MOLENBEEK, Belgium — Thousands gathered Wednesday evening in the central square of this rough-edged Belgian town to honor the victims of the Paris attacks — and to confront what many residents see as growing stigmatization of their community, home to several of the attackers.
The world has turned a harsh eye on Molenbeek after investigators linked the impoverished Brussels suburb to at least three of the identified attackers. One was Bilal Hadfi, who blew himself up in a suicide attack near the Stade de France stadium in Paris during a soccer match Friday night. Another was Brahim Abdelslam, who also died near the stadium after detonating a ring of explosives around his body. Brahim's brother, Salah, who rented a Volkswagen Polo car parked in front of the Bataclan concert hall, has eluded police since the attacks.
The Abdelslams’ residence, besieged by media for the past few days, stood a little quieter Wednesday night on the side of Place Communale, the square at the heart of Molenbeek, where dozens of local nonprofit organizations organized a vigil with thousands of townspeople lighting candles to commemorate the 129 people who died in Paris and more than 350 who were injured. The organizers also hoped to help the town present a harmonious face in a bid to fight off what many residents perceive as the growing stigma attached to commentators branding their home the world’s “terror capital.”
Mohamed Abdelslam, brother of Salah and Brahim, who works at Molenbeek's municipality, lighted candles on a window ledge of the second floor of the family’s residence, where neighbors said family members remain stunned by the news and haven’t left the house in two days.
The atmosphere remains tense in the gloomy Brussels district. Police body-searched everyone upon arriving at the vigil for weapons or explosives. The Belgian government’s “terror alert” still stands at 3 — the second-to-highest level — and police continued to conduct raids Tuesday in one of Molenbeek’s narrow streets, as Salah remains wanted and investigators are scrambling for details on his whereabouts.
During the vigil crowds chanted slogans, “Islam is peace,” and carried signs with drawings of Molenbeek, while children covered a canvas with prints of their hands in bright finger-paint at the edge of the square.
Students from a Molenbeek high school near the square brought a colorful, hand-drawn giant puzzle with pieces representing various countries and flags — blue, red and white for France, and black, red and yellow for Belgium, among others. They assembled the pieces on the ground at the square, with candles lights assorted on top of them.
The armed group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has claimed responsibility for the attacks, making things doubly tense for many in the Muslim-majority town.
Mourad Lachkar, an 18-year-old student from the high school, said that they had brought the artwork in solidarity with the victims and that he hoped the gesture would signal that “people shouldn’t tar everyone with the same brush, because we are a religion of peace.”
He said the students had originally made the puzzle to commemorate of the victims of the shooting that killed 12 people in January this year at the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo attack in January this year.
“Molenbeek is highly segregated — up to 80 percent of the residents are Muslim in some parts of town, according to Interior Minister Jan Jambon.” Many residents are unemployed, leaving some more vulnerable to the ideas of recruiters for armed groups in Syria, who encourage disaffected youth to join them there.
Jovic Mafuta, a social worker at a Molenbeek community center called Le Foyer, said the center helped organize the vigil in a show of support for the city’s youth, who he said often feel stigmatized — especially after investigators linked five recent terror plots to the town in about one-and-a-half years.
Holding a bundle of flags that read “Molenbeek” fluttering in the wind, he said, “We fight for the future of the youth from here.”