BRUSSELS – Dozens were killed and hundreds injured in Brussels this morning in apparent suicide attacks.
Around 8 am local time two bombs went off in the departure hall of Brussels international airport, Zaventem, 11 kilometers from the city center. Shortly thereafter an incoming train exploded at the Maelbeek subway station, in the middle of the European Quarter in Brussels.
“This is our 911,” said Bart Somers, the mayor of neighboring Mechelen on Belgian public radio shortly after the attacks.
Belgian authorities immediately closed down all public transport and train stations in Brussels and advised everyone to stay inside while hunting down possible suspects involved in the attacks.
A few hours after the attacks downtown Brussels looks like a ghost town. Central Station is still closed. The famous medieval Great Market, which on a regular day attracts huge crowds, is nearly empty.
Yet public life in Brussels has not completely come to a standstill. In Schaerbeek, a Brussels neighbourhood bordering the European Quarter, men can be seen hanging around public parks, not sure what to do. A mother is picking up her daughter from a daycare. “I am in total shock,” says Nathalie DeHaene, who can’t wait to be reunited with her 3-year old.
Unlike during the manhunt for the Paris attackers last November, Brussels’s European Quarter is now completely locked down. Police and military are patrolling the streets. The EU flags at the buildings of the European Commission, the heart of Europe, at a stone throw from the Maelbeek subway station where at least 20 people died and more than 100 were wounded, are halfmast. Civil servants are leaving the numerous buildings of EU institutions, including the European Parliament. No one is allowed to (re)enter the area.
Meanwhile tourists gathered in places like the Parc du Cinquantenaire, are following the ensuing developments on their smartphones, waiting what happens next.
At 14:30 local time the sounds of ambulances bringing victims from the metro station to nearby hospitals can still be heard. And helicopters are hovering over the city to provide back up and surveillance.
At 15:45 authorities lift the lock down for most of the city. Office workers make their way to parking garages and the main train stations. The streets fill up. Brussels gets ready for the evening commute as traffic resumes. At Central Station in downtown Brussels commuters are waiting, patiently and visibly relieved, in an ever-longer line to access the one entrance that is open. Each passenger entering the station is strip-searched by police officers.
“We have been so lucky not to have been among the victims,” says Marie Teunstedt. She arrived at work in downtown Brussels this morning at 8:15, right after the bombs exploded at Brussels Zaventem airport. The Maelbeek metro station is three blocks away from her federal government office. Ms. Teunstedt has been following the events all day from her office via the Internet as telephones were down. “This is so difficult to comprehend,” she sighs.
Julie, a civil servant for the European Commission who did not want to give her full name, also stands in line in front of Central Station. She was on board of the subway to Madou station, one stop before Maelbeek station, when the bomb went off. Julie works as a communications officer in the Directorate-General for Competition of the European Commission. As far as she knows, none of the colleagues in her department have been wounded or killed. “Only an hour-and-a-half after did we receive an update. I guess they wanted to be certain that all information was accurate,” she says.
Brussels North Station is now also open. All but the main entrance to the train station has been cordoned off by police and military. The station is encircled by police vans and military vehicles.
The stores in the sprawling departure hall are still closed down. Police halt and search a young immigrant who stands by, which under normal circumstances would have been described as profiling.
In the heavily guarded departure hall commuters are waiting for their delayed trains. Koffi Djokpa waits for his ride to Brain-le-Comte, a –French-speaking– Walloon municipality south of Brussels. He arrived at work this morning after the attacks and just before public transport was shut down. “I guess I was lucky,” he says in fluent Dutch.
He admits that during his workday as a maintenance engineer in the Flemish Ministry of Education, one of the high rises next to North Station, he did not get much information about what was going on in the city.
“I did not expect this. In fact, Brussels has become safer over the past years in my view,” says Mr. Djokpa, an immigrant from Togo who has lived in Belgium for 15 years.
When I tell Taher Alkhteb an hour later that public transport is running again, he is surprised. He did not know. He is the Egyptian owner of a falafel restaurant in a buzzing commercial street with a Middle Eastern flavour in the nearby Schaerbeek district. His restaurant has been open all day. “Politics, always politics…,” says Mr. Alkhteb. “This is the darkest day in my life.”
Five minutes later police find a bomb and an ISIS flag during a search in an apartment two streets over from his restaurant.