On the morning of 22 March, I was at my home in Brussels. I can only imagine how it must have felt to those out on the streets near the explosions.
To clarify, I am an International Relations student on my year abroad in Japan, but I returned home before the spring semester starts. I was in Japan when I heard of the Paris attacks and was so worried because of its close proximity to home. Now, what I and many other Belgians dreaded most has become a reality.
It was a cloudy day like any other in Brussels. My brother ran up the stairs to tell me the horrifying news of what happened as I woke up. My mother called me from work telling me to turn the television on. Dazed and confused, I grabbed for my phone to check the news. I received so many texts from worried friends and relatives all around the world. Brows furrowed, a chill ran down my spine as I read the details of the event and everything went quiet. Maybe it was always that way, but I only just realised it then. In a moment of hyper sensation I noticed how the birds chirping outside sounded oddly loud; there were no cars, no joggers, no happy old couple walking around the neighbourhood, no postman complaining about the lack of a letterbox, no neighbours playing their daily trumpet sequence at 9:35am sharp. It felt like a day out of a twilight zone.
Now, what I and many other Belgians dreaded most has become a reality.
Coffee getting cold, picking at my nails like I do when I am nervous, I messaged friends who were closer to the explosions; one heard loud sirens in the streets. Another friend of mine was on the metro, on her daily commute to work before the explosion happened on the same line that so many people use to get to work and university. I was about to go downtown myself that day but stayed home instead; all public transport had shut down.
Over the course of the day things went from bad to worse. More people were dying, more witness accounts recalled grotesque details, more devastating images flooded the media. The strangest thing is, I have frequented Zaventem airport so many times – seeing images of it ripped apart was so bizarre and horrifying. Knowing the familiarity of a place will never be the same again – that the atmosphere, the people are shaken to the core. It feels so resolute; whatever is happening marks a black spot alongside so many countless black spots on humanity’s timeline.
Later in the evening I went out onto the streets to walk my dog. Even here in suburban Brussels, there was an eerie calm. I live close to the airport – after all, Brussels is a small city. Normally you have airplanes in the sky throughout the day but this time there were none. Silence draped over the entire state. The air had a surreal combination of strange standstill and heightened tension. Paper bags blowing in the wind, not a single sound. The people I have seen in my neighbourhood seem miserable, faces overcast with a sinister darkness, with the emptiness of a deep abandoned well. It sunk in – that is how I felt too. I felt numb and weirdly calm in such calamity. Everyone shared an expression of fear, afraid of others and of the chaos.
Silence draped over the entire state.
So much happened in a little span of time. Friends I have not been in touch with suddenly wanted to know if I was safe. News of this tragedy is plastered on every news platform gaining so much international recognition. It became clear how easy it is for your sense of reality to be torn apart, how families can easily be broken, how unstable the world is, the transient nature of life. It is one thing to hear about it, but a different thing to experience it, even in my case where I was just in the same city as the attacks. Belgium is going through three days of national mourning but I feel it will last longer than that.
This is unfortunately something so many people suffer in so many parts of the world. It angers me how it has to happen in the West for people to pay attention to it, to realise that ISIS is a global threat and not just limited to one part of the world.
The truth is that nobody is safe, but it’s a truth we must accept. The sooner we accept this state of uncertainty, we can move on and take serious action. This time calls for clarity of mind to find the solution, humanity (as that is our essence), sympathy to one another and courage to face whatever arises, both individually and as a collective. It’s about time.