non-governmental organisation AZIZ (Integration of Asylum Seekers in Zemst), who organised the event together with the local historical association, De Semse. "First of all, we want to highlight that war and violence have caused people to flee throughout history all over the world. Today's refugees are no different from those who fled our town 90 years ago."

At the same time, the story of Belgian war refugees aims to draw attention to the situation of war refugees in Belgium today, who are not covered by the 1951 Geneva Convention because they fled situations of "generalised violence" rather than individual persecution. Ultimately, Belgium will need to introduce a status for this group of refugees when it implements the European Union Directive on the refugee definition, which says that all Member States must offer protection to persons whose lives are threatened in situations of armed conflict.

The exhibition shows that, then and now, the causes of flight are still universal: war, violence, persecution. And the testimonies are just as horrifying including in Zemst, a small town in Flanders just north of Brussels that got caught up in World War I.

The horrors of war descended on Zemst on August 25, 1914. The feared uhlan horsemen arrived first, followed by a wave of German military. Fearing ambush by civilians, the soldiers raided the houses and farms one by one, says local historian Rogier Van Kerckhove. They looted and burned the homes, killed inhabitants or took them hostage as human shields.

The population of Zemst didn't think twice: they just fled, without knowing where to go, walking in the night under a pouring rain. Barely five families stayed behind in Zemst and the surrounding villages after the August horror.

Those who could afford it took the train to the coast, hoping to embark for England. Most walked to the fortified citadel of Antwerp, but when that town fell to the Germans, they fled further: to the Netherlands, to England, to France. Some of them, mainly the poorest people of Zemst, eventually returned, setting aside their fear as they felt that they could not survive without their land and livestock. But the large majority of the Zemstenaars was forced into exile abroad.

The reception that awaited them varied widely. In England, everything was well organised, according to the testimony of Karel Van Crombrugghe, the school teacher of Zemst. "The first days we felt like strangers. None of us understood English, but after half a day we learned what the word 'wait' meant. After a few days, a person from the refugee committee came to fetch us and brought us to Harwich. I even got a job there as a teacher for refugee children!"

In the neutral Netherlands, the situation was very different. Initially, the refugees were welcomed and lodged with Dutch families all over the country. But as the number of refugees swelled, the attitude became more reserved. Nothing was organised, until the authorities set up tent camps, and later on, barracks, outside cities and villages.

"The Dutch had no contact with the refugees", says Van Kerckhove. "They wanted to keep them apart in their camps, which became little Belgian villages."

For some visitors, the historical part of the exhibition is like a family album. "Look, these are my parents when they married in May 1918 in Glasgow, Scotland. They were refugees there," says an elderly lady, pointing at an old photo portrait.

Still, it is hard to get a full picture from the returnees of Zemst about their experiences as refugees. "People I have talked to over time spoke easily about their good memories, and they showed me a souvenir from England or a postcard from the Netherlands," says Van Kerckhove. "But it was much harder for them to talk about the misery they endured."

Masereel's fresco and the new photos in the exhibition reflect the despair of today's refugees. "The more I look at these images, the more situations and details I recognise," says Jan, a local visitor. "And it makes me think. Refugees then and now, it's still the same."

© M.Van Coile
Linking the historical and current parts of the exhibition, Frans Masereel's fresco showed the mass displacement in Belgium during World War II.

"I never knew about the war in this country, how the villages of Belgium were destroyed and the people had to run", says Ramzan, a refugee from Chechnya who hopes that the exhibition may help to foster some understanding about the situation of today's refugees. "It's very difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced a war how deep the wounds and the anger are. It's good that the Belgian people are reminded that the sorrow of having to flee is always the same, in the past and in the present."

The photo exhibition is a pilot project supported by the Flemish refugee organisation, OCIV/Vluchtelingenwerk. There are plans to replicate the project in different parts of the country, each with a local refugee NGO and a local historical association.

By Diederik Kramers
UNHCR Brussels