Welcome to Doel
THE VANISHING VILLAGE
by Giovanni Masini. Pictures by Ivo Saglietti.
From Doel (Belgium). Sasha puts its head down on the sofa kicking up a little cloud of dust. Then it moves his tail against the pillows to say hi to Cécile, its owner and life companion. The beagle and the woman are two of the very few inhabitants left in Doel, an old farmers village on the left side of the Schelda river, few kilometers far from Antwerp. Founded seven centuries ago between the estuary and the flourishing Flemish town, the peaceful village lays between the fields and the riverside, just few brick houses around the Madonna of the Ascension Church. It could look like a village among the others, yet on closer inspection it is a ghost town. Desert streets, empty houses, windows barred with heavy iron gratings.
Only twenty out of the eight hundred inhabitants who crowded Doel during the Nineties
still live here.
Behind the disappearance of an entire community there is the announced expansion of the Antwerp harbour, the second in Europe for volume of wares traded. Right where now Doel lays the building of a huge dock is planned, in order to allow the big ships transporting containers to unload the wares unceasingly. The Maatschappij LinkerScheldeoever, which manages the area of the harbour on the left riverside, acquired all the buildings of the village except for a tiny one floor house owned by a teacher. Those who were not apt to sell were persuaded by billionaire offers: Cécile tells that a young couple was paid 450 thousand euros for a house valued at only 50 thousand.
Among the very few people left there is her mother Emilienne, 84 years old. In the living room of a house crowded by stuffed bears, she welcomes the rare visitors with her old eyes, which still reveals her antique beauty. “I am the last Doelenaar, born and grown up in this village – she tells smoking cigarettes one after the other – When I was a child there were 24 bistros, where the passing sailors used to drink.
Then suddendly, at the biginning of the new millennium, everybody started leaving.” During the summer nights there are numerous gangs that enter in the houses of Doel and destroy everything. Sometimes they knocked at Emilienne’s door, waking her up in the middle of the night. She decided to stay, because “in any other place she would die”.
“Those who were not apt to sell were persuaded by billionaire offers”
As of today the building of the new dock is blocked by a sentence of the State Council, but Cécile and Emilienne are afraid that this situation could change and that the bulldozers could soon reach the village. What they are not afraid of, instead, is the presence of a huge nuclear power plant few hundreds of meters out of the town, built in 1975. A power plant that is supposed to be safe, but that is actually monitored by the scientific community because of some cracks on the receptacle of the reactor 3, which are expanding.
Many of the activists who are fighting for the closure of the power plant are also asking to stop the expansion of the harbour and some of them highlight the risk of putting chemical and oil industries among the biggest in Europe around a nuclear power plant. While they wait for the political and economical players to take a decision about the future of Doel, the last inhabitants go on living they everyday life, which flows slow like the peniches going up the Schelda river.
“The destruction of Doel is blocked by a sentence of the State Council,
but things could change“
Cécile and Sasha welcome the tourists that now and then knock at the door, eager to collect information about the ghost village. The City Council, which was merged with the near village, still sends the gardeners to take care of the flowerbeds at the corners of the desert streets. A street cleaner sweeps the dry leaves in front of the cemetery, where the gate is broken and the gravestones are cracked.
But under the church bell tower, where the crows make their nests, the spirits of the dead say goodbye to the living who go away.
Pictures by Ivo Saglietti
Born in Toulon, France, he started in Turin as a cameraman, realizing some political and social reportage. In 1975 he began taking photos, working in the streets and in the squares of the protest and in 1977 he moved to Paris. Then he started his journeys as a reporter-photographe, at the beginning with French photo agencies, and then with American photo agencies and international magazines (Newsweek, Der Siegel, Time, The New York Times ), covering crisis and conflict scenarios in Latin America, Africa, Balkans, Middle-East. Read the whole bio