Today, Brussels is grey again.
Yesterday, 22nd of March, was a surprisingly beautiful day, with clear skies and the sun peeking through the few clouds that were scattered about the place. Like a bad omen. And yet as I woke up, I thought: “this is going to be a good day for the start of our Hêbê Cool Runnings fitness programme”. Brussels as usual, somehow.
I also woke up to the sound of sirens, nothing unusual there either. Brussels has two characteristic sounds: the sound of sirens (with the occasional police car bellowing “Avancez s’il vous plait” through a loudspeaker), and the sound of suitcase wheels to and fro-ing, rattling and battling the uneven Brussels pavements.
Yet as I was getting ready to go to work, the sound of sirens did seem a little more intense than usual. That’s when I started getting the first few messages from family and friends and the day gradually became less normal. First the airport, then Maelbeek. Two attacks close to home, close to the lives of many expats and many Belgians in Brussels. Zaventem, the airport of infinite corridors, and Maelbeek, a strange and barely noticeable station located underneath the Rue de la Loi, between Kunst-Wet and Schuman, inspired by the eerie portraits of the artist Benoît van Innis, who helplessly witnessed the tragedy.
Brussels is often given flack for its dysfunctionality. And the dysfunctionality is real, this is not an expat invention. There is a sense of chaos everywhere. Brussels is in a permanent state of repair, confusion, construction, deconstruction and demolition. It is fascinating to note that the first witnesses of the Maelbeek event talk of an explosion “probably due to construction works going on”.
Despite the horror of the attacks, Brussels – in its chaos – has the capacity to subsume and absorb further chaos without falling into hysteria or drama. The images of the people escaping the airport and the ones escaping from Maelbeek show tremendous calm and self-control. The intervention of the police, armed forces and ambulances was also speedy and effective.
In the live coverage reporting on TV there is of course a sense of urgency and terror, but there is no overly dramatic reaction. On “La Deux”, after 10pm, they switched to show the finals of the FIFA Interactive World Cup, the annual international competition of football video games, “pour se changer les idées”. That’s Belgium, and that’s why Brussels is the place to be.
Now this does not take the horror away. It does not replace the pain and suffering of those who have lost loved ones, who are critically injured, or those who will live on with the shock of the terror. It will not replace the innate fear that spreads through the body as any place, any event, may potentially turn into a horror scene. But it also serves to remind us that Brussels remains a much safer place to live in than many other parts of the world that are facing the full scale of the war we – citizens – are implicitly part of.
One by one, our European countries of united peace descend into the tragedy of war once again, for the sake of retaliation. France, the UK, the Netherlands… sadly, very likely Belgium will be next. And that is truly the most terrifying part of the story: as if the response to terrorism is to continually scale up military intervention in other countries.