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Doel: The ghost town rampaged by street artists

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A thick mist rises from everywhere around us. I'd think grey cotton and vapor, like dirty clouds, because seldom has pollution taken such a physical shape before my eyes.

The earth literally inhales and exhales dirt and smoke as if it were mechanical monster with bad breath and long, clanking fingers of cranes. It gurgles and trembles under our feet. Men walk around in safety vests and helmets, between big plastic containers in blue and red. Lanky towers blink intermittently whilst signaling somewhere beyond the barrier of rotten air.

As I make my way through the energy plants of Antwerp, upon the river Scheldt, between its port and nuclear power towers, I'm more like a paper doll in a dystopian tale by Orwell or Bradbury than an actual living, breathing person.

Yet in the split center of this energy plant sits a village, or at least what's left of it.

Doel, a 700-year-old Flemish town, merely a few streets long and wide, used to stand in the middle of fields and fresh grass, an idyllic landscape even home to the great painter Peter Paul Reubens. It was a village remembered with serenity and peace, where the first Belgian stone-mill was held and the largest population of swallow colonies in Europe frolickers about.

Since the 1970s it’s been eaten away at by machinery and implants being installed by a state-funded corporation in order to expand industrial plans for the Antwerp port. Although protests by the citizens have been fervent for the past forty years, when in 1999 the government requested the official evacuation and demolishment of the town, roughly 1,300 people were forced to grab their things and leave their homes.

Since that year, the inhabitants have slowly bled out of the city. Their homes and activities sold to the government for a cash premium, or threatened of expropriation.

Regardless, to this day no government plans have officially been put into action yet, so the houses and homes still stand, waiting for their demolishment without any set date for death. What’s left is an almost completely abandoned collection of vandalized homes and shops, and what some would call a ghost town, enveloped in the fog of industrialisation.

I say “almost completely abandoned” because 22 people still live in Doel, a total of 11 households refusing to let up both their properties and their fight against the government. Rooting in this brave group of people is an activist group named Doel 2020, resisting government actions since 2007. These campaigners claim that the government has no legal right to such land, and advocate that a second container dock isn't necessary since the first one is being used to less than a fifth of its capacity. They fight back in peaceful protests, banners, and numerous appeals in court.

For example, initially, as part of the campaign against demolition, artists from all over the world were invited to render the town something like an open-air museum, so to make the village as valuable as possible. Artists such as Luc Tuymans and Michelangelo Pistoletto lent a hand, and internationally famous Belgian muralist ROA sprayed four of his signature animals on the walls of the abandoned buildings.

However, this project didn’t hold with enough strength, and vandalism overtook street art, amateurs exploding in spray cans and markers over anything they encountered and with little respect. In such widening gyre, the town was usurped through looting and destruction by the hands of young undisciplined squatters, as well as raves and car races being organized regularly in the middle of the night. Police seldom patrol, as the few determined residents claim the government does so on purpose, to scare them out of living in that area, and avoid others trying to move there. Although the inhabited households and the church and cemetery still haven’t been vandalised, the people left have to post signs to warn vandals, or take precautions against them and against the fear of them.

As I venture down the lonely streets, it’s hard to pretend I’m not creeped out. The weather is cold. The light is droopy. Most houses have had their windows smashed out and doors torn off the hinges, with every hole or gap in the bleak brick walls then covered in a wood plank or flaking polyester.

I walk down the empty streets into empty garages and empty living rooms, empty basements, empty rooms that might have belonged to a girl my age, two lovers, a drug addict, a family of four.

As I knock on the doors of the few households left intact, the people I encounter are not particularly keen to talk to me, let alone explain much.

A lady with a dog signaled to me through her window pane. She’s fed up of having to tell people why she stays; it’s hard enough as it is. She decorated her house for Christmas impeccably, with fairy-lights, cinnamon and quilts, and she makes it out as if she doesn’t need any strange reason to do so, it’s her home after all.

A man strolling around with a cigarette hanging off his bottom lip said he's not leaving because there's no reason the government should make him, he looks at me as if I were stupid. Of course, he's happy when his children come to visit during the weekend or spend the summer in town.

The New York Times reported of several other feisty citizens. Mr. Malcorps, spokesman for Heritage Community Doel, and Polder, who’s fighting for the historical and cultural value of the town. Also, Jan Creve, the leader of and spokesman for Doel 2020, who has gone to court for this cause and won on several occasions. Similarly, the Guardian writes about Marina Apers, quoting her as she explains: "Every time the government succeed in something, we start legal procedures against them – and mostly, we win."

The choices these people make day by day are hard ones, highly moral and ideological, as they fight against this gruesome plowing of history and culture. They fight first against the government, then against the vandals, and then against everybody telling them they should leave. However, to this day it’s still unclear on what impact this admirable resistance will have, as the fate of Doel remains unknown and unpredictable.

Sofia is travelling in Europe as part of The National Student's Student Travel Writer 2016 competition, with Eurolines. See more entries to the Student Travel Writer competition here.

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