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Belgium remembers the White March on its 25th anniversary

A picture taken 20 October 1996 shows an aerial view of protestors during a rally of tens of thousands in Brussels, protesting against the Belgian justice system's handling of the child sex, kidnapping and murder case that shocked the nation (BELGA IMAGE)
05:40 20/10/2021

Twenty-five years ago, on Sunday 20 October 1996, 300,000 people gathered near Brussels North station for the start of a march that would become a milestone in Belgian history.

The White March was organised by the parents of child killer Marc Dutroux’s victims and those of other missing children or victims of predators. They had sent out an invitation to the people of Belgium to join them as a mark of respect but also to send a message to the authorities that many felt had failed their children and had incompetently handled the Dutroux case.

"White will be our colour, the symbol of our damaged and murdered children, of betrayed innocence, but also of a pacified society. Join us with a white flower or balloon as a sign of gratitude. We hope that this march will be a demonstration of peace and solidarity with all children," they wrote in the invitation to march.

About two months earlier, in the middle of the summer, the Dutroux affair had gone public. Marc Dutroux was arrested on 13 August 1996. Two of his victims, Sabine Dardenne and Laetitia Delhez were found alive and released but it was too late for his other victims, Julie, Melissa, An and Eefje. Gradually, the revelations around this case, and the mistakes made in the investigation plunged Belgium into horror.

The march is still one of the largest mass demonstrations that Belgium has ever seen. As well as the 300,000 people who took to the streets of the capital, many others followed the events on television and on the radio. In the midst of the sea of white balloons, white flowers, white clothes, the participants walked in sadness, indignation, anger and incomprehension. At the march’s conclusion, the parents gathered on a podium to take their turn to speak, between messages of peace and reproaches aimed at the justice system.

A few weeks after the march, a parliamentary commission of inquiry was set up to investigate the failures of the authorities. Several magistrates, police and gendarmes gave their testimonies, some admitting their mistakes and accepting responsibility. The inquiry ran for days and was followed by thousands watching the daily events on television.

The inquiry led to two damning reports condemning the failures of the Belgian justice system in relation to the Dutroux case. Subsequently, several reforms followed, leading to the creation of a federal prosecutor's office, responsible for investigating major criminal cases, as well as the establishment of the Court for the Enforcement of Sentences (TAP) which, since 2007, has been responsible for examining the conditions of release of a detainee.

The gendarmerie was also disbanded and replaced by an integrated police force at two levels: the federal police, on the one hand, and the local police, on the other.

As a result of the White March, Child Focus, the foundation for missing and sexually exploited Children, was also born. The foundation collaborates with the police and deals with more than 1,000 disappearances every year. In 2020, Child Focus processed 1,062 new disappearance cases, 205 of which were considered worrying. The foundation also processed 2,205 cases of sexual exploitation and received 2,056 reports of child sexual abuse images online.

Queen Mathilde will attend the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the White March on Wednesday. A tribute will be made to missing children and victims of sexual exploitation in front of the sculpture, The Messenger to The Missing Children, in Brussels Park.

Written by Nick Amies