Brussels Responds To Terror With Love & Unity

Elena* was as horrified by the deadly blasts that hit her hometown as anyone else. But it didn’t change the fact that she had a birthday — "the big 3.0” — a couple days later. The original plan was to devote the evening to having dinner with her mum at one of Brussels’ trendier restaurants. Alas, her mother lives in another country and had to cancel her travel plans due to alerts. After some deliberation, Elena decided to spend her day as if nothing had happened. She summoned friends to eat at the city’s best pizza place, and later went out dancing. "They can't take away our fun," she said.

Last Tuesday, Belgium suffered from the deadliest attack on its soil since the Second World War. According to the current count, reported by the Independent, 35 people have lost their lives. Another 340 were injured, and 58 were left in a critical state.
Experts, such as Israeli professor of history, Yuval Harari, warn that reactions to terrorist attacks often wreak far greater havoc than the attacks themselves. "That’s why it’s important to put things back into a normal routine as quickly as possible,” Harari told Swedish public radio.
Europeans don’t need to worry about terrorist attacks, he argued. They can do little to avoid being hit by a strike. Furthermore, that would mean falling into the terrorists’ trap — one that is intended to inspire fear.

"People were killed, but 500 million are afraid… If they start changing their behavior, it means that their imagination has been taken captive by terrorists. This would be [the latter's] greatest success," the professor argued.

People were initially very shocked and sad... the second reaction was a big show of solidarity

Maite Morren, local councillor in Brussels
Maite Morren is a councillor in Elsene, one of the city’s municipalities. I asked her to weigh in on the city's reaction. "It’s still early to draw conclusions on how the attacks will affect us. But I think that people were initially very shocked and sad. It was like they couldn’t believe it was really happening. But it was happening," she explained. "The second reaction was a big show of solidarity."

Since Tuesday, hundreds of people have been gathering by the Bourse, an abandoned stock exchange building in the city center, to pay tribute to the victims. Mourners bring Belgium flags, and flags of their home countries, as well as candles, flowers, and beer, the Belgian beverage of choice. Their offerings have formed a makeshift memorial. As for the stairs, they quickly became a podium where anyone can promote messages of peace and unity, sing songs, distribute free hugs, and read out names of other cities that recently suffered terrorist attacks.

”I come here every day to show my love for two countries,” said Salim*, a 29-year-old Algerian man who works as a house painter and has lived in Belgium for two years now. A talented draughtsman, he’s one of the people who have covered the ground below Bourse with chalk declarations.

"Brussels I love you,” "La vie est belge” ("Life is Belgian"), "Peace and Love,” — those are some of the ethereal messages scribbled in French, Dutch, English, or Arabic onto the asphalt and concrete walls of the Bourse, messages that will stay until the rain washes them away.

On Friday afternoon, the Belgian Philharmonic performed the European anthem, Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy," on the stairs. Local communities organized their own vigils. People who couldn’t leave their house were invited to light a candle on their windowsill.

"It’s very early to draw any conclusions, but I was positively surprised by the aftermath to the attacks,” said Rachida Aziz, a fashion designer and social entrepreneur. She spoke to Refinery29 on Sunday afternoon in her workspace, located close to the Bourse.

"Saying that the attacks have had a positive impact on Brussels may sound horrible,” she added, "but I hope that those who lost their loved ones will find comfort in the fact that the response has been a rush of solidarity rather than further divisions.”

The fact that those directly affected were able to muster some peace may seem surprising. International reactions to the bombings were anything but calm and peaceful. French President Francois Hollande said the bombings were an attack on "all of Europe." France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that, "We are at war.” U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump added that Belgium and France are "disintegrating.” David Cameron claimed the U.K., too, "faces a very real terror threat.”

Authorities are still searching for other people suspected of having a role in the bombing. Since Tuesday, police have been cordoning off streets all over town. On Friday, police shot a man in the leg at a tram stop. On Sunday, thirteen raids took place all over the country. Three men were charged over the weekend, reports CNN.

Finally, on Sunday afternoon it became clear that not every Belgian agrees with the show of unity that can be seen at the Bourse.

A sit-in against fear was supposed to take place there on Sunday. But the initiative was cancelled on Saturday afternoon, after Belgium’s Minister of Interior Jan Jambon and Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur appealed to the population not to come. They explained police officers were needed elsewhere.

"A government that said we shouldn’t protest against fear…that’s scary,” said Rachida Aziz. She was one of around a thousand people who decided to come anyway.

The celebrations were quickly interrupted by the sudden arrival of around 400 far-right protesters, reports The Telegraph. The men, who all wore black, pushed their way through the crowds of mourners, trampled the memorial and occupied the stairs, scaring away those who were there earlier. Some were drinking beer. They roared anti-immigrant chants. Some raised their hands in Nazi salutes.

One of them identified himself to this website as Gilles Dupont. He told me they were football fans. He himself supported Anderlecht.

"We came to show that we like the West and don’t have to live by their rules,” he explained, referring to those who coordinated the attack. "They want to change the rules. They have laws, they want to be together. Are they a sect? They bomb everyone in the world and they think it’s okay. No! Everyone can speak and do whatever they want.”

He continued, "I have Muslim friends. I don’t have any problem. It’s the extremism that makes everything fucked up. That’s the big problem.”

When asked what he thought about the fact that people felt unsafe by their arrival and asked them to leave, he answered: "I can understand that. It’s impressive. But all the people have to come outside. They say on television that we cannot come outside. But we must come outside and protect our country."

A man watching this scene unfold couldn’t stop tears from falling. Some women were protesting and screaming, "Fascists!” A far-right protester approached them and told them to be quiet.

I was shocked to hear later that a [far-right] demonstration had turned up as people were mourning.

Maite Morren, local councillor in Brussels
Maite Morren wasn’t present at Bourse on Sunday, as she followed the advice to stay away for security reasons. "I was shocked to hear later that a [far-right] demonstration had turned up as people were mourning. I am asking myself many questions about how this could have happened.”

An hour passed before police finally ended the situation by dispersing the far-right group. People applauded and seemed relieved. They didn’t know yet that authorities had known of the far-right protests but hadn’t stopped the men from gathering. For the moment, they were relieved to have their square back. Some quickly reconquered the stairs. A bamboo whistle orchestra appeared from nowhere for a concert. A very "Belgian rain" fell down, and was met by applauds. Moments later, a rainbow appeared in the sky.

Elena came here too. "It was a sad, scary, and stressful week, but my friends helped remind me that there are many moments of joy to be found in spite of the darkness.” She thanked Brussels for being the "resistant, audacious, colorful, vibrant, and eternally surprising place that not many people recognize it to be." Finally, she added: "I couldn't be happier anywhere else."

Editor's note: *In order to protect their anonymity, interviewees did not wish to disclose their last names.

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