Brussels after the attacks: Sorrow, union and dignity

Amid the sorrow there is a spirit of togetherness in a nation often split by social, political and linguistic divisions.

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    Brussels after the attacks: Sorrow, union and dignity
    A man prays at the Place de la Bourse in honour of the victims of terror attacks of March 23. [Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

    Brussels, Belgium -  Packed with smiling photos of the missing and desperate appeals for information, the Facebook page full of sorrow was set up to help families find loved ones whose fate remained unknown days after the murderous attacks that tore through Brussels' airport and a subway train on Tuesday. 

    "Still there is no word of him," says a post by Chandrasekar Ganesan, searching for his brother Raghavendran. "We have also tried calling on his mobile, but are simply not able to reach."

    Raghavendran, whose own Facebook page reveals him as recently married and a fan of Tom and Jerry cartoons, regularly took the metro line passing through Maelbeek subway station where a bomb blast ripped apart a packed carriage, killing at least 20 rush-hour passengers.

    A further 15 were killed by two bombs detonated an hour earlier in the departure hall of the airport.

    Overall more than 200 people were injured, some suffering horrific wounds from bombs packed with nails.

    Belgian authorities delayed releasing victims' names as they went through painstaking identification procedures and informed families.

     WATCH:  Brussels attacks: Europe's new reality?

    Yet little by little, through individual announcements and social media posts, details of the wounded, missing and dead emerged.

    They revealed a typical cross-section of society in one of Europe's most international capitals - French and Dutch-speaking Brussels natives, European Union officials, Belgian Muslims, American Mormon missionaries, African migrants, Swedes, Italians, Moroccans, citizens from up to 40 nationalities.

    Leopold Hecht, 20, a law student, succumbed to injuries sustained in Maelbeek. His university announced the news with "immense sadness".

    Adelma Tapia Ruiz, 36, from Peru, was killed at the airport as she waited with her twin daughters for a flight to New York. Her Belgian husband and their three-year-old girls survived.

    Yves Cibuabua is missing since taking the metro to work to his job at a Brussels bank. "My strengths are that I am brave, passionate and a hard-working person," the financial services operator says on his LinkedIn account.

    'Resistance and hope' 

    While so many despairing families were waiting for news or mourning their loss, Brussels  returned to work under dark skies on Wednesday gripped by sadness, anger and uncertainty.

    "What I saw today was a total sense of defeat; I saw incredible sorrow, incredible sadness," said Marcus Rooman, 62, director of a community centre in the Forest neighbourhood - scene of a shoot-out during a  counterterrorism raid on suspects connected to last year's Paris attacks the previous week.

    Amid the sorrow, there was a spirit of togetherness rare in a nation often split by social, political and linguistic divisions.

    The Place de la Bourse, a square in front of the city's old Stock Exchange, has became the symbol of that unity. Since shortly after the attack, thousands of citizens have been gathering there to place flowers, flags and candles, or chalk appeals for peace on the pavement.

    "The colours of resistance and hope on the sidewalk, heart of Brussels," wrote Veronique Lamquin, chief political correspondent of the daily Le Soir newspaper, above a tweeted picture of the bouquets and banners of many nations.

    "I saw this bringing together people in Brussels, and bringing down barriers between people, more so than anything else," said Rooman.

    Around the country, sombre crowds gathered to hold a minute's silence at noon in memory of the victims. Marches for hope and peace are planned over the coming Easter weekend.

    King Philippe and his wife Queen Mathilde met health workers and the injured in a city hospital before observing the silence with French Prime Minister Manual Valls and other officials at European Union headquarters, a short walk from Maelbeek station.

    "Faced with the threat, we will continue to respond together with firmness, calmness and dignity," the king said in a televised address to the nation on Tuesday night.

    People attend a street memorial service near the old stock exchange in Brussels after Tuesday's bomb attacks in Brussels [Reuters/Vincent Kessler (Daylife)]

    'The threat is still real' 

    Gradually Brussels was seeking to return to normality. Workplaces and schools opened - with some pupils dressed in black or wearing the red-yellow-black national colours.

    The airport remained closed, but bus and train services resumed with a strengthened security presence.

    The metro was operating a limited service, although Maelbeek station will remain closed for weeks. The driver of the subway train targeted by the bombers insisted on returning to work on Wednesday, local media reported. Christian Delhasse was unhurt in the attack and won praise for helping injured passengers. 

    "There is a very great desire to pick up the thread, to make professionalism and solidarity prevail over everything else," a spokeswoman for the STIB public transport network told

    Yet, fear remained amid this defiance.

    At least one of the bombers was believed to be still at large. Police operations were continuing in a number of parts of the city, including the Molenbeek neighbourhood, which has earned a fearsome reputation for harbouring extremists behind a number of recent terrorist incidents - including shootings and bombings that killed 130 people in Paris last November.

    "The threat is still real," warned Alain Lefevre, director of the national crisis centre. "Everybody has to be vigilant."

    Belgian authorities were also facing hard questions about security lapses, including why the threat level wasn't raised following the detention of Salah Abdeslam, a prime suspect in the Paris attacks who was captured near his home in Molenbeek last week.

    The Brussels attacks are widely thought to have been carried out in retaliation for Abdeslam's arrest.

    There were also growing calls for the authorities to take a harder line against radicals among Belgium's Muslim community who have been successful in recruiting disaffected young men in tough neighbourhoods such as Molenbeek.

    "I'm furious that people who were born here and have been looked after here could do something like this," said Bart De Wever, mayor of Belgium's second city, Antwerp, and leader of the biggest party in the national parliament.

    "People feel Europe's tolerance has been abused, and that's putting it mildly," he told Flemish media.

    Community workers are concerned that the attacks could trigger a backlash against Belgium's Muslims, who are mostly of North African and Turkish origin and make up about 6 percent of the population.

    "It's difficult to say," said Pepijn Kennis, a 27-year-old community worker living in Molenbeek. "I'm scared there will be more police, more repression, more stigmatisation, and I think that's certainly not the solution."

    Flowers, candles and tributes, to the victims and injured, continue to adorn the Place de la Bourse after the terrorist attacks of March 23 [Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

    Linda Thompson in Berlin contributed to this report.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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