The wave that swept Verviers

Verviers, one of the towns devastated by the floods in Belgium, today looks like Mosul in the middle of war. It is Monday afternoon, five days have passed since the rising of the water, and in this municipality located in the east of the country, a step away from Germany, life in the neighborhoods affected by the flooding of the river Vesdre takes place in the streets . Everyone seems to be going from one place to another. There are volunteers delivering food and essential hygiene products next to the church. Children running around, on bikes or skates or playing soccer while avoiding the holes in the asphalt. Desperate adults who have barely slept and mount guards to prevent theft. People who shake their heads and say, “We have lost everything.” Cars circulate where they can. Piles of furniture, appliances, toys, and technology gadgets are crowded at the door of every house. They look like nightmare Ikea catalogs, run through a mud and grime washer. They also look like barricades in a war zone. It is as if the houses have vomited their insides. The stench when approaching these mountains sometimes becomes unbearable due to the macerated mixture of the water with the diesel from the boilers, a cocktail forged in the basements of the houses. Next to these mounds, the neighbors prepare dinner on barbecues.

Mohamed Abushab, 32, of Palestine, fans the flames of the coal as his children scamper around. “This is like war,” says Abushab, who knows this: he left Gaza for Europe seven years ago and claims that he survived 16 days in Libya feeding only on dates. “This is the jungle. The fucking jungle, ”adds María Alonso, a 48-year-old woman whose family of Asturian origin settled here in the sixties to work in the mines in the area.

The city of Verviers, located in the province of Liège, was a wool empire in the golden years of the industrial revolution, a thriving city of now empty manor houses, a cracked town hall with a palatial air and a great opera house today ruined. With the closure of the surrounding coal and steel industry, this city of 55,000 inhabitants has now become one of the poorest municipalities in the country that is home to European institutions. It has a population of foreign origin “very important and impoverished,” according to what one of the councilors of the City Council told this newspaper last October. At the time, the municipality was in the news for being one of the black holes of the EU coronavirus, with contagion rates that were around 3,900 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. More than 100 nationalities coexist in Verviers. Foreigners make up 12% of the population, a figure similar to that of the rest of the country, although it grows when Belgians of foreign origin are taken into account. And the unemployment rate exceeds 20%, more than double the Belgian average. The blow, now, has come with the rains. And, as on that occasion, the social situation is intertwined with natural causes to magnify their effects.

The descriptions of Alonso, the woman of Asturian origin, seem to show a social powder keg about to explode. She is still traumatized by the screams of a woman who drowned during the turbulent hours of the onslaught of water. She was an elderly Moroccan woman who lived alone on a low floor in front of her house. His screams for help began at dawn. The neighbors tried to save her. They could not open the door due to the pressure of the flood. Those who were in the surrounding houses could hear the woman’s wailing until silence came: she had died. In Verviers, at least six people have died and a minimum of 20 remain missing, according to Maxime Degey, councilor for Works and Mobility of the municipality.

Alonso, like other residents of the affected areas, assures that the City Council received the warning from other municipalities that were up the course on time, but denounces that this alert was not transferred to them. The local authorities, on the other hand, assure that they did not receive any evacuation notice from the regional administration.

The walk along the Asturian road following the path of the river that overflowed seems to have been taken from one of the rings of hell. She goes on about how “the wave”, as she calls it, hit the houses; their descriptions are reminiscent of a tsunami. She bought her home three weeks ago. He wanted to go back to the neighborhood of his childhood. The water filled the basement and the ground floor.

Alonso walks through Verviers while pointing out the destroyed cars, there the family that was considering jumping from the terrace. It passes by an immense container of merchandise from who knows where stamped against a tree; a multi-ton bronze sculpture lies meters beyond, torn from its site. He reaches the tunnel where a plug of water and garbage was formed, and from which it is thought that corpses could come out. Firefighters work on pumping the water. The smell there is unbearable. It also stinks next to a Carrefour where looters still dwell. The lanterns are seen moving inside. When the water was gone, “the rats arrived,” says Alonso, referring to the thieves from whom they have to protect themselves at night.

It is already dark and in the areas devastated by the Vesdre they are still without light. It is time for barbecues and candles by the windows, to be able to see something in the dark. Despite the drama, a strange festive sensation, like a town in summer, floats in the atmosphere, with the children rampaging in the streets and the neighbors chatting with camaraderie. Alonso greets a volunteer firefighter, a boy who was jumping from window to window, like Spiderman, helping the neighbors in the worst of the flood. And that’s where another neighbor, who owns a restaurant, has just parked a load of freshly made pizzas in his trunk every night. When he sees it, Alonso sighs: “How good that solidarity works.”

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