Brussels: "You Have To Celebrate Being With The People You Love"
L lives in Brussels, and this is her account of the events of this week.
L is 25 years old, and has lived in Brussels for more than three years. She works as a Senior Correspondent at an online news organisation. This is her experience.
I’m lucky to have a fun and interesting job working for an online news organisation at the heart of EU policymaking. Our offices are really close to all of the EU institutions - useful for reporting, but just 100m or so from the metro station where a bomb went off today. I used to get the metro to and from Maelbeek station every day for the first year I lived here, so today has really brought the fear and reality of an attack uncomfortably close.
Brussels has been on a high terror alert since the Paris attacks last November, after which we were put on a city-wide lockdown for five days. But even before that, security in and around the EU institutions changed after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015 and there was a lot of unease after the shootings outside the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2014 - this has been a city that has felt under threat on and off frequently over the last few years and certainly one fully aware that it was only a matter of time until something like today happened.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, army officers were placed outside embassies, and the European Commission - where our press badges now fitted with microchips, have to be used to open automatic revolving doors on entry after our bags have been looked in - that's before you go through airport-style security that was already in place. Security measures were tightened at the European Parliament so that you now need your national ID card as well as any press pass to enter and the main entrances are being completely overhauled to be more secure.
I think we all slowly got used to an increased military presence over the course of last year and accepted these "necessary measures" after a terrorist attack in a neighbouring country. Then November came - even more horrifying than the January shootings, and it emerged that some of the attackers had come from Brussels. The November lockdown was really odd. It felt like no one really knew what was going on, or exactly how many people were being looked for and the authorities needed to produce results that weren't turning up. Tanks appeared in the street that are still there today.
What I found hardest in November was that I used to live in Molenbeek - the area of the city where suspects were thought to have come from and reading about a place you used to call home as "a breeding ground for extremism" is a really saddening thing. Molenbeek is a vibrant community with some of the best (and cheapest) bakeries, butchers, fishmongers and fruit and veg stores you will find in the city. My old landlord told me the local greengrocer cried to her about what was happening. He cried for his community and how it was being viewed around the world. He just wanted to live, he said.
The unease that followed November eased. I think people just got fed up and frustrated. It is more frightening, I found, and find today as I write this, being inside looking at Twitter and responding to Facebook messages from worried friends, than it is to go outside and see what is really happening.
So slowly we all went back to work and we all got on with our lives, knowing that the man they were looking for hadn't been found and that the imminent attack we had expected hadn't happened. At least, it hadn't happened yet. But you have to carry on. You go to the same markets, you walk downtown and go to bars and life continues.
Today was a bolt from the blue just as we were all waking up to go to work. I was meant to be at a conference and had heard of the airport attacks and thought to myself "if there is one, there will probably be more." As I was leaving home to get the metro, I heard about the attacks at the station. I decided to walk to the conference, but as I realised slowly how light the traffic was, apart from all the sirens, and that I needed to go past the Royal Palace, I began to panic. I headed to a friend's house and I've been here all day.
And that's what we did in November, too. We snuggled on sofas with our laptops, speaking to friends and family and drinking really strong and really sweet tea. Tonight we'll eat together and watch a film and distract ourselves from what's happening. I think people across the city will do that. You have to celebrate being alive and being with the people you love and that's something I remember seeing after the Paris attacks.
Social media - while it can heighten your fears of what's happening can also be a wonderful way to see the solidarity between people in a crisis. Tweets sent out volunteering places to stay for those stranded after the airport attack are a really great reminder that people will help each other and be there for one another.
Tonight Brussels is really quiet. Some supermarkets are still open - grabbing ingredients for our curry took no time with no one around! Tomorrow we will wake up and see what the next steps are - whether the metro, borders and our offices are open. Then slowly, we will return to normal. There's just no other way.