Memorial garden unveiled in tribute to young victims of Marc Dutroux

A garden of remembrance has been unveiled on the site of child killer and rapist Marc Dutroux’s former home, in memory of his victims. The fathers of two of the victims, eight-year-old schoolfriends Julie Lejeune and Mélissa Russo, attended the unveiling ceremony on Tuesday.

The house in Marcinelle, a district of Charleroi, was where Dutroux held the girls and young women he abducted, assaulted and raped in the mid-1990s. 

Initially, the victims’ parents did not want the house to be destroyed. However, given its deteriorating condition, they agreed to consider creating a new space there provided that the basement, in which Julie and Mélissa died, be preserved. 

“The police investigation was based on a hypothesis we never believed in: that Julie and Mélissa were able to live independently in the basement for four months,” Gino Russo, Mélissa’s father, said on Tuesday. “We think one day we will have to go back into the cellars to find out the truth.”

After consultation, the families decided to create a garden in honour of Julie and Mélissa and Dutroux’s other victims, An Marchal, 17, and Eefje Lambrecks, 19, who were abducted, raped and murdered. Two other girls, Laetitia Delhez, 14, and Sabine Dardenne, 12, were abducted and held in the basement of the house in 1996 before being discovered and freed. 

The garden has been named Between Heaven and Earth and is intended to create a place of remembrance, while initiating renewal in a neighbourhood that has suffered lasting scars.

“It’s extremely difficult to try and come up with a fair project when you're faced with a tragedy as terrible as this,” Charleroi mayor Paul Magnette said.

The garden has been designed in consultation with the victims’ relatives. The panels that covered the facade of the house had long featured a painting of a happy child. Artist Christophe Terlinden has reinterpreted the image for the new garden.

"It’s extremely difficult to try and come up with a fair project when you're faced with a tragedy as terrible as this"

A burial mound for Julie and Mélissa has been covered with flowers, and the street corner is walled with white bricks that reflect the light. The garden is visible but not directly accessible to the public. People can lay flowers in a small alcove in the wall. 

Outrage and reform

In 2004, Dutroux was convicted on six charges of kidnapping and four of murder, as well as three counts of the rape of girls in Slovakia, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

His ex-wife, Michelle Martin, was released in 2012 after serving 16 years of a 30-year sentence for her involvement in the crimes and transferred to a convent. Both Dutroux and Martin had been jailed in the 1980s for kidnapping and raping five young girls, but were released early.

The case caused outrage in Belgium, over both the nature of Dutroux’s crimes and a catalogue of failures in the police investigation. It led to the largest demonstration in the country’s history: the White March in Brussels on 22 October 1996, in which an estimated 300,000 people took part. Eventually, there was a reform of the justice system and an overhaul of Belgium’s fragmented policing system.

Julie and Mélissa are buried next to each other in the cemetery of Grâce-Hollogne, Liège. Child Focus, the Belgium-based European Centre for Missing and Sexually Exploited Children, was set up by Julie’s father in the aftermath of her murder.

Top and bottom: The memorial garden on the site of Marc Dutroux's former home; centre: Charleroi mayor Paul Magnette, Jean-Denis Lejeune and Gino Russo © KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

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