War on Terror comes to Belgium

It was Tuesday morning. I was in my car driving to work – my last day before going on holiday to Belgium & seeing my friends and family for Easter. The sun was shining brightly and I was smiling, because it was going to be a good day. I was looking forward to knocking down my to-do list and leaving the office with the happy expectation of travelling home – my real home. I remember thinking that I was truly “loving life” at that moment.

My phone was getting messages whilst I was driving, but I hadn’t had a chance to look at them until I arrived at the office. I turned the key in my ignition, silencing my car and got out. As I was walking into my office building, I looked at the messages on Whatsapp. It was a group conversation and several people were saying they hoped “the Belgians were all right”. I didn’t quite get it. So as I plunked my bag down next to my desk, I opened my News app and waited anxiously as it was scouring the web for new stories. And then there it was.

There had been an attack in Brussels. At the airport. Just that morning. My heart stops. My breathing stops. And I try to remember how my mom was going to Paris that morning. She must be on the train, right? She never takes a flight to Paris. Never. But there’s always that possibility. I text her a quick message to check she’s OK. Next I open my laptop to find more information on what’s happened – the tiny screen of my phone isn’t enough for this.

My favourite Belgian newspaper’s landing page is… A disaster. It’s in big letters: “Attacks on Brussels” – my heart skips a beat when I read the use of plural. Apparently it’s not just the airport, but the metro as well. Who do I know in Brussels? Who might be hurt? As I list more and more people in my head, my dread becomes insane. Currently there’s only one victim reported dead – it makes me feel confident somehow. Maybe it’s not that bad. Maybe the wounded number will be low as well – and they will hopefully survive.

One hour passes and the whole world has changed. My world has changed. The death toll keeps rising. The images and videos online show disastrous circumstances. My email pings. Something from my to-do list in the office today, something I was excited about ticking off. I can’t think right now. My mom hasn’t texted me back. I need to call her. NOW. She picks up and sounds OK. She went by train. And she left right before the attacks. Before the city was on lockdown. She’s safe and she will be for the next couple of days at least.

I text my friends. As many of them as I can think of to have ties with Brussels, whether they live there or work there or both. Most respond back. But I can’t find my sister. She works about a mile from Molenbeek, where some of the terrorists have been found in the past. She teaches Dutch to immigrant high school children, who are hoping to integrate. Despite the circumstances, the irony’s never lost on me. I send her a text. It doesn’t arrive. The newspaper’s website says that the mobile network is down due to overuse. There’s a request to use mobile data instead, so as to keep the lines free for emergencies. I send a Whatsapp. Just one checkmark next to my message. It doesn’t arrive.

I have meetings in the office that day. One really important one. I can’t think. I can only watch the news. And text my friends. And find out all transport has been locked down, including the Eurostar – which I’m supposed to take the next day. I can’t deal with this. People in the office are coming up to me to ask if everyone I know is safe. I don’t know how to answer. I haven’t found everyone yet. Where is my sister? I know the likelihood that she was somewhere in that area is small, but I don’t know her route to work. And the city is on lockdown. What if she’s in the middle of a manhunt? I try to breathe.

I walk away from my desk and find a bench outside. The sun is gorgeous. There’s a pretty flowerbed. But I don’t notice anything. I just sit down and start crying. From worry. From fear. From anxiety. From shock. From pain. From heartache for my country. From everything at once, because I feel everything at once and I can’t get out. I can’t find reason within this morning. I don’t understand. My throat constricts and I don’t know how to be me. A friend comes up to me and hugs me. She doesn’t know what’s happened. But as soon as I tell her, she just hugs me tighter.

And so the morning continues. I try to focus on work. Find that I can’t and break down. It’s like a circle and I keep going round and round the loop. My team takes turns in being there for me. Trying to ease the pain. But I always come back to the same circle & I start crying again. Tons of people see me cry that day. Probably the whole office. I just can’t believe it. This is Brussels. This is Belgium. We are laid back. We eat waffles. One of our most famous landmarks is a little boy who pees, for crying out loud?! We haven’t done anything wrong.

In the end, it makes no sense for me to stay. I leave the office, hours earlier than I had planned on. My to-do list virtually untouched. My last day, my joyful day before my holiday has completely disappeared into the fog of my anxious self. Then my phone beeps. It’s my sister. She’s been in Antwerp all this morning, planning to go into Brussels in the afternoon. Those plans don’t exist anymore. She’s going to try to go home. She’ll let me know once she gets there. My breathing, which I’d been holding since that beep, starts back up again. I take a few deep breaths. And feel relief. Like a massive weight has finally been lifted.

My phone beeps again. It’s Facebook, of all things. But when I read it, I am overjoyed. It’s a safety check, where everyone can indicate whether they are safe (or not) and friends get the automatic update. In that moment, in that very instant, I am loving social media. I thank God we have it. Because  the list is long. Some of my best friends, some friends who I’ve lost touch for a while, but all of them people I’ve been worried for. They are OK. They are safe.

As the day comes to a close, the Eurostar announces it should run normally the next day. Travellers are advised to double-check the next morning and if all is going smoothly, to make sure to be extra early for check-in. There will be heightened security. Of course. I try not to mind. I don’t mind extra security for the guarantee of safety. But Belgium has always been the complete opposite of this: more about living life, less about infinite amounts of worry and “what if?”. The Belgian lifestyle is relaxed, slow, chilled out, something I’ve always loved. But for how much longer? In the back of my mind I wonder what I will be coming home to.