Coalminer’s Son: New Belgian Leader Caps Unlikely Italian Immigrant Journey

Elio Di Rupo’s arrival as Prime Minister ends more than 500 days of political gridlock in Belgium, which saw threats of the country splitting in two. But Di Rupo, the last of seven children of poor Italian immigrants, has his own dramatic story to tell.

Elio Di Rupo (luc van braekel)
Elio Di Rupo (luc van braekel)
Marco Zatterin

BRUSSELS - Belgium has finally christened its own "American dream" tale, following one family's path from a poor Italian village to the Prime Minister's office in Brussels.

The story is centered in the small village of Morlanwelz, population circa 20,000, in the middle of the Belgian region of Wallonia. There, in one of the sheds assigned to the flux of immigrant worker families, Elio Di Rupo was born. This week, after more than a year of gridlock, Belgium's parliament finally voted in the 60-year-old bow-tied politician as the country's new Prime Minister.

Like thousands of other families, the Di Rupo family had left dire poverty in the central Italian region of Abruzzo in search of work in the coal mines of the province of Hainaut. Di Rupo's father left the village of San Valentino in 1946, and was joined the following year by his wife and their six children. In July 1951, their seventh child, Elio, was born. But tragedy would strike the family only months later.

And yet, on Tuesday, at 3 p.m., Di Rupo, head of Belgium's social-democratic forces, capped an unlikely personal journey and political rise, as he was sworn in by King Albert II. It also ends a nightmare for an entire country, putting an end to a political crisis that had left Belgium without a government for 541 days and saw the secessionist party N-Va's attempt to divide the rich Flemish Region from the poorer Wallonia. Now, with the new coalition and new government, the secessionist party is expected to lose support.

During the ceremony at the royal palace, Di Rupo was wearing his signature bow tie, appearing rather tense as he raised his right hand and took the oath. In that moment he may have been replaying in his mind the endless months of bare-knuckles negotiations among the parties that finally ended with the pact between Socialists, Christian Democrats, and Liberals of the two main regions.

Or Di Rupo's mind may have been drifting back through his own personal story, Italian roots and the political journey that made him Belgium's first Francophone prime minister after 37 years of Flemish leadership.

Di Rupo had a tough childhood. "My mother never learned to read and write," Di Rupo has said. "She barely knows how to sign her name. Seeing her efforts always inspired me."

Siblings sent to orphanage

He never knew his father, who was run over and killed by a truck when the last child was still an infant. The coal miner's wife and mother of seven was left with a pension of 300 francs. If he had died in the mines, it would have been much more.

The woman left three of her children in an orphanage, but she kept Elio. "We didn't eat meat for years," he said. He spent his time between the school and the parish church, where he was an altar boy and helped the priest fill the Communion cup with "a bit of water and a lot of wine."

In a series of interviews collected in a book, Di Rupo admitted that as a child he did not have anything, "but my mother's love." Belgian welfare policies helped him to graduate in Chemistry.

Then, he started a political career. In 1982 he was elected as a town councillor in Mons. Then he became Mayor, Member of the European Parliament, Minister of Education, Deputy Premier and President of Wallonia. In 1994, he became famous in Italy for his refusal to shake hands with a minister of Silvio Berlusconi's cabinet, who had been a member of a neo-fascist party.

Di Rupo has never been involved in any of the many scandals of Belgian politics. He arrived at the top thanks to his patience and rigor. In June 2010, his party obtained 26 seats in the Parliament, just one less than the secessionist Flemish party. He was the obvious candidate for the premiership, but it took time.

Now, he must lead the difficult job of rebuilding the country, following the political crisis and amidst economic troubles.

The miner's son -- who speaks a bit of Italian -- admits that he feels a deep connection with his parents' homeland. "I discovered it only when I was 20. I made a sort of pilgrimage," he recalled. "I went to see where my parents had lived. It was a poor house, but from their window, they had a wonderful view."

Read more from La Stampa in Italian

photo - Luc Van Braekel

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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