Exactly three years ago today, two bombs exploded at Brussels Airport; an hour later, another bomb exploded on board a metro train in Maalbeek station. The attacks took the lives of 32 members of the public, as well as three terrorists. More than 300 were injured. All of those involved still bear the scars.
Today, at the two locations, commemorations took place. The names of the victims at Zaventem were read out to the accompaniment of an a capella rendition of Amazing Grace. At Maalbeek station, a wall with the names of those who died there was unveiled.
Elsewhere in the city, a delegation of fire and ambulance staff will hold a minute’s silence in front of Manneken Pis, dressed for the occasion in a fireman’s uniform presented to the city in 2017 on the first anniversary of the attacks. “We have turned the page, but we carry those terrible events with us still,” said colonel Tanguy du Bus de Warnaffe, chief of the Brussels fire brigade.
The same lasting memories remain with the victims and families, but not all feel they have turned the page. Mohamed El Bachiri lost his wife Loubna, mother of his three children, and he accuses the Belgian authorities of abandoning the victims. “The government has turned us over to the insurance companies,” he told VRT News. “We don’t feel as if we’ve been treated like the victims of a terrorist attack.”
For the victims of such an attack, it is only natural that the after-effects continue long after, according to psychologist Ann Verstuyf, speaking on the VRT. Often victims suffering long-term anxiety are asked if it’s not time they got over it, she said. “That’s of no use to them. They have no control over their feelings and behaviour. This is the result of an automatic reaction in the brain.”
One unexpected victim is Christian De Koninck, a familiar face to TV viewers, as he was the spokesperson for the Brussels police for years. Eight months after the attacks he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he is still unable to take the train to Brussels unaccompanied, he told the VRT. “I tried,” he told Radio 1. “But in Brussels North I started to feel uneasy, and by Brussels Central I was hyperventilating. I couldn’t even get off, but stayed on the train and went back home again.”
A natural reaction, explained Verstuyf. “You know there’s no danger, but your body is overcome by an anxiety reaction.”
Karen Northshield was so badly injured in the airport bombing that doctors at the emergency room never expected her to survive. Now, three years later, she is still in hospital, and the road to recovery has been long and will be even longer. Speaking to the RTBF, she compared her state to a car that was written off in an accident.
“To repair that car requires expertise, spare parts and money. For a human body it’s the same, only you also need time. You can’t repair a body in one day. If I can have doctors, material, support and money I can make it. All by myself, I’ll never make it.”
Ten men have been identified as suspects of involvement in the bombings, among them Mohamed Abrini, who took a bomb to Zaventem but left the airport before his two companions blew up themselves and others. Their trial is expected to take place in 2020 and last six months. Brussels legal authorities are currently searching for a venue where the trial can be held, since the numbers of those attending – prosecutors, defence lawyers, civil parties, press and public – are expected to exceed the capacity of the Justice Palace. Options considered are said to include Brussels Expo at Heysel, Forest National and the former headquarters of Nato in Evere, across the road from the new HQ – a favoured site as it is not only large and not in use, but also has existing tight security surrounding the buildings.
Until then, the prosecutor’s office has made plans for surviving victims and the families of victims, whose civil cases are attached to the criminal action, to be allowed to consult the case file. That involves some 600 people, and will involve the creation of a huge computer room where the thousands of pages of evidence, equivalent to 140 document boxes, can be consulted.