The 22nd of March started as any other week day. Around 7:30 am I left my place and walked to work, passing the Maalbeek metro stop on my way. It was a chilly spring morning, I had my mug of coffee, music playing loudly on my headphones, my hair looked good. Few hours later I was supposed to do a talk for a group of journalists, I was slightly nervous. But otherwise, everything was calm and normal. By the time I got in the office and sent the first email, phones started to ring madly in each and every office from the long corridor. Two bombs were detonated in Brussels Airport.
My first instinct was to pick up the phone and call mother. “Whatever you do, DO NOT take the metro!”, I warned. My mother was using the metro every day to go to work. After that rather brief phone call, I sat down and looked into the void. The shock of the news simply drew me to tears. Tears of mourn, of angriness, of helplessness.
But I did not have much time. Work needed to be done, friends (who knew I am traveling quite often) were reaching to me via WhatsApp, Facebook, phone, email and I had to reply. I did not want anyone to worry about me, I was ok. I tried to stop calculating what were the chances of me being in the airport, given how much I travelled in the past months and how many trips I had already planned for the near future.
At 8:30 am, I wrote on Facebook: My thoughts are now, first and foremost, with the victims from the Zaventem blast. This is also to say to my worried and sweet friends that I am OK. I was supposed to travel soon, fortunately not today….But this is striking and appalling. So many things to say, so little words….
At around 9:30 am I went out of the building to take some fresh air. I heard a phone ringing at the reception and when I entered I saw the man keeping the phone turning yellow. A bomb just exploded at Maalbeek metro stop, only minutes away from where we were located.
And that is when it really stroke me. It really could have been me. Maalbeek is where I passed this morning, I could have been there. And then my friends, many of them work or live in the area. The madness began….
Again me, on Facebook, around 10:00 am: A second bomb exploded about 30 min ago at the metro Maalbeek, an area I pass every day on foot to go to work. Luckily again, this morning I went to work earlier than usual. I am now in the office. Security level is now at 5 (maximum). We are advised to stay inside the building for the moment. Both me and my parents are fine! Positive thoughts always help! <3 #JesuisBruxelles
I also learned that a colleague was injured in the airport, together with her 2 children and her husband. The news saddened me even deeper. From the office, I could hear sirens and helicopters. Between phone calls of reassurance, updates for the media and work, I did not have the time to understand what I was feeling.
That evening I went to the city centre where people gathered to bring flowers, candles and to mourn. Few policemen brought their condolences as well, and the people started to applaud them. The moment made me get goose bumps and tears. We are resilient, we are still human, we are not defined by evil…
I arrived home physically exhausted and mentally overwhelmed. I opened the door on my terrace and the sound of sirens hit me one more time. It was not over, it will not be over for a while… I fell asleep in the noise of police operations and with images of smoke and fire in my mind.
I was no longer the girl who was living the European dream far away from home. I was a woman living in a city hit by terrorist attacks.
Just as Paris, another European city hit by similar attacks few months before, Brussels and I recovered soon. Around 7:30 am the next day, I left my place and walked to work, this time taking another route and avoiding Maalbeek metro stop. It was a chilly spring morning, the place where I usually take my coffee was closed. I did not use my headphones because I felt I need to hear everything that was happening around. My talk from the previous day has been cancelled.
That day I was supposed to contribute to a speech on the Brussels attacks to be delivered at a high-level meeting. It was by far my best-written piece. For the first time, I understood what I was writing about.
6 months later…
I got used with military on the streets since the Paris attacks. Seeing them is nothing unusual anymore. I think I even got to know when the security level is higher. You see them rolling their eyes more attentive, there are more patrols, they are better equipped. They do have guns and that is somehow scary, but they are friendly and reassuring.
I got used with the question “How is to live in Brussels after the attacks?” I give different answers; I always look to re-assure people. 6 months later it is business as usual, but not quite.
I got used with public transport again. It took me 2 months to get into a metro again, but I did it. People still sometimes look suspicious at each other. But, as a mentor of mine told me after listening to my worries, it is essential that people like me and like you, normal people, keep our sanity in these moments. Because, as anything else, this will pass as well…
Just as Salman Rushdie wrote: “How do you defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized.”