I knew it from the non-stop flood of sirens, the shrill cries of officers, and sounds of trucks and whistles on the street. The neighbourhood was much louder and urgent-sounding than usual. I struggled to turn on my phone, and then the messages came flooding in. Something wasn’t right.
March 22nd, 10:30 AM
“Cass, are you awake? I…I have something to tell you.”
My friend, visiting me for a few days is lying on the floor in a sleeping bag. She sits up and looks at me wide-eyed – unprepared for what comes next.
“There have been attacks on Brussels this morning. Three explosions. Terrorists. The airport, and the Metro near the EU quarter. “
“Sh**. Oh my god. Okay.”
“The country is in a level 4 terror threat. I don’t know how many people…you know. But we should let people know we’re okay.”
On March 22nd, there were ISIS-funded, coordinated suicide bombings in the Belgian capital city of Brussels, where I am living.
This is my account of that day, and the days that frame it.
This past December, my family and I sat down to talk about our fears about my term abroad. They were concerned about the potential danger of living in the “capital of Europe” after the recent terror attacks in Paris. We talked about how my chances were likely slim, and though I knew Brussels was very much a potential target since many of the suspects came from Belgium, we decided that the experience of living in the hub of Europe outweighed the risks. I tried to set a good example for my brother, telling him that I couldn’t chart my life according to the fear of “what if’s”, and I chose risk over potential regret. I promised him I would do my best to stay safe, but that life offers no guarantees.
I arrived in Brussels in January, with my obscenely bright suitcases in tow. I was giggly with exhaustion, but sobered up a bit when I watched two soldiers walk by with large machine guns, the lengths of which stretched from their shoulders to their toes. My friend who collected me at the arrivals gate leaned over and put his hand on my shoulder,
“Don’t worry. It’s normal, we’re still in level 3.”
I soon moved into my new apartment. Sandwiched between two military base buildings and a police station, I did see a lot of official action. I was lucky to grow up next to train tracks, because the wail of sirens might’ve have otherwise kept me up at night.
A few weeks after living there, a new friend of mine came to visit my apartment, and we talked about how we were getting used to an increased military and police presence – even on our trips to IKEA. We joked about how we watched them carry their weapons with the barrels pointing down. Surely many had accidentally shot themselves in the foot by now?! Afterwards, my friend warned me to still remain on my guard – sadly, she had heard of many women being assaulted or harassed by the very people that I thought were supposed to protect me.
I heeded her advice when a police car stopped me one night in February as I was coming home, unaccustomed to walking in heels on cobblestone at 3 am after a student gala. They asked if I had somewhere to be, and when I pointed out my apartment that was visible a block away, I was offered assistance getting there, which I politely declined.
One day, I decided to go on a student trip to Switzerland with a friend of mine. I was taking the tram to a train station which was to be the meeting point for our tour group. The tram driver stopped just short of our final destination, and made his way through the tram, explaining that we had to evacuate onto the tracks safely as this tram would be turning back. There was a bomb threat at the station, and they were closing the entrances.
I hopped off the tramcar unsure of what to do, deciding to head towards the station anyways. My group was to meet outside the entrance, maybe they were still there? I certainly didn’t want to worry my friend who was waiting, nor did I want to miss my group’s departure. I walked briskly towards the station, met by swarms of people hurrying away. I felt like a fish swimming upstream, my heart pounding and my head foggy. I felt so foolish, walking towards the danger, what with my long-held fear of dying young and tragically. It made me want to cry as I noticed many Muslim women hanging out of their doorways, looking for family members and pulling them inside. It was almost as if they were hoping to shelter them from what could be a bomb, but also from the waves of blame that might come their way as so many acts of violence had triggered before.
When I reached my friend and the group, we joked nervously as watched the station be evacuated. Police and military rushed around or stood guard at the yellow tape, and we tried not to let our imaginations get the better of us when we heard several loud explosions and smaller ones that sounded like gunshots.
Our witness to this event seemed significant, but when we returned to Belgium 2 days later, we were stunned to find few traces of the happenings in local news. The city had moved on, gone about their lives. This was their new normal.
Last week, my group of friends here tried to get a hold of each other as the police raids in Forest escalated, with shootouts endangering both police officers and civilians. “Stay away from such and such” was our line of choice that week. We didn’t know if our densely-packed student neighbourhoods would be next. When a prime suspect in the Paris attacks was arrested two days later, the world seemed to be sharing some relief, what looked and felt like celebration.
Not me. It was close to home. He’d been hiding here for months, undetected. What did that say about the efficiency of the forces? Furthermore, what would that mean about the discovery of other suspects that were surely still here?
When discussing the arrest with those close to me (many of whom are political science students like myself), I revealed that I believed there would be a strike-back, a retaliation of some kind. Just like the gangs I had studied in sociology, I had a feeling that this terrorist group would fight back against the forces that took hold of one of their own.
Little did I know how soon it would happen.
March 22nd, 8:15 AM
I couldn’t sleep anymore, though I’d come in late and considered myself a professional sloth on mornings like this. The sirens were really loud, their volume seemed to escalate as the minutes ticked on. I grabbed my phone out of it’s charger and found a flood of messages. My friends in the Netherlands had heard, and urged me to stay inside. Other international students were using our WhatsApp to check on each other’s whereabouts. We didn’t know much yet, only that the airport had experienced 2 explosions at the departures gate.
My stomach dropped. My mother had been at that gate at precisely this time, two days earlier. That was too close for comfort.
I logged onto my computer, and since most of my social media and browser settings were tailored to Canadian time, I turned to Twitter. Most of the people in my world were fast asleep, and I was now watching the third explosion at a nearby metro station unfold in 140 character pieces.
I take that subway all the time. I was going to take it later that day.
The rest of the morning was spent alternating between news outlets and platforms, and preparing for what was to come. I tracked down everyone I knew in Brussels, counting each one and cross-checking my texts, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, emails…I prayed that 3 times was the charm, and that the violence would be capped for the day. I registered as a Canadian living abroad. I watched borders and stations and schools and transit close. I read updates by the Federal Crisis Centre as if they were the Holy Gospel.
I waited for my parents, siblings, boyfriend, and friends to wake up on the other side of the world. I braced myself for the worry they would have, and the answers that I couldn’t give them. I had to stay calm, if only for them. It was a numbness – like walking on eggshells, waiting for the hammer to drop and shatter a composure that I knew was only temporary.
I kept the window in my loft room open, even though that made the panic below a little louder. As the messages of concern and support flooded in, I noticed that the weather outside was the most gorgeous day I had seen so far since the move. The contrast was stark: a climate so beautiful, yet a day so horrific. I was beyond overwhelmed, numb and unable to process or react.
When I did leave the house in the coming days, there was a paranoia I felt walking the streets – my heart leaping into my throat anytime a person appeared around a corner when I wasn’t expecting it. I found myself making snap judgements about a man looking grumpy, or a car idling too long in front of a building. I talked myself down over and over, and allowed myself to breathe when hidden in my room with the door locked.
It all finally hit me, every emotion and rushing over me with an urgency I couldn’t filter or control. I embraced the fear and let my mind run wild with awful possibilities.
There is no pattern. There is no way of knowing when or where. We are in a gambling game.
If death is to come for me, I can’t escape it by not walking home alone at night, or by carrying keys between my knuckles – strategies I sadly learned growing up female.
People close to me said they would have known instinctively if I had been hurt. My heart now ached for the loved ones of people who had been lost; whether they knew instinctively or not, they would struggle with grief and endless days of questions, most of which would go unanswered.
In the last few days, I have certainly felt timid and fearful, but there is anger that is coming forward.
Anger for giving my family another reason to worry about me when I’m an ocean away from their arms. Anger for making my days in a new city that much more difficult when things are closed down. Anger for prodding my anxious mind into a tailspin every time I hear a siren, or think about being a target on campus, transit, or in crowds. Anger for the people that will unfairly carry a burden of blame. Anger against governments who fail to recognize their contributions to this violent climate and fail to prevent it from happening again. Anger for the grief of so many innocent people, the grief of the nation, the grief of the world. Anger for the fact that these types of attacks have happened worldwide, yet the media notes only the ones that feature the people most privileged as victims.
But I’m also starting to feel little glimmers of hope.
Hope because I’ve never felt unity or spirit in this city until I glimpse the chalk drawings in the streets, or the people gathering in defiance with flags draped around them. Hope because I see love in the eyes of parents clutching their children closer, grateful for their safety and hoping to create a better situation for them. Hope because people are sharing hugs, giving blood, and putting pressure on the powers that are supposed to ensure our safety.
We, the people of Brussels, will not live by principles of fear. We will not allow violence to divide us. We will heal together in our own ways, and we will learn from each other in the days to come. A city of huge diversity and confusion will find itself at last united, walking forward.
Thank you to all those who reached out to me over the last few days. I’ll keep you posted. I wish everyone safety and healing at this time.