8.50 this morning. When I arrive at the office my Belgian colleague is fully awake and excited. ‘Did you already hear it?!”. ‘Hear what?’, I wonder. ‘They bombed the airport in Bruxelles’. And she is off again. I start my computer and start reading. Minutes later the news about the attacks in the metro comes in as well. We are shocked and try to start our work as usual, but we keep an eye on the news. One screen a statistic, another screen nu.nl. The amount of people I know in Bruxelles is limited to a handful, but many of my colleague’s friends are there, even working at the airport, and need to report that they’re safe. I can only imagine her anxiety and shock. The death toll rises and the mood in the Benelux department is very dark. Our traditional Easter lunch, planned for that noon, does not manage to stir much enthusiasm. It almost feels disrespectful, enjoy ourselves when Belgium is in mourning.
Salah Abdelsam and his friends already were a regular topic of discussion in our office before today, as we spend so many hours working on statistics regarding migration and religion. His capture last week, after many months, was the talk of the day in the Benelux department. ‘It was bound to happen some day’, comments my colleague. Is it bound to happen back home too? Is Holland going to be next, or maybe Germany?
I come home and start texting my favourite friend from Bruxelles. Last time I spoke to him he was abroad, but I hadn’t heard from him in a while anymore, as he is notoriously bad with replies (as our mutual friends will agree). The reply comes instantly. ‘Don’t worry, I am still safely in Baghdad!’. When did that ever start to comfort me, I wonder. Safe in Baghdad, such a nice contradictio in terminis.
The Area Studies experts will soon start to comment again on the amount of attention devoted to the Belgium attacks, as compared to other places, such as for example Ankara and Istanbul. James Taylor wrote a moving message from Ankara not even two weeks ago, asking the world ‘You were Charlie, you were Paris. Will you be Ankara?’. Of course I was Istanbul, of course I was Ankara, my professional life is so closely connected to Turkey. Having lived there as an exchange student in 2012-2013, Turkey is close to my heart. But for the ordinary European Turkey is still far away. Belgium on the other hand is literally just across the corner. From my hometown in Zeeland you reach Belgium in some 20 to 30 minutes. We go shopping in Belgium, we depart on journeys to far away countries from the Belgian airports. And that makes all the difference.
The Netherlands experiences a collective shock, and I as much as the next person. That is only natural, as we have such close connections to Belgium. We may joke about them silly Belgians a lot, but when it comes to it they are the closest you’ll get to the Netherlands abroad. It is almost as if we were bombed ourselves. An attack on Belgium is not just an attack on one tiny country in Western Europe, it is an attack on certain values too; values that we share with the Belgians. And the worst thing of all is that so many of these attacks are the work of homegrown terrorists, like Mr. Abdelsam.
My thoughts are with the victims of the terrorist attacks in Bruxelles and everywhere else around the world. I am Charlie, I am Paris, I am Ankara, I am Istanbul, I am Tunisia, I am Libanon, I am Egypt, I am Kuwait, I am Bruxelles and alas, I am so much more.