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Moment that mattered: Brussels is hit by coordinated terror attacks by Isis

Security forces secure the Rue de la Loi following an explosion in Maelbeek metro station in Brussels, Belgium, 22 March 2016. At least 34 people have been killed on the same day in a new series of terror attacks that rocked Brussels, Belgium, and left more than 180 people injured. Photo: FEDERICO GAMBARINI/dpa

Central Brussels following the coordinated bomb attacks

On the morning of 22nd March my boyfriend and I were in the kitchen packing some final things and making coffee when our phones started going crazy. Everybody had been saying that sooner or later an attack would happen in Brussels, but we could never have anticipated that it would happen on the day of our move from the Netherlands to Molenbeek.

When we had told people we were moving to Molenbeek [a neighbourhood in Brussels which has gained a reputation for being a breeding ground and safe haven for jihadists], people had thought it was a strange thing to do. People seem to think that Molenbeek is a sort of banlieue, far removed from the city centre and with nothing but grey blocks of flats. But it is actually a ten minute walk from Brussels’s Grand Place and is filled with beautiful, though sometimes poorly maintained 19th and 20th century buildings. We decided to move there mostly because we found an amazing house, a loft apartment in a converted former brewery. I’ve never liked exclusively white lawyers-and-doctors neighbourhoods, and a big part of Molenbeek’s population of around 100,000 has roots in different countries, with 40 percent of Moroccan origin.

We were listening to the radio all morning and Brussels was the only thing being talked about. Every ten minutes something seemed to happen: after the explosions at the airport there was the subway bomb. There were rumours about explosions at two more subway stations, people were advised to stay indoors and all train services around Brussels were cancelled. And of course we did both think, after the airport and the subway station – what’s next? But our landlord was texting us saying everything was fine and people were out on the streets. We didn’t want to postpone any more so in the afternoon we said to ourselves, ‘let’s just go’.

We didn’t notice anything at the border – there wasn’t a police officer in sight. And driving into Brussels was a strange experience too. There weren’t huge crowds, but people were out shopping and getting food. There seemed to be a big contrast between the news we had been getting of a city in lockdown and the city we saw, where people were going about their normal everyday business.

“People are asking themselves how to keep living with each other – how to prevent Belgium from disintegrating and polarising further”

The next day, though, the fallout of the attacks was clearly visible. The police station here in Molenbeek was fenced off and there were military personnel carrying machine guns throughout the city. At the same time, there was an atmosphere of ‘business as usual’. In front of the Brussels Stock Exchange a lot of flowers and candles had been put down, but just round the corner everybody was carrying on as normal.

In the months after the attacks, tourism dropped significantly and there have been reports of restaurants and hotels going into administration. That mostly affects the centre of the city. People from Brussels are going out in their local neighbourhoods rather than heading into the city centre. It’s like Piccadilly Circus and Soho being empty and Londoners going out in droves in Orpington instead.

My landlord spoke to the butcher and greengrocer who work around the corner from the house where Salah Abdeslam [a suspect in the Paris attacks of 13th November 2015, which left 130 people dead] was arrested, which is 300 metres from my own house. They were deeply shocked. It’s difficult for them – there’s already a massive stigma attached to the entire neighbourhood and to them as Muslim immigrants and then the arrest and the attacks happen. How do you come back from all of this? Now that some time has passed since the attacks, people are asking themselves how to keep living with each other – how to prevent Belgium from disintegrating and polarising further. There has been a political fallout too. On 15th April, the minister for transport resigned. Jacqueline Galant had been accused of covering up a failure to act on two reports which were critical of security arrangements at Belgian airports. She initially claimed she was unaware of the reports, but that was called into question, prompting her resignation.

Another point of fierce criticism that has emerged locally is that counterterrorism efforts have been hindered by the fact that Belgium has six different governments – a federal one, two for the Walloon and Flemish regions, two for the German and French speaking communities and another one for the capital. That means that if you want to get something done here it can take a very long time. Brussels itself is divided into 19 municipalities with six police zones. There’s a mayor of Brussels and then there’s a minister-president of the Brussels-Capital region, so it’s easy to pass the buck or have endless discussions without taking action.

As for me, the attacks did get under my skin slightly. When I get on the subway I do sometimes think, ‘If something happens now I’m in big trouble.’ I went to a concert with my boyfriend on 17th April, on the day of a march against terror. We both noticed we were tense, looking for the emergency exits before the show started. At the same time, we try to put it in perspective. We’re still more likely to be hit by a car. And we’ve joked before that Molenbeek feels safe because a terrorist wouldn’t blow up his own mum, so it’s fine to live next to her. Donald Trump called Brussels a “hellhole” after the Paris attacks, and there’s now a coffee startup from Brussels which has called an espresso blend ‘Hellhole’. Sometimes the best way of coping with tragedies like these is with a big dose of
black humour.

In DG #20 Susan Schulman told the story of the mothers from Brussels whose sons left home to fight in Syria and Iraq, and who came together to help others whose children are planning to flee. You can read the full feature, ‘The home front’, in the ‘From the archive’ section at slow-journalism.com/blog 

People came for a tribute to victims with candles and a message saying Je suis Bruxelles – Ik ben Brussel, in front of Brussels Bourse – Beurs after today’s terrorist attacks, Tuesday 22 March 2016. This morning two bombs exploded in the departure hall of Brussels Airport and another one in the Maelbeek – Maalbeek subway station, which made around 30 deadly victims and 230 injured people in total.

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