Bruxelles ma belle

Leaving for Brussels just three days after the terrorist attack of March 22 was slightly too soon for my personal judgement, yet perhaps not soon enough for my conscience.

The need to reunite with my family ultimately urged me to take my scheduled flight to Zaventem that was eventually diverted to Charleroi Airport, some 10 kilometres away.

Showing my Belgian passport at Larnaca airport, the customs officer raised his eyes to mine as he determined my nationality. Looking at me straight in the eyes he said: “I wish you a safe flight back home”. This was only the first notion of the social solidarity I was to experience throughout my short stay in the capital of Europe.

Even before setting foot at Charleroi Airport, I had noticed armoured vehicles from the sky. Prohibited from entering the airport, my sister had advised me to walk straight out of the arrivals to the next roundabout where she would potentially manage to avoid being searched. I walked onto a narrow path along an empty road leading to the airport; I wasn’t alone carrying the weight of my suitcase amidst the muddy terrain around us.

It was clear our current path wasn’t made for this. As we forged on in the wind and rain, we looked at each other, seemingly not with fear but with a mutual toleration towards our new reality. “It’s like war,” my sister exclaimed as she saw me approach. I half-heartedly smiled under a mutter of sweat and irritation from the journey. Come three hours earlier to your departure they had told me in Cyprus. Indeed, the feeling was eerie. But I was glad to be home.

On the ground

Living under a stage three alert, on the surface, doesn’t seem much different than usual; admittedly this has been the reality since November of last year when the Belgian government imposed a security lockdown on Brussels in the wake of the series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, potentially linked to Brussels.

Yet gradually getting familiar with my new surroundings, Belgian flags hanging at half-mast and obstinate conversations on what just hit home gave vision to a changed reality; a war on terrorism which some believe started as far back as the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001.

Locally, however, many will attest that some of the areas in which some of these terrorists seem to have been born and bred, notably Molenbeek where Salah Abdeslam, key suspect in November’s Paris terrorist attacks, was arrested a couple of days before the attacks, have been social ‘bombs’ in the making for some years now.

Molenbeek was never an unheard-of part of town as I grew up. Neither was Schaebeek or Forest. Brussels may no longer be my permanent residence, but one of my younger brothers is godfather to a little girl that lives in the area. Many parts of Brussels host varying nationalities, I want to believe this is very much part of Brussels’ identity.

As an expatriate, I also realise that idealising this multicultural identity is easy. Or easier. A discourse accusing the acceptance of certain ‘foreign’ attitudes is somehow at the forefront.
We’ve all heard about the permission/ non-permission of ethnic minorities following their cultural endeavours within a European realm.

No restriction to wearing the abaya is just one of these. Yet looking deeper, women not accepting to shake a man’s hands or merely abiding to common Muslim rituals during the Ramadan fasting period in working environments, has not been an issue up to now.

Yet people are starting to wander whether being too lax in accepting too much, for too long, without vision and perhaps without a successful integrated individual as an outcome, the time has come for Belgium’s approach to be revisited.
Indeed, a common adherence has to be in place from all sides, opportunities have to be equal for all.

Surely, Belgium, or should I say Brussels’ disinvestment in these communities has a lot to account for, but on a counter point, it is also these communities’ lack of expression that hasn’t enlightened their state of being.

It’s been said that ethnic minorities, and particularly Muslims, raised their voices after the attacks. Without their voice, the ambiguity of their reality within these sub-urban communities is very much unheard of.

When one considers that some 7,000 people have returned to Europe radicalised, trained, and with a vengeance, their potential abuse on the weaknesses of democracy is frightening.
These are people who predominantly have nothing to lose and in reality seek any opportunity to attain any form of recognition, purpose and social coherence.

Just a week after the attacks in Brussels, reports of text messages sent to youth in Molenbeek prove this: “Why don’t you join us to combat the west?” It’s that easy. Belgium has the more per capita jihadists than any other country.

Of course, radicalism cannot be solely justified by social problems, there are ultimately other factors that coincide; the war in the Middle East, the refugee crisis, Europe’s economic meltdown.

But what’s for sure is that terrorism is here to stay for a while. As I arrived last Friday afternoon, a march against fear was developing outside the Place de La Bourse in the centre of Brussels, the memorial site of the attacks.

It rang so true in so many ways, because we are fighting fear; fear of the other, fear of terrorism, fear of travelling, fear of war, fear.

Looking ahead

On location 35 people have died, out of which 28 have been identified, and 240 have been hurt.

“We will all change,” is a common echo; notably, we realise our values when confronted with a catastrophe. Whilst embracing collective emotions, steps being taken towards solidarity but also a better future, are being taken.

All the objects being placed at the memorial site are being archived by the local authorities. Eight hundred volunteers are working towards re-opening the Zaventem airport out of which I will not be flying home. Not yet at least. The 2,000 cars left in the Zaventem parking are slowly being collected, victims will begin to be buried as of next week.

I hear ‘Bruxelles, ma belle”, being sung by the jury of the popular show The Voice, I pay tribute to a Belgium – Portugal football match who had “In memory of all victims 22.03.2016” inscribed on their T-shirts as they warmed up, even though FIFA banned them from wearing them for the match.

I listen to Belgian-born violinist Lorenzo Gatto play Over the Rainbow, at 7.55am, exactly a week after the attack on Zaventem. And while nothing has changed, everything has changed.

But change is good. Change is what we need to make a difference.

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About Melissa Hekkers

I am freelance journalist and author, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus. Recently, I've been focusing on developing my writing, promoting my own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. My most recent publication (2020) - Amir's Blue Elephant- pushes the boundaries of creative non-fiction, and recreates the moments that marked me the most, whilst volunteering in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, and during her ongoing involvement with the refugee community in Cyprus. In 2018 I published My Capre Greco Mandala which is the third in a series, an interactive colouring book about the biodiversity of the Cape Greco peninsula in Cyprus. My Akamas Mandala, the second in the series, is a colouring book inspired by the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula. In 2016, I published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia. I also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: I writes about migrants and refugees, both as a reporter and a features writer; I profile them and teach them creative writing skills. In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, I published my first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, I launched my second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which I was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. My third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, I published my first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth. In 2019 she was contributing author to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City, published by Saqi Books, London