Yesterday everything seemed to be back to normal. I went jogging in the morning, and I didn’t run into a single soldier. Even the soldiers that are usually stationed in front of the synagogue were not there – I later learned that the authorities had asked the synagogue to close straight away, and that therefore the security was not needed but rather moved to more urgent spots. I later went to Ixelles, a burgeoning neighbourhood just east of the city centre, to watch a football match in the afternoon. Plenty of people were out in the streets, enjoying their Sunday stroll or having a beer with family and friends, acting as if life was normal, and no level 4 security alert was in place. Occasionally I bumped into a group of soldiers and armoured vehicles, but as people tend to get easily used to novelties, at day 3 of seeing them, I did not even look up too much from this sight. If anything, their presence would reassure me that in that place I was safe. And actually, I must admit that they were also a quite interesting sight to look at so in the middle of the city…
Then yesterday evening some news came in: a major military action taking place in the surroundings of Grand Place, Brussels’ main square, and police closing off a whole perimeter which included the house of some good friends of mine. Subsequently the federal police sent out a tweet, asking the media and civilians not to spread any updates on the ongoing operations. I immediately wrote to my friends. They were fine, home, a little bit stressed out, but fine. Then the long waiting started. I live about 1km away from Grand Place, in a quiet street where nothing ever happens. I spent the evening playing cards and chatting with my housemates. Everything was quiet, but still, we were just 1km away from a military operation monopolizing the media output of the entire world, and we simply had no idea about what was going on. I imagined how our grandparents must have felt like, during the war, at home playing cards, behaving as if everything was normal, yet inhibited from going out, and constantly checking the radio for news. In fact, our iPad was constantly next to us, with Twitter, politico.eu and Belgian news sites continuously being checked in search of updates.
But no updates, at least not until late night. In fact, the only times that our card games were interrupted was when the worried calls from our family and friends abroad came in. Friends I didn’t hear for months all suddenly wrote me last weekend; more worrisome, my mother would not quit a phone call yesterday night until I promised her that I would be working from home today. Which I am doing – well, apart from writing this article…
The last days have been weird in Brussels. Since Saturday the city has become #BrusselsLockdown, and the streets were indeed spooky when I went for a walk on Saturday. Main squares were filled with military and journalists more than with civilians. The hub of Brussels’ Saturday nightlife, including St Gery and St Catherine, were completely deserted. The amount of military around the city is sometimes impressive, and so are the Kalashnikovs they are walking with, and the panzers they are standing around. Yet people try to behave as normally as possible, often undecided whether to stay safe at home at all times, listening to the advice of the US Embassy (it seems like everyone is trusting the US Embassy as a better source of advice than the Belgian Ministry of Interior, which says quite something about the perception of security in Europe and in Belgium specifically…), or to go out, fight the odds, and decide not to succumb to terrorism.
I can’t know what’s happening next, but I will most likely also go back to work tomorrow, and start living a normal life as soon as possible. This situation can’t last forever, and as easily as we have become used to seeing military in the middle of the city, so we will get used to live our normal lives again after the 13/11 Paris attacks and the subsequent Brussels threats. Brussels will have been like a Northern version of Beirut or Tel Aviv for some days, and perhaps I will have learned a little better what it feels like to live with the perpetual knowledge that an attack might be forthcoming. Also, I will have learned that the most important thing is to move on, to feel alive, and to live life at its fullest. Let’s hope to be able to go back to it soon then, and that these days will be remembered more because of its cats than its bombs.
Robert Zielonka (24) is a Graduate of Democracy. He has been living in Brussels since November 2014