LIEGE, Belgium — "We were only eight years old, and we had lots of dreams. We thought life would be beautiful. You grown-ups, prepare us a better world."
--Memorial placard written by the parents of Melissa Russo and Julie Lejeune
The dark circles beneath Gino Russo's heavy eyes tell the story of a father's living hell.
For more than a year, the Belgian steelworker searched the world for his daughter, Melissa, who was 8 when she disappeared one day last summer while playing with a friend in a suburb of this gritty industrial town in eastern Belgium.
Italy, Spain and Holland. No Melissa. Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. No Melissa. Germany and Canada. Still no Melissa.
Several weeks ago, a despairing Russo told his wife that he had a hunch their daughter was closer to home. He was tragically right. Within a few days, the bodies of the little girl and her playmate turned up in the backyard garden of a convicted pedophile about 50 miles from here.
The sexual abuse and killing of two third-graders would break the heart of almost anyone, but the case of Melissa Russo and Julie Lejeune has done much more. Their horror has turned an entire country inside out, at once uniting Belgium's disparate cultures in grief and shattering their faith in the decency of their shared society.
"We were saying from the very beginning that Melissa and Julie were probably in Belgium," said Russo, 36, who helped distribute 10,000 posters of the missing girls in this tiny country and abroad. "But everyone said such a thing was not possible here. We stood alone."
Melissa and Julie not only died the most horrible of deaths on Belgian soil but did so after their parents' desperate pleas for help were dismissed by the authorities and nearly everyone else. In the aftermath, practically no one in this country of 10 million, unaccustomed to such national trauma, is able to look Gino Russo straight in his tearful eyes.
"There is a lot of rage right now over what happened to these two girls, but it comes partly from a deep sense of guilt," said Michele Hirsch, a Brussels attorney who has handled pedophile cases. "We all feel culpable. Maybe if more of us believed like the parents did, the girls would still be alive."
Belgium is a country where scandals typically erupt from politics and its linguistic divide--the contentious line that separates Dutch-speaking Flemish provinces from the French-speaking Walloons--not from society's failure to protect its most vulnerable members. Violent crime is relatively low, and pedophilia is regarded as the scourge of sandy beaches in Southeast Asia, not the wooded flatlands of Western Europe.
But the case of Melissa and Julie has suddenly changed all that. An angry and traumatized public has forgotten its language war and vented its collective fury on the system, blaming the police, the courts and the political establishment for having failed the two girls--and the rest of Belgium with them.
"I never imagined that something so horrible could happen on our own doorstep," said Marie-Joelle Bouzet, whose daughter, Elisabeth Brichet, has been missing since 1989, when the 12-year-old went to visit a neighborhood friend. "We have to keep up the public pressure long enough to force the politicians to change it all."
The indignation has grown even greater in recent days as speculation mounts that politics was involved from the beginning in the still-unfolding pedophilia scandal, which already has led to 10 arrests.
Russo, Bouzet and others allege that well-connected suspects have been afforded "political protection" by authorities, and a highly regarded children's activist, Marie-France Botte, claims that the Justice Ministry is sitting on a politically sensitive list of customers of pedophile videotapes produced by Melissa and Julie's accused abductors.
The affair has become further clouded by the unexplained discovery of a motorcycle at the home of the main suspect, convicted child rapist Marc Dutroux, that reportedly matches the description of one used in the 1991 assassination of prominent Belgian businessman and politician Andre Cools.
Michel Bourlet, the head prosecutor on the pedophile case, meanwhile, has publicly declared that the investigation can be thoroughly pursued only without political interference. Several years ago, Bourlet was removed from the highly charged Cools case, which remains unsolved.
"In situations like this, Belgians tend to stick together and turn against the state," sociologist Claude Javeau said. "There has always been a climate of distrust against the state. . . . It is a country where [state officials] have to be careful all of the time."
But as the sordid details of the girls' ordeal become known, the growing likelihood that a Belgium-based pedophile network was responsible for Melissa's and Julie's deaths has also compelled Belgians to look inward for answers to many troubling questions, including why they have been so slow to address problems of missing children and sexual abuse.