1 year on, many scars have healed, yet Brussels hurts
Brussels — Brussels International Airport, where 16 people died in two bomb attacks on March 22, 2016, looks shiny new. The Maelbeek subway station, where another 16 died from a backpack bomb, processes commuters much as it always has. And tourism is recovering, despite Donald Trump calling the Belgian capital a “hellhole” to be avoided at all costs.
One year after the attacks, the city’s physical scars may have healed, but the pain is apparent beneath the surface. Still, the city’s residents and authorities are determined to find a way to forge ahead, without changing the character of one of the world’s most international cities.
“Confronted by doubts and fears, you have shown courage and a magnificent will to reconstruct,” King Philippe told a remembrance service.
It comes under difficult circumstances. Surveillance is up almost everywhere. The city and Belgium as a whole continue to live at the second-highest terror level, meaning there is a serious threat of an attack.
The fear of an attack is widely shared across Europe, underlined at Britain’s parliament Wednesday as an attacker stabbed an officer and was then shot by police, and witnesses said a vehicle struck several people on the nearby bridge.
Even if locals in Brussels are mostly oblivious to heavily armed paratroopers patrolling the city’s landmarks, visitors still stop in their tracks when they notice the camouflage dress and the machine guns.
At the airport, authorities “have taken a lot of additional security measures that go well beyond the European regulations,” Arnaud Feist, Brussels Airport CEO, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Normality is still far off on the anniversary of the attacks, which also wounded more than 300 people.
The social fabric is still especially frayed in the rundown Molenbeek municipality in the center of the city, where several of the extremists who were involved in the Brussels attack or the November 2015 Paris attacks had lived or grown up. The area, which has a large immigrant community, was portrayed as jihadi central and Europe’s hotbed of fundamentalism, and is still far from recovering from the stigma.
“It’s a fact that there really was Molenbeek-bashing after the Paris attacks,” said the district’s mayor, Francoise Schepmans. The facts about rampant crime on some streets and unfettered religious extremism in some mosques and a Quran school were laid bare. The mayor, with help from national authorities, has started a long cleanup operation.
She has closed some mosques for incendiary language and found that 102 nonprofit organizations had links to illegal activities, some to religious radicalism.
“The work is going to take years before Molenbeek gets a positive image again,” she said.
When a huge, mysterious mural appeared, showing Caravaggio’s “Sacrifice of Isaac” of a struggling child with a blade to his neck awaiting slaughter, it struck a chord.
“A super-violent beheading scene on the edge of Molenbeek,” said Brussels alderwoman Ans Persoons. “We didn’t want it to raise tensions,” and the debate is still continuing over whether to paint over the mural.
Overall, it makes it tough for a city to bounce back, especially one that relies on its tourism industry.
Before the attacks, said Patrick Bontinck, CEO of the Visit Brussels tourist office, “tourism was growing approximately 10 percent each year since five years. We were in a really good situation.”
The devastation that destroyed the main arrivals hall at the airport and ripped through the Maelbeek subway line had an immediate impact. “We had a drop of approximately from 30 to 40 percent in just two or three days after the attack,” Bontinck said.
Hotels and restaurants were hit hard, and despite help from the authorities, some were pushed into bankruptcy.
It took a ripple effect for people to come back. First, tourists from the neighboring countries returned, then other Europeans, and now tourists from across the world are starting to see Brussels as a viable destination again.
“It took us about six months to get the traffic back as we normally had,” airport CEO Feist said. “We had traffic records in November, December and even January this year.”
For Bontinck, it is important not to lose the global feel of the city. The International Organization for Migration says 62 percent of the population of Brussels is foreign-born, second only to Dubai. After the Paris attacks with its Brussels connection, Trump described the city as “like living in a hellhole right now” because of its lack of integration.
Bontinck still bristles.
“We are the second-most cosmopolitan city in the world and we want to keep our value of sharing, people of all nationalities living together,” he said. “Maybe Mr. Trump doesn’t like this, but this is our value and we want to continue to share this with all of the world.”
This clarifies that Francoise Schepmans is mayor of Molenbeek municipality, not entire city.