Paris attacks: Belgium must heal divisions, says Vincent Kompany

The suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, went to school in the Brussels district of Uccle.

That same poverty-stricken neighborhood was also the home of one of the world’s most recognizable footballers.

A year older than Abaaoud, Vincent Kompany’s life after leaving Uccle could not have been more different.

While the 29-year-old captains English Premier League club Manchester City and the Belgian national team and earns millions of dollars in the process, Abaaoud died in a police raid in the aftermath of the November 13 Paris attacks — his body riddled with bullets and bits of shrapnel from a grenade explosion.

The son of a political refugee from Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a French-Belgian mother, Kompany says Uccle was an area with a large Muslim and north African population.

But even in his formative years, Kompany was aware of the immigrant community’s feeling of alienation — it was the sort of place where not even football, a sport that so often brings diverse cultures together, could create pride in national identity.

“When I was a kid in my neighborhood there was nobody that supported Belgium,” Kompany told CNN.

“It was impossible and unthinkable because there was nothing they could relate to.

“As much as I speak about the government that nobody can relate to — nobody could relate to the national team.”

Kompany has been outspoken in his criticism of the authorities and their outreach work with regards to the immigrant communities, but he refuses to countenance the idea that all is lost.

In June, Belgium will head to the European Championship finals in France as one of the favorites for the title — and it will do so with a squad which reflects Belgium’s multicultural society.

Kompany will line up alongside Everton’s former Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku, who is also of Congolese heritage.

Then there is Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini who, along with Tottenham’s Nacer Chadli and 19-year-old wunderkind Zakaria Bakkali, is of Moroccan descent.

Tottenham midfielder Moussa Dembele was born in Belgium after his father emigrated from Mali, while Liverpool striker Divock Origi has Kenyan heritage.

Barcelona defender Thomas Vermaelen will speak to the press in Flemish, while Zenit St. Petersburg midfielder Axel Witsel, whose father came from the Caribbean island of Martinique, will give his thoughts in French.

The team has come from across the world to play under one flag — and Kompany says the appeal of the modern generation has unsurprisingly coincided with an upsurge in support from the immigrant communities within the country.

“Today, I walk the streets in Brussels and young kids of Arab origins, Congolese origins, French origin, everyone is happy to wear the colors of Belgium, or most of them at least,” Kompany said.

“I think that’s the reason why I’m proud to play for Belgium — because I can take ownership.

“I’m not saying that I’m not proud of being Congolese as well — but I’m saying this is also my country and anything that happens in my country, I want to have a say.”

And Kompany has plenty to say. He has been outspoken in his criticism of Belgium’s politicians, who he holds responsible for failing to engage with the country’s disenfranchised youth.

He feels the inner-city communities in the poorer areas of Brussels have been neglected by the authorities, which has allowed feelings of injustice and resentment to fester.

“Back in the day, it was always, ‘Well, you’re supporting a country that doesn’t support us,'” he said.

“But you were born here — it’s your country — and going back to Molenbeek and other areas of Brussels, there’s a distance between those communities and the country as well.

“I think that our role is to keep going back and telling those communities, ‘Look, if you want to have a say for this country, you follow the steps.’ You can have a say as well. You need to have a say, matter of fact, because this is your country as much as someone that’s born with a white skin.'”

Brussels, which remains the focus of investigations that an ISIS terrorist cell working in the area carried out the Paris attacks, has been on high alert for much of the past fortnight.

The suburb of Molenbeek, which has been at the center of the police hunt, has brought the world’s attention to one of the most deprived areas of Brussels.

Kompany, who grew up nearby, rejects the notion that the area has become more dangerous. He says the lack of familiarity with the district breeds the myth that Molenbeek is a no-go zone.

“I want to make sure that people understand how important it is, first and foremost, to understand each other,” he said.

“Everyone wants to talk about terrorism and a religion that most of us, to be honest, don’t understand.

“I compare it sometimes, because I had a discussion with one of my family members not long ago.

“I said, ‘Imagine if those doing those attacks were black people,’ and that all of a sudden everybody started to say that the black people are the problem and we need to do something about it.

“Even if they said they are the most radical black people, I would still feel angry about it, because somehow it’s become the whole discussion and I need to justify myself over something that I’ve got nothing to do with.”

The month-long Euro 2016 finals begin in Paris on June 10, with 24 teams from across the continent playing in 10 different cities.

French authorities have said the tournament will go ahead, and promised extra security to deal with the increased threat of terrorist attacks.

Kompany insists it is the correct decision, even though there can be no guarantee that such incidents will be prevented.

“We need to realize that we’re in a society now where those isolated acts of violence will happen again,” he added.

“We have to trust the security services to protect us the best they can do. I think symbolically that couldn’t be a better place to host the Euros. We have to go.

“There’s no option, it’s even — you stop living or you just carry on. Not just carry on but you go on even stronger.”

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