When a suicide blast happens 150 metres from your office, the spectre of terrorism becomes very real, very quickly.
Since I moved here in January, Brussels — contrary to prevailing perception post-Paris — had not felt to me like a city on tenterhooks. Armed police are a constant, noticeable presence on the streets, but there was not an atmosphere of fear. That all changed, probably forever, in the space of an hour yesterday morning.
Terrorist attacks, claimed by the Islamic State, decimated the check-in area at Brussels airport and a tube carriage on the city metro, claiming more than 30 lives. Maelbeek station, where the underground explosion occurred, is just along the street from our building.
I was safely in the office by this point and didn’t see anything first-hand. Our reporters on the scene spoke of chaos, carnage and utter pandemonium. Accounts soon emerged of devastation, of bloodied faces, gaping wounds and limbs torn off; an “apocalypse”, according to one eyewitness.
A number of our staff use that metro line and station daily. Many of them are counting their blessings; conscious they could have been in the fateful carriage. I walk to work, and rarely use the metro, but I imagine future journeys will be fraught, scanning other passengers for oversized clothing, unusual backpacks and nervous tics. A sad state of affairs and something that no one should have to endure.
The newsroom was in a frenzied state all day. Reporters have covered the blast sites, city hospitals and government press conferences. The Evening Express prepared me for many things, but not a live terror situation. Remarkable professionalism in the face of danger, along with some gallows humour, has been the order of the day.
Surprisingly, the metro system was reopened at 4pm yesterday afternoon. When Brussels was locked down in November it remained shut for days. Whether this was a brave two-fingers-up to ISIS or rank stupidity is up for debate.
The fear now is, with one attacker still at large after disposing of his suicide vest without detonating, of what ISIS may have planned next. There’s still an element of “it’ll never happen to me”, but I’ll probably walk home from the office with more trepidation than usual.
My mother, who responded less than enthusiastically when I told her I was moving to Brussels, has been admirably calm. The expected torrent of texts from her hasn’t materialised. That might, in fairness, be due to the networks being incapacitated all day! I imagine friends might be a bit more reluctant to visit now, but it’s been nice to have so many people getting in touch concerned for my safety.
At the moment, it still feels rather surreal and difficult to process. How the city will respond remains to be seen. Brussels natives are known for stubbornness and stoicism. But this, an act of war, is different. The feeling now is of a country, a continent, even, at the mercy of extremist terrorists.