This morning I got off the metro at Maalbeek station, it’s not the closest one to my office in Brussels, but today was the first day it was open since last month’s attacks and I felt as I owed to it the city to say I wasn’t afraid.
Its cleaned platform and white panels seemed the same as before, nothing had changed, save an Asian film-crew fixing their camera next to the escalator and a small, make-shift shrine of flowers at the entrance. Prior to this morning the metro carriages had passed almost silently through the station where 20 people had lost their lives on 22 March with black hoarding posted along the platforms to hide the crime scene. As of today, normal service has all-but resumed.
For the city’s 1,1 million residents, the re-opening of the Maalbeek station is likely to represent the return to normal life many had sought after the attacks last month which claimed 35 lives and wounded over 300. The workings of the EU have returned officially at least to their normality, along with Belgium itself, its football matches, cycling tours and beer festivals all continue largely unabated. Returning to normal for Brussels of course has meant the kind of normal, the city has been used-to since the attacks in Paris in January 2015, which brought the sight of armed troops onto the street. Their continuing presence served as a symbol of a danger, many believed was yet to come. This was exacerbated by the decision of the interior ministry to put the entire city on “lock-down” for a whole weekend in November, all-but closing public transport and cancelling major events, a drastic measure, whose effects are still being felt.
Political machinations have returned to the familiar, with the country’s fractious coalition exchanging political jibes over their handling of the crises and fr the crimes they failed to prevent. The Federal transports minister has already fallen, guilty it would appear, of not acting on evidence that would have prevented the attacks.
The government has taken its fair share of flack from conservative commentators, mostly in the UK, the US and Israel, keen to deride the highly federalised country as a “failed state”. A charge which would bemuse most locals including its thousands of British and Irish ‘expats’ whose complaints are often that there is far too much government, especially its exorbitant tax burden.
To be sure the failings of the country’s security services have been laid bare but the ability of Islamist cells to use parts of the country (in particular Molenbeek) as a base is also testament to the fact that nowhere in Belgium is much more than 45 minutes from an international border, to 5 separate countries. The failures of the Belgian police and intelligence are also the failures of across Western Europe and Belgium’s neighbours. For their part group known as Al Da’aesh/Islamic State, a group largely set-up to eradicate Western-imposed borders, sees no distinction between France and Belgium.
Although following the attacks on Paris in November many in Belgium believed that an attack on Brussels was in the offing but Belgium itself has rarely been the intended target of terror attacks, rather many were concerned it was becoming a host for them. The area of Molenbeek has been under increasing suspicion, an entry of the word into an English-language search engine produces a variety of colourful words, few of which are written by anyone who’s ever been there or are in anyway accurate. One of the most oddly used words for Molenbeek, although the most inaccurate is “suburb” an odd choice of words for an area a mere 10 minutes walk (if you’re lazy) from the city hall and its main shopping street. Molenbeek is not a deep and distant Paris-style banlieue or housing estate, it is Brussels, and it’s past has echoed many parts of Belgium and wider Europe in terms of industrialisation, immigration and globalisation. I walked though Molenbeek last weekend, there was certainly a number beards among the locals, then again many of them were local hipsters.
Molenbeek was formerly known as ‘the Manchester of Belgium’ due to its high level of industrialisation, and was until recently on the verge of becoming a property hot-spot among young Belgian and Europeans. The area has of course a significant number of Belgians of Moroccan and North African origin, most of whom are Muslim, many of whom are between 18 and 40 and, like many in post-industrial Europe, often struggle to find adequate employment. The young population generally harbour little alienation against or attachment to the Belgian state itself, but while less-common than in Paris, unrest is not unknown.
Back in May 1991 and then again in 1995 the area was plunged into a brief period of rioting as many of the area’s youths, vented their anger at the city’s police over perceived lack of opportunities and mistreatment by Police and the activities of Far-right thugs. Sadly many of these problems have festered in the intervening years.
When or whether Brussels will recover fully is yet unclear. Ever since the November’s “lock-down” there has been a noted drop-off in activity in the city centre, with its effect on the economy. A week ago the Brussels Hotel Association reported that its hotels never had so few guests, with only 20 per cent of rooms occupied, an all-time low. Industry chiefs have warned that “10,000 jobs” are now at risk. Unlike the other targets of Islamic terrorism in recent decades Brussels is much more likely to feature in the news section than the travel. The city has never been the major tourist destination such as that of neighbouring Paris or Amsterdam and if Brussels sees the number of business travellers to its many EU conferences staying-away it could provide disastrous for the city.
The locals, whether Belgian-born or otherwise, are continuing with life as it was. Before he died earlier this year, the celebrated Italian author Umberto Ecco said of the Belgian capital:
“Brussels should become the centre where diversities are not eliminated, but rather exalted and harmonised”
Ecco wasn’t around to see it, but he would surely have approved of the Sunday before the attack, when roughly 2,000 people from all nationalities attended the 10th annual St Patrick’s day festival in Brussels, it even made the Irish News and Belgian TV. It was clear to all those attending that day that the diversity was indeed part of its strength, a diversity that includes places like Molenbeek.
It was probably Laurent Joffrin, director of the French Daily Liberation, who put it best on the day of the attacks: