When I woke up it was just a regular Tuesday. I was up early as I tend to head to the gym on Tuesdays and Thursday mornings; I had planned to have a quick shower and work on my thesis at the office for most of the afternoon, ending the day with my evening French classes at EPFC. I would have be home by half-past nine in the evening, have a home-cooked meal either made with love by Cristian while I was in class, or by myself if we had a hankering for Chinese, likely a quick stir-fry in fifteen minutes.
I checked the news, as usual, while I was in the process of waking up. “Explosions in Brussels”, “Attack on Zaventem”. It was surreal, as I had Facebook open in another tab and there was going on as normal, photos, memes, Philippine election rants. Then in the news tab, from the meager two articles, suddenly hundreds more show up. Okay, I thought, it’s real.
The first snippets of news arrived in pieces: two explosions, one near the American Airlines counter. There was no word yet regarding terrorists or suicide bombers or even bombs. It could have been an accident? Confusion was the predominant sentiment. One death— maybe, nothing confirmed.
The day’s plans were cancelled. Brussels’ reaction to the Paris attacks last November had resulted in a complete shutdown of the city, including public transportation. An actual attack in Brussels itself… no, I wasn’t leaving the apartment today.
While scanning and refreshing the news and Twitter feed, something odd popped up: explosion in Maelbeek. Maelbeek, I wondered. Is this some kind of spammy clickbait? A link that would bring me to a casino site? I ignored it, I was too focused on the continual updates regarding Zaventem.
Then more Maelbeek links appeared. An explosion in a metro carriage in Maelbeek. Photos were being posted on Twitter by those climbing out of other metro carriages, to exit via Schuman. Photos were being posted by witnesses outside Maelbeek of the carnage. Photos and videos from Zaventem, including CCTV coverage, were starting to emerge as well.
I watched in horrified fascination as the video by Anna Ahronheim, who was in the parking building, showed a flood of people rushing away from the building, some dragging suitcases behind them, others just running for their lives.
It’s hard to describe how I felt at that point. There were attacks, in my home, people were hurt, but we were okay, but was everyone we knew okay? Sirens were blaring non-stop, and international media had picked up on the news. Sensationalized headlines of hundreds of dead were muddying up my feed. My phone was buzzing, messages were coming in, but I was still glued to the screen obsessively reading updates. Facebook activated its Safety Check function and happily people began marking themselves safe. Friends on the message thread for GEM researchers living in Brussels did likewise. It seemed, despite the horrors elsewhere in the city, everyone we knew at least was fine.
The day went by in a blur. Obviously gym and office plans were gone. EPFC sent us an SMS that due to the circumstances classes would be cancelled. A level 4 terror alert was raised, for the second time in less than five months. But, the boy was okay, at that point still waking up in the room next door, so all was right in the world.
Brussels has been nothing but good to us. Neighborhood shops and cafés and restaurants have been kind and welcoming. Bonjour! is still exchanged when entering places, and an au revoir! or bonne journee! is kindly thrown when exiting. Our local postman knows us, so does our local pharmacy and we discovered recently that so do the people working the St. Catherine area, where the Chinese grocery is. The boy’s barber nods to me each time he sees me through the window, and we know the name our our convenience store’s cat. Her name is Meow Meow. ULB is a gem of a research institution, with extremely warm academic and support staff. Brussels is ‘home’, not in a way that you think an expat or immigrant would think of their nth rental apartment, but home in the sense that all I want to do now is gather up her broken pieces and hold them close to my heart. I am angry that terrorists chose this city, my city, to attack. I empathize with the residents of Istanbul and Ankara and all other cities that have been survived such indiscriminate violence.
We, Bruxellois and Bruxelloise of all nationalities, of all religions, remain strong. Terrorism can never win, and certainly not here. Not because Brussels is the symbolic capital of the European Union, no, it has nothing to do with that, but because the people here genuinely care about each other, whether residents for a few weeks or for decades, or Belgian born and bred.
You see it in the way we reacted the first time to the Paris attacks— by sharing photos of kittens therefore allowing our police and military forces to do their jobs without broadcasting their whereabouts— and this time, by coming together to light candles and leave messages of peace.