What makes a Flemish butcher trade the ribs and steaks for truck dealing? The lucrative business of selling off discarded Belgian army trucks to mostly African, Eastern Europeans and Arabian clients is the unorthodox answer writer Rose Kelleher set out to unpack. Featured in the Second Best edition, this piece delves into the frail business Cristophe Smeets took over from his father – where conflict ridden countries and war makes for good sales.
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Ever wondered where trucks go to die? Africa, that’s where. We got a tip-off that there’s a place in some damp Flemish field where Africans come to buy fields-full of hand-me-down trucks from the Belgian army. Except they don’t buy them directly from the army, they buy them off a guy called Cristophe Smeets, a tough-talking, leather-jacketed middleman who is currently eyeballing us from behind his vast desk, cracking his knuckles. Yikes.
Writer Rose Kelleher
Photograpy Hugo Michaux
It doesn’t help that Cristophe sounds like he learned his English from Serbian football hooligans. But despite his alarming appearance, he’s a sweetheart. He even remembers to offer coffee. He’s also pretty open about the details of his enterprise. But of course. What has he got to lose by opening up to some artsy magazine from Brussels? This guy shoots the shit with hard-as-nails friends-of-presidents of failed states like Somalia and Afghanistan, every day of the week. He’s got nothing to lose. And anyway, what’s shady about his business? Again nothing really, as it turns out. Still, we send the photographer on the hunt for some dodgy shots of Africans in mid-handshake or huge slabs of hard cash exchanging hands, or some Sheiks test-driving Sherman tanks or whatever. But all he finds are some bored-looking black guys playing with their ringtones, shivering in the cold. It’s hardly tunnelling through Gaza. But we drove all the way out here and it cost €40 in petrol and we’re not leaving without a story.
Smeets & Zonen is an unceremonious patch of commercial opportunism on a lonely road outside the village of Peer, near the wobbly border where Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet. Out of nowhere, the horizon reveals what looks like a boring old scrap yard. Getting closer, it suddenly and conspicuously morphs into a mega-field of army vans and trucks. Stacks and stacks of them are piled next to each other in the muck in endless khaki-coloured rows that can be seen from space, alongside fields-full of DAF and MAN and IVECO monster trucks with curtained cabins and naked girly silhouettes and the whole shebang. Surrounding this mess of metal is acres of scary wire mesh fence topped by silver razors of barbed wire big enough to do your mascara in. Cristophe is sitting behind his desk when we arrive, waiting for clients to start pouring in for the day. The walls are covered in tribal relics and maps of Africa and there’s a room off to the side where office girls are knee-deep in administrative stuff. Outside the window, we see people streaming two-deep through the gate. They are Cristophe’s customers, and the day of wheeling and dealing is about to kick off. The room starts to fill with Africans and Middle Easterners, here to see ‘the boss’. It’s eleven o’clock and Cristophe declares loudly: “Africans don’t like to get up early, so they don’t start work before eleven,” and tut-tuts a bit, but his clients don’t seem to mind this slur on their work ethic.
The Belgian army is their biggest supplier, he tells us, and customers come from all over. “We buy the vehicles from the army’s public auction, about 350 at a time. We sell about 2,500 trucks a year, mostly to Africans, Arabians and Eastern European governments and dealerships. Some of the trucks we get from the army have only 20,000 kilometres on the clock, but they have have to get rid of them or they won’t get the budget for next year.” The atmosphere feels a bit tough until a sweet little lady comes in with a bag of ginger snap biscuits and offers them around. It’s Cristophe’s aunt. The business was started by his grandfather, a Flemish butcher, who eventually graduated to an export business before finally starting dealing in trucks sometime in 1976. “It’s a family business,” he tells us. “My father’s the big boss but he’s getting old and I’m taking over.”
“It’s always after a war that we do good business,” he says “We didn’t sell a single vehicle to Iraq until 2003 and now we sell an average of one truck a day. They’re a big customer, Iraq.” They trust Cristophe and his family, but it’s a dangerous business. “We’re not dealing in weapons, but we’re dealing in very large amounts of money with unstable countries. You get all kinds of people in here. People who live in war zones, people who’ve had family killed in front of their eyes. Life has another value for them. Just last week, a truck dealer was shot,” he says matter-of-factly, and we lean forward in our chairs. In Africa somewhere, we’re thinking. In Kinshasa or Lagos or some god-knows-where. But no. “Just outside his house. Here,” Cristophe tells us, gesturing outside the window. And we’re just there eating ginger snaps and thinking, whatthefuck. He won’t say much more about it. “I don’t know why they killed him, but I know that when you deal with people from countries like this, sometimes you’re right and they are wrong, but if you value your life, you have to be the big man and back down. That’s what I’ve learned. But conflicts happen.”
Cristophe’s phone never stops ringing the whole time we’re talking to him. He looks at the caller ID, sighs, and hangs up on each one. “I never go to Africa anymore. You need three weeks to do a job that should take only one week. Delays are common,” he says. “But there’s no point complaining because if you work with Africans you have to accept their way of doing things. They come here to order €300,000 worth of trucks and they give €100,000 straight up, so you prepare everything. You don’t hear from them for three months and then they turn up and say they lost the contract and they want their money back. You try to find a solution because you cannot make problems with these people. It’s a stressful job,” he adds without a trace of irony. “In that chair where you’re sitting now,” he says, “a guy from Gabon bought €800,000 euro worth of trucks from me. He gave me €200,000 euro straight up. I made arrangements for the sale, but a little while later there were elections in Gabon and the president lost and he and all his friends were kicked out. So, of course, this guy comes back and demands his money back. When I refused, he asked me, ‘Do you like to live?’ and when I said yes, he said ‘I don’t think so.’ Life has no value where he comes from. If you only saw the conditions some of them live in. He told me he would give me one week to come up with the money. We have to put a fund, about €100,000 or €200,000 every year for this kind of loss because I prefer not to be afraid. The guy went away happy, and he even sent me two other customers. That’s the way it goes.”
Cristophe’s African clients come to him, he says, because they need old trucks they can fix themselves in the middle of nowhere. “Here in Europe, if your car doesn’t start, you call a dealer and somebody comes to help you. But if you’re in Africa in an empty desert, you can’t call anybody, so they want old trucks that they can repair themselves. New trucks need computers to fix them. You lost the key? Forget about it.” Cristophe’s yard is located next door to a scrap yard that crushes cars considered environmentally unsustainable. There is a mountain of crushed cubes of twisted metal looming over the local landscape. A lot of them no more than five years old. “This is the government’s way of keeping the economy going, so that we’ll keep buying new cars,” he says cynically, shaking his head. We are inclined to tentatively agree, considering that making a new car produces as much carbon as driving it, and it’s probably better for the environment to keep your old banger on the road than to upgrade to a newer, greener model. But as shocking as this pile of waste is to us, it’s the Africans who come to buy trucks from Cristophe who are truly mesmerised by this mountain of cars: “They think we’re totally crazy. They started getting into the scrap yard and taking what they could from the crushed vehicles: radios, wipers, spare parts, useful things, to bring with them back to Africa, until the owner had to lock the gate to keep them out.”
A lot of Europe’s waste ends up in vast African and Chinese waste dumps, most infamous among them the stinking, toxic wasteland known as Agbogbloshie in Ghana. There have been many earnest attempts recently to curb Europe’s enthusiasm for fobbing their old crap off to developing countries, where kids are often tasked with extracting lucrative leftovers from toxic mountains of trash. But Cristophe isn’t buying it. ‘End of life’, he says, is open to interpretation: “It’s not trash. There’s all this talk about sending trash to Africa but we get rid of a fridge because we think it’s ugly, but an African family can get five more years out of it. And then they can use the parts to fix another one. Everyone in Europe wants flat screen TVs now, and so they throw out their old ones. They end up over there and it’s called ‘trash’. My clients bring these ‘old’ trucks back to their country, where they have a second life.”