On the morning of the London 7/7 bombings in 2005, I walked from my flat in Liverpool Street to my office nearby, sat down at my desk and heard, in rumours and disjointed fragments, from agonisingly slow updates on the BBC website and word of mouth from colleagues, about the city I loved being ripped apart. My boyfriend – even closer to the danger, in Aldgate – called me on my office landline (the mobile networks were down) and then we anxiously tried to contact our young sons’ nursery. Family and friends phoned, in dribs and drabs as they heard the news, and we all stood around the work canteen television, watching in silent horror as the death toll crept unbearably upwards, trying to gauge whether it was safe to travel home. We had never experienced anything like it before.
We moved to Brussels a year later and, this morning, I found out about the devastating terrorist attacks on the airport and metro in my adoptive city on Twitter, on my phone, walking the dog in the park, with a familiar sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The sequence of events felt horribly similar to 7/7, but thereafter the day’s news unfolded online in the new way we have come to expect in the past few years: the early reports and rumours endlessly repeated and amplified, giving way to rolling news coverage, sadness, condemnation, hashtags of support, clever visuals and grisly political point scoring. I watched, sick and sad and unable to look away, endlessly refreshing, until I could watch no more. My son, on study leave on the sofa, traded rumours with his friends on WhatsApp. We live in a world that has been forced to learn digital reflexes for when terrorism strikes.
I have spent a lot of time poking fun at this city, surreal, chaotic and absurd as it can be, but it has welcomed and accepted my family and so many others and held us safe
But, if news moves faster now, so does solidarity. The thoughts of friends and strangers are alike filled with sorrow for the victims: ordinary commuters, holidaymakers, normal people on a normal spring Tuesday. My family has been fielding an endless, heartening outpouring of concern from friends, family and virtual strangers and I have watched with relief as my Brussels friends check in one by one with Facebook’s Safety Check. Using the #ikwilhelpen hashtag, locals have offered stranded travellers lifts, beds and comfort. Social media is full of pictures of the streets around the city centre, a riot of colourful chalked messages of support and love. The Brussels residents who so memorably tweeted cats during the Lockdown in November are still there, as full of compassion and humour.
When we moved to Brussels, the city felt, if anything, too safe for me. I loved its leafy avenues, elegant architecture and the ready availability of warm waffles on any street corner but, for a Londoner, Brussels felt quiet, comfortable, perhaps a little complacent. The last few months have proved me very wrong on that score. The terrorist cell behind December’s Paris attacks was based in the Brussels commune of Molenbeek (the last known member of that group, Salah Abdeslam, was apprehended, also in Molenbeek, last week) and Belgium is estimated to have the highest per capita percentage of European fighters for ISIS in Syria. The relaxed, tolerant city I believed I lived in has become a recognised hub of extremist violence.
It’s a vision I struggle to assimilate with my own experience. I know I have been lucky, as only someone white, middle-class and European can be, but my Brussels is a city of migrants and exiles, a patchwork of communities formed from overlapping waves of immigration over the past 150 years. The city’s residents often call themselves “zinneke”, a dialect word for “mongrel”, in recognition of that. It’s a place where the lanyard-draped Eurocrats of 27 nations can walk a few hundred yards to eat poulet yassa (a Senegalese chicken dish) in the cafés of Matonge, the cultural heart of the Congolese community. In my Dutch class, my fellow students hail from Rwanda, Iran, Ukraine and Pakistan, and only one kid in my son’s class of 26 has two Belgian parents – everyone is at least half something else. I have spent a lot of time poking fun at this city, surreal, chaotic and absurd as it can be, but it has welcomed and accepted my family and so many others and held us safe. It’s no Disneyland – that much is apparent today. We have our share of bigots, racists and flame-fanning motor mouths and I can only hope that my Brussels – the enlightened, nuanced, tolerant city – prevails in the face of today’s atrocious violence and the expressions of hatred and anger it has inevitably provoked.