Life In Brussels: Armed Police And Chocolatiers

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Life goes on in Brussels. The horrific headlines both abroad and in the Belgian capital are a constant reminder that all is not well, but the city has most certainly not come to a standstill. In a world as fast as this one, it simply can’t.

Last week, I visited family in Belgium. My mother and I were supposed to fly to Zaventem, but after early optimism that the airport would reopen a few days after the bombings, our flight was cancelled (and would only partially reopen on Sunday with 6 flights, instead of the usual 150). My family live in the Flemish-speaking region of the country that struggles to find a common identity, and as we drive through there are no clues that there had been major terrorist activity only a week earlier.

I can only speak for my experiences and those of my family, but that’s already much more than you get from the British media. There was no additional security at the ferry ports in Dover or Calais; it’s only when you get to the capital city that you realise that there has been a major incident. The multi-ethnic residential areas lie very close to plush high-streets, chocolatiers and diamond traders, and the cobbled streets and medieval churches make Brussels a charming place to be. The now infamous municipalities of Molenbeek and Schaerbeek certainly have their problems, but you wouldn’t know it as you drive through the historic areas that house the famous Tour&Taxis site, the former industrial and office buildings.  I spend an afternoon wandering around with my family, hearing languages from all around the world and taking in Brussels’ best-known attractions.

In the centre of the city is the memorial to the victims of the suicide-bombings, outside the stock exchange building. Messages written in chalk on the outside of the building offer sentiments of peace and support for those affected, but ‘fuck Daesh’ (ISIS) was also prominent. The front of the building, covered in more chalk messages, as well as flowers, tributes and candles make for a beautiful and sobering sight. At the top of the steps, a white flag with the words, ‘this is not Islam’ hangs amongst flags of countries from all over the world. A cardboard cut-out of one of Belgium’s most famous fictional characters, Tintin, and his dog, Snowy, catches the eye. Tintin, his famous quiff coloured in the black, yellow and red of Belgium’s flag, walks forwards while Snowy raises his leg and pisses on a rifle. There was a peaceful, melancholy atmosphere, but people are clearly angry. Behind the tributes, a man is drawing a large chalk picture on the ground, while a French-speaking black man is eagerly having his photo taken with an Asian man and a white man, keen to promote solidarity.

Françoise Lecomte - Flickr, used with permission
Françoise Lecomte – Flickr, used with permission

Back in my cousin’s house after a family dinner, conversation gradually turns to politics. ‘Where are you going for your year abroad?’ gives way to ‘Do you think Donald Trump will win?’. What do Belgians think of the terror attacks? Much the same as we do. How do Belgian Muslims feel now? Scared. I heard about a Muslim friend of my cousin who had to drive to Paris Charles-de-Gaulle airport the day after the Brussels bombings. He was less than enthusiastic. How would people react to seeing dark-skinned men with long beards in a major European airport? The men who attacked Zaventem were wearing “regular” clothes, it was pointed out. Even worse, Muslims in Brussels feel that people are suspicious of them on the metro, on the bus and in the streets.

Another thing to consider here are the employees of Zaventem airport. On Sunday, I had lunch with a family friend who works as a psychologist for a post-trauma charity. Going back to work 12 days after a major terrorism incident can’t be easy. The family friend told us that the automated security messages continued to play over the airport’s PA system after the attacks, warning people not to leave baggage unattended. Several hundred staff took part in simulations in the days leading up to the reopening to trial a temporary system. Would you want to go back to work less than a fortnight after an incident like this? On the Flemish radio on our way home, Zaventem had just partially reopened. There were interviews from the directors of other Belgian airports that had dealt with re-directed flights in Zaventem’s twelve-day closure. Sure, it had helped them financially, they admitted, but it had mainly been about helping Belgians. Zaventem wanted to open as quickly as possible. Terrorism is bad for business.

The reaction of ‘far-right’ protestors in Brussels hardly came as a surprise, and I’m sure that lots of people are worried about what the political reaction to the attacks will be. But for now, at least, what is there to do but hug your loved ones close and keep calm and carry on?

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