For nearly three weeks, the best Belgian virologist has been living in a safe house with his wife and 12-year-old son, constantly monitored by security guards.
Although scientists around the world have been attacked during the pandemic, the threat to Professor Marc Van Ranst is more serious than most cases.
He was targeted by Jürgen Conings, a former far-right soldier who has vowed revenge on virologists and supporters of containment, for public policies necessary to curb the transmission of the coronavirus and the collapse of health systems.
The soldier is a shooting instructor and fled with a rocket launcher and a machine gun. The Belgian police cannot find him.
“The threat was very real,” said Professor Van Ranst, reliving the night of May 18, when he and his family were taken into hiding. “The heavily armed ex-soldier spent three hours on my street, right outside my house, waiting for me to come home from work.”
That night, police said Conings left his barracks with a load of heavy weapons and went straight to the virologist’s home.
Van Ranst returns from work just as the man was expecting him. But on this occasion, he returned a little earlier and was already inside the residence with his family.
“Unfortunately, he is a trained sniper with heavy equipment, military grade material and various weapons,” the scientist explains.
“And he’s the kind of person who would rather not kick me out,” he adds.
“I’m not scared, I’m just careful”
The BBC report had scheduled an interview with the virologist via the Zoom app.
Hours earlier, however, the warning came that it would not be possible to show Van Ranst’s face and the environment he is in. The Specialist cannot come out or even approach the windows.
The Belgian security services make every effort to keep the location of the teacher and his family secret.
Despite the threat to life and the oppressive and strict circumstances in which he now lives, the virologist who has become a Belgian public figure fighting the Covid-19 pandemic is serene.
He even jokes about working from home, although he admits the situation is extreme: “I’m not scared, I’m just careful. And my 12 year old son is very brave about it,” he says. .
“It’s a very surreal situation. In times like this, it’s better to know than to know nothing, because at least I can deal with it. What drives me crazy is that my son has to be locked in there. inside the house for almost three weeks. really. hated him. “
Who is the fugitive?
The Belgian authorities describe Jürgen Conings as a very dangerous and violent man.
He was already on a terrorist list in Belgium because of his far-right political beliefs. When he disappeared from the barracks, a written message left no doubt that virologists were his targets.
“The so-called political elite and now virologists are also deciding how you and I should live. They sow hatred and frustration. I cannot live with lies.”
At a time when it is easy to blame the bearers of bad news, Professor Van Ranst sees a certain inevitability in this surreal situation.
“If you watch TV several times a day for months on end, people are fed up with you. It’s inevitable,” he says.
“There is a group of people who hate science and scientists. Often they are fearful and insecure.”
In the days following Conings’ disappearance, a support group for the ex-soldier was formed on Facebook.
Before its closure, the page already had around 50,000 members and this group worries Professor Van Ranst more than his attacker.
The virologist even challenged Conings supporters in an exchange of messages via the Telegram.
He later realized that it wasn’t necessarily the smartest thing to do.
In a way, the attitude reveals how angry he is. “These are real people, who really think this man is a hero and that I deserve to die. These are real people, who live in our neighborhood, who bet exactly when and with how many bullets he is going to kill me,” he blurted out.
Belgian police are tracking down the ex-soldier. Hundreds of officers, helicopters and military trucks have already crisscrossed hectares of land.
Even a large national park near the Dutch border has been cordoned off as part of the search, but officers do not appear to be close to finding the criminal.
‘Nothing to say’
Authorities admit they do not know Conings’ whereabouts and that there has been no lead since the day he went missing.
Local police officials accept that the former soldier may even be in another country, and in a note the fugitive said he was ready for a deadly battle with the police.
Those responsible for the investigation also admit that mistakes were made, and that it is necessary to answer how a soldier registered on a terrorist watch list gained access to a weapons depot.
And these unanswered questions offer little comfort to Professor Van Ranst, who remains a hostage in his hiding place.
“You can hide practically forever if you really want to. There are many ways to disappear, especially if you leave the country.”
When asked if he would have a message for Conings, the virologist is adamant:
“I have nothing to say to him. Why would I want to have a conversation with someone who hates me and wants to kill me?