Brussels Tries to Pick Up Pieces as Worst Fears Are Realized

Brussels Observes a Moment of Silence
  • Commuters face checks by military at subway, rail stations
  • Thousands gather at vigil as many decide to work at home

With a combination of defiance, sadness and anger, people in Brussels tried to return to normality after the terrorist massacre that many feared was coming.

Machine-gun wielding soldiers guarded subway entrances and searched commuters’ bags and coats before they were allowed to travel as suspects in Tuesday’s bombings remained at large. Many people followed advice to work from home, while thousands have continued to gather in a central Brussels square to honor the victims of the worst terrorist atrocity in Belgium’s history. Ever since the attacks in Paris in November that were traced to plotters in the Belgian capital, many knew a day like this was all too likely.

A Belgian police officer stands guard outside the De Brouckere metro station in Brussels, on March 23, 2016.
A Belgian police officer stands guard outside the De Brouckere metro station in Brussels, on March 23, 2016.
Photographer: Adam Berry/Getty Images
Armed soldiers stand guard as travelers enter Brussels Midi railway station on March 23.
Armed soldiers stand guard as travelers enter Brussels Midi railway station on March 23.
Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

“You feel the tension in the air,” said Amelie Hubin, a 35-year-old beautician, on her way to work. “The metro is closed and the people who are driving are stressed. It’s worrying.”

With a provisional casualty toll from the coordinated attacks standing at 31 dead and about 300 injured, Belgian authorities continued their hunt for a suspect filmed at the airport with the suicide bombers shortly before the explosions as well as a possible accomplice at the metro attack. Officials faced questions over how the assaults could happen in a city that had put soldiers on the streets and stepped up patrols around transport hubs and sensitive buildings since the Paris attacks.

‘Hatred, Fear’

“I felt shocked but I was not surprised; it could have been expected,” said Julia von Franz, a consultant. “Hatred, fear and chaos are exactly what Islamic State wants and we shouldn’t give in to that. I’m worried about the reactions this will provoke towards refugees and Muslims in and outside of Europe.”

People light candles in Brussels on Tuesday.
People light candles in Brussels on Tuesday.
Photographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP Photo

Unlike in November, when central Brussels went into virtual lockdown as authorities warned of an imminent attack days after terrorists killed 130 people in Paris, this time Belgium’s capital tried to get on with life as normal: schools opened, buses and trams ran and drinkers sipped espressos at pavement cafes.

People light candles in Brussels on Tuesday.
People light candles in Brussels on Tuesday.
Photographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP Photo

In a pedestrianized square outside the city’s 19th-century stock exchange, a crowd gathered to share opinions, hug strangers and chant "We won’t give up.” Officials at European Union institutions, located close to one of the explosions, joined people across the country in holding a minute’s silence at noon.

The European Commission decided that bomb damage to a building that houses its agriculture department was too great to deem it safe enough for staff to go in. Brussels airport will remain shut at least until Saturday and airlines moved flights to nearby airports, while the Brussels subway network is running a partial service.

"Life is very different now,” said Laachiri Abdelmajid, 53, who works at a shoe-repair shop in Brussels. “There is always a risk that something like that may occur again.”

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