“Where were you when…” That is a common question when remembering tragedy. Where were you when the Twin Towers came down? Where were you when three trains and a bus were bombed in London? Where were you when music fans in the Bataclan Theatre were gunned down in Paris?
The regularity that we hear of bombings around the world almost numbs us into accepting this as a way of life. We have become detached observers of tragedy. Making the expected noises before turning our attention back to our meals, work or mobile phones. If you have no point of reference, no ties to the target, it becomes just images on the news that you can turn off. It’s not pleasant, but sometimes it’s the action — or inaction — we take.
I did not have that luxury with the 22 March bombings in Belgium. I have family in Brussels.
The hospital I was born in, Saint-Pierre University Hospital, is a couple of kilometres away from the Maelbeek Metro station. My birth certificate is in French and Flemish, and even though my passport says British Citizen, I am just as much a citizen of Belgium.
The metro line that got affected is the one used by my brother on his commute to University. On 22 March, under military protection, he and his course mates were evacuated from their school.
Brussels International Airport is also familiar to me. I have regularly flown there when visiting my family. I even have an aunt that lives a short driving distance away, close enough maybe to see the smoke rising.
These are all places that I can visualise very well. The images that came through the news were so discordant with my memories that they overwhelmed me. It was then that I could really understand just how devastating these tragedies are. It is not until they hit close to home that you feel the blow.
I was having lunch when the first news about the Brussels attack came in.
First through a news bulletin, then in my family’s Whatsapp group my brother informed us that his girlfriend’s sister was meant to be at the airport later that day. Moments later I got assurances that she was safe.
To make matters worse is the separation. All I could do is look on in horror at social media, watching as one by one my friends in the capital marked themselves safe. There was no way I could be there for anyone I cared about other than remotely. After all, words of solidarity and comfort ring hollow when expressed on a Facebook Wall.
In total there were three bombs that went off, two in Zaventem, the airport, and one on the metro at Maelbeek station. The latest reported casualties are 35 dead and several injured. News reports gave graphic details of many of the injuries sustained — limb dismemberment, mangled legs and arms.
More than anything it is the timing that makes this attack all the more shocking. Just last week it was reported by Belgian news agency Het Laatste Nieuws (The latest news) that the mastermind behind the 13 November attacks in Paris, Salah Abdeslam, was arrested after escaping a protracted manhunt and gunfight in Molenbeek, an area now synonymous with European jihadists.
The latest news is that a massive manhunt is now underway in Brussels. The third suspect from the airport, whose bomb did not go off, is on the run, and the police have a name of a suspect — Najim Laachraoui. Words of solidarity and assurance have come from all places, from the Belgian monarch King Philippe to Barack Obama during his trip to Cuba.
The response from around the world is one thing that brings me comfort, as I remain separated from my family in this tough time. Just like the aftermath after Paris, social media is full of sentiments and well wishes. More impactful however is the slew of cartoons. From Tintin tearing up at the news to the ubiquitous Manneke Pis statue urinating on an AK-47, they are both touching and emboldening.