Brussels: First-person accounts from the Belgian capital

‘I refuse to live my life in fear’


This morning, there was a series of attacks in the Belgian capital of Brussels.

There were two explosions in the departures area of Zaventem airport shortly after 8am local time (7am GMT). Later, there was an explosion at Maalbeek Metro station, which is situated close to many EU buildings. The airport and the city’s transport network have been closed by the authorities. Belgium has raised its terror threat to the highest level.

At the moment, thirteen people are understood to have died at Zaventem airport and ten more have reportedly died in the attacks in the town centre.

Updated at 11.20am: The BBC reports that there are now 15 dead and 55 wounded in the Maalbeek Metro station attack.

Updated at 2.50pm: The total death toll is now thought to be 31. 11 people were killed at the airport and 82 were injured. Twenty people were killed at Maalbeek Metro station.   

Four days ago, Salah Abdeslam, the chief fugitive in the Paris attacks, was captured by police in Brussels. No one has claimed responsibility for this morning’s attacks yet, though the airport blasts have been attributed to suicide bombers. France plans to deploy an extra 1,600 police at its borders.

Facebook has enabled the “mark safe” function for those in the city, just as it did after the Paris attacks.

We spoke to several people in Brussels in order to get a sense of the atmosphere in the city this morning.

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Ruby Livings-Waterworth, works at European Public Service Unions (EPSU) in central Brussels, next to Maalbeek Metro station

“I work on Rue Joseph II, where one of the Maalbeek exits leads onto. I was walking in the street to Schuman roundabout, and saw lots of people sitting and standing in the street in front of a Commission building. A man across the road had hands covered in blood. Then I realised that next to me a man and woman had dust in their hair and their faces were covered in blood.

“I am now at work – we’ve been told not to move – and the road is blocked at least on one side. But there are people still walking in the street. I think they were people coming out of Maalbeck Metro station. There are lots of police and ambulance sirens.”

Cameron Morrissey, 21, on a work placement at the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU (AmCham EU) as part of his Politics and International Relations course at the University of Bath

This is where Chris was when the Metro attacks took place this morning

This is where Cameron was when the Metro attacks took place this morning

Cameron’s office is in the European Quarter, a 15 minute walk to Maelbeek Metro station. He’s currently inside his office and has been instructed to stay there until they hear otherwise.

“I sit at the back of the office, and people at the front have been moved to the back, as we’re on the ground floor. The lights have been turned off now as a precaution.

We’re in contact with the U.S. Mission to the EU, they have a security section which gives us advice. Other than that we’re just monitoring the news and social media.”

“I live in Etterbeek, and am a five-minutes walk from the Commission. I normally walk to work, unless I’m feeling lazy and decide to get the Metro. I was on my way to work when I found out, thank God I didn’t take the Metro as my stop was the one that was hit.”

“It was basically a typical day apart from I was on my phone the whole walk, as were lots of people. I was walking as the explosions in the airport were recorded.”

Cameron is here

Cameron and a friend in Brussels

“My best friends from uni left Brussels International yesterday, they almost had their flight delayed so they were very lucky.”

“I’ve been here since September and finish in July. So I’ve already experienced the Brussels lockdown after the Paris attacks. Lockdown was not overly stressful last time as I was just in my flat and the streets were dead, but this feels way more serious. I’d say I’m much more concerned due to working for an American company in Brussels at the moment. The atmosphere in the office is very peculiar.”

Lauranne Delens, student at Marie Haps University, next to the European Commission

“I first heard what happened when I woke up at 8.30am this morning. There was a special programme airing on the radio, on the Vivacité station.

“My mum told me to stay home. I later heard that my school had been closed as a level 4 threat had been re-established – the highest level of emergency. All the schools are supposed to be closed even though a few are keeping their students locked in.

Lauranne

Lauranne

“I personally can’t see anything from my home but my mum was in the city centre this morning and everything is a mess. Most cars are going anywhere they can, all Metro trains, trams and trains are stationary. All the stations are closed.

“We haven’t turned the radio off. There’s a special programme uniting four radio stations so that citizens can have one main source of information. All of my friends are safe and my nuclear family living in Brussels is also safe. They communicated with me through Facebook and via text messages because the Crisis Centre has asked us to only use text messages and social media.

“I’m scared and pretty pissed off. I’m scared because we weren’t expecting that, because everything is closed and because the terrorists might still be on the run. And I’m pissed because there’s too many dead and injured people, because our government and police are again going to be perceived as weak, because because our country’s right wing party is going to rise.

“The information we are getting is to stay at home and not move. It can be a bit bothering because hospitals need blood, they made an announcement on the radio saying they needed it but it’s too dangerous for us to go outside.”

Jules Johnston,  reporter at Politico’s Brussels bureau, near Maalbeek Metro station

“I’m pretty much right by the Metro station in central Brussels. There are police cordons outside. This morning, work told me to walk in. I got on a tram but it didn’t move.

“I was scrolling through Twitter to get the news, but I really think it was spreading via word-of-mouth. Some people didn’t know – it was weird to watch people getting phone calls on the walk in.

“Brussels is quite clean and corporate – usually, you see these cocky, confident types walking around. This morning it was more subdued. Our office faces away from the Metro station, but you can hear the sirens, shouting, you react to every noise. Obviously we’re on high alert.

“I’ve been here for two years and it feels 100 per cent like a changed city. You think of it as waffles, beers, chocolate – it has all those EU buildings but it still felt fundamentally like a tourist-y city. Now, there’s this underlying current of radicalism. It’s strange to see the city change so much.

“We’re in a newsroom, so obviously everyone’s on edge. One of my colleagues said, ‘it’s going to hit you in three hours’ – when all the adrenaline wears off. It’s strange, even being in Europe – even being in Belgium over these last months – it didn’t feel close until today. But now it’s something you can see.

“We’re not sure what time we’ll leave tonight. Someone who started at 5am is still here. There are reports that the Metro is meant to restart at 5pm. There’s an incredibly high police and army presence.

“I don’t know anyone who was affected and I have accounted for everyone I know. I suppose, because of the time it happened, many people never even made it into work in the first place. You start to think: my girlfriend was flying out from the same airport, at the same time [as the attack this morning], on Friday. Even though she was safe, things like that makes it feel more real – it puts a face to it.”

Stephanie Anne, tourist

Stephanie flew into Brussels on Sunday and is there until Friday, when she is scheduled to fly out of Zaventem airport. She’s a student at Bristol and is staying in an apartment that is “walking distance” from the Metro attack. 

“We were in our apartment this morning and turned the news on, and saw there had been an explosion at the airport. Then we saw the second one after fifteen mins or so. The building is quiet but we went to a market this morning anyway. We didn’t see the point in staying in wen it can happen anywhere – though we’re going to stay inside for the rest of the day, now. 

“It doesn’t feel ghostly – more panicked.

Police cars on the streets of Brussels

Police cars on the streets leading to Grand Place Square

“The streets are much quieter than usual. The police station is cordoned off, there are armed guards patrolling. We saw four cars with sirens on pull into the police station together, and you can hear sirens and helicopters. All the shops in town are shutting.

“Our Airbnb man emailed to say that the police said to stay in, and that he can sort us food if we need. Friends and family have been in touch – I put a Facebook status out and then loads of people messaged and rung me.

Stephanie took pictures this morning when she went out

Scenes outside a police station near Grand Place Square

Azazi Giorgis, student

Giorgis was on his way to university this morning when Brussels was attacked. 

“It’s hard to describe – everyone is still processing what’s happening. I’m at the Ibis hotel in central Brussels. Everyone is watching the news, everyone is on their phone. It’s chaos. At the moment, everyone is stuck in the city – no one can get out because all the transport has been closed down.”

Kieran Watkins, Masters student at University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies 

“I live in Ixelles which is in the southeast of the city, quite far from the airport but about 2.6km away from the European institutions where the affected Metro stations are.

“I woke up at 9am local time – I had a couple of messages on my phone asking if I was OK. I then checked the news on my phone and saw there had been an explosion. My first thought was ‘are my friends OK?’ – there was a group of students from my university going away today on a trip. Luckily they were not flying until later tonight.

“I have spent most of the morning glued to social media and speaking to my friends and relatives. As far as I’m aware all my friends are safe. I can hear plenty of sirens and helicopters in the distance.

“I’ll be spending the day at home, keeping safe and avoiding public places. My university is still open, however I hear other universities in Brussels are now on lockdown. There is no public transport running, so the advice I have received has been to stay at home and await further information.

“It’s obviously scary, knowing that what appears to be a terrorist attack has been performed in the city you live in. The uncertainty and fear has been looming over people in the city for months ever since the lockdown last November, which is sad because Brussels is a lovely city.

“Despite this, I still feel safe. Terrorist attacks could happen anywhere, and I refuse to live my life in fear. For now though, I will sit tightly and think of all those in Brussels who have been affected by these tragic events.”

Are you or anyone you know in Brussels? Please get in touch at [email protected]