Wednesday

28th Sep 2022

Brussels chalk tributes call for peace

  • People gathered in Brussels city centre to show solidarity (Photo: Alice Latta)

An eerie sense of calm has settled in Brussels city centre.

Some are laying flowers in mourning. Others are writing tributes in chalk on the street in front of the Brussels stock exchange building, La Bourse.

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  • Abdeslam: "My religion is not guilty for what is happening" (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

The area, a popular spot for locals and visitors to gather, on Tuesday (22 March) became a place to express support for the victims of the bombings that killed at least 30 and injured more than 200.

Abdeslam, a 46-year old resident, is visibly shaken. On the street, he writes in white chalk "please don't blame Islam".

The 46-year old, who is no relation to Salah Abdeslam, a terrorist suspect captured last week, told this website that the attacks will make lives more difficult for Muslims.

Upset that innocent people have died, he appears resigned to the stigmatisation that will likely ensue.

"Muslims are going to have it tougher and tougher and I can't understand why they [the attackers] are doing this," he said.

"They are criminals, killing people, no one has the right to kill."

'Make fries, not war'

There is no music, no helicopters in the sky above and the foot patrols by Belgian soldiers, which became commonplace in Brussels after last year’s Paris attacks, are nowhere to be seen.

Belgian authorities have told citizens to remain vigilant and raised the threat level to four, the country's highest.

The police units that arrived on the scene in La Bourse showed up with their sirens silenced. Three officers quickly disappeared into the metro below.

Some were armed with assault rifles, perhaps fearful that another attack would take place as the crowd began to swell.

"Faites des frites, pas la guerre" [make fries, not war], "Hate is a tool of power", "We are one", "Love and peace are our religion" and many other tributes dot the street.

At one point European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Belgian PM Charles Michel made a surprise visit to the spot.

There was a brief crush of people trying to get closer to them. Juncker hugged Michel and then they left.

Elsewhere and earlier in the day, scenes of panic dominated in the city

"I am very stressed and I want to go home," Olivia van de Zande, who works at the Exki fast food restaurant at the Arts-Loi metro station, told this website.

"I'm young and never had to face such thing. I'm scared what will happen next," she said, adding that Tuesday's attacks could be revenge for the capture of Salah Abdeslam.

The fugitive who was wanted in connection with last year's Paris attacks was sezied by police in Brussels four days ago.

"We are supposed to get used to this in the future, that it's a probability that you can get killed when taking the metro, or going out with your friends," Van de Zande said.

At the Saint-Jean clinic, a small hospital a few kilometres from the Maelbeek metro station where one of the attacks took place, a nervous police officer checks a bag. A boy begins to cry as his father argues with the officer.

The clinic's emergency entrance is on a narrow street and in front of a school. The blaring sirens of passing ambulances pulling into the clinic drown out the sounds of children at play in the school courtyard.

'We won't change our way of life'

Meanwhile, around 500 people queued on Tuesday evening to get into the central train station to make their way home.

A lady was offering a ride to the nearby town of Gembloux and quickly had her car fill up with desperate commuters.

The line into the station moved slowly as police were only letting in 10 people at a time amid security checks.

"Not a surprise what happened today, I thought this would happen, this attack was planned before Abdeslam's capture," Patrick Bollen, an IT worker told this website, while trying to enter the station.

"We won't change our way of life for now, that's what the attackers want," he added.

We are not afraid

"We will carry on, we are not afraid," said Marc Sandrin, who came from France for a day of meetings at the European Commission.

"This is a Europe-wide problem, there is no point in blaming the Belgian police," he said when asked how he, as a Frenchman, feels about the effectiveness of the Belgian authorities.

"The problem is our youth has no more hope in our consumer society," he added, suggesting that radical Islam is an appealing alternative for these lost youth.

"It's disturbing of course," said Tony Vercauteren, walking by the Belgian prime minister's office hundreds of meters away from the Maelbeek metro station. He is blocked by police officers.

"I don't think the lockdown is coming back, it was useless last time. We are getting used to this situation," he added, referring to three days last November when authorities closed the metro, shopping malls and cinemas in Brussels after a terror threat.

"It's the first time we have had this kind of attack in Brussels, we are not used to the sight of the armed military officers, " he said, adding that it is "never a good sign that your democracy has to protected by arms."

Flo, who is from the Netherlands, but who has been living in the EU capital for several months, said she is in shock.

"I have been walking to work, since they caught Salah Abdeslam, I have been worried to take the metro," she said.

Her precaution might have saved her life.

She used to go through the Maelbeek metro station every day to her place of work some 150 metres away.

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