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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Brussels attack: ‘I kissed my wife goodbye… hour later, her metro station Maalbeek was hit’

Multiple blasts rocked Brussels Tuesday morning. Antoon Cox, a PhD researcher at VUB, shares his experience.

Written by Antoon Cox | Brussels | Updated: March 22, 2016 7:35:44 pm
Belgian soldiers patrol in a subway station in Brussels, Belgium, in this November 25, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Yves Herman/Files Belgian soldiers patrol a subway station in Brussels, Belgium. File Photo/Reuters

08:19 am After having given my wife her daily goodbye kiss before she took the 08:19 am train bound for Brussels, I was strolling to work and checked my Facebook. I then saw a text message from my wife telling me there had been a bomb blast at Brussels National Airport, a place I associate with adventure and holidays, like many people.

I checked the news website of the Belgian Dutch-speaking national broadcaster VRT and there was indeed news about a blast at the airport but no further information. As I started to watch the live stream which featured loose footage of things happening at the airport — people running, ambulances leaving and arriving — the newscasters were improvising and trying to figure out what was going on. They knew there must have been casualties given the damage caused but that was all they knew.

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09:30 am I was listening to the news when I heard a journalist say there was smoke emerging from the Maalbeek underground station in Brussels city too. Maalbeek station, not to be confused with Molenbeek, is the underground station of the European quarter where the European Commission’s buildings are located – more importantly from my point of view, it is where my wife gets off the underground to go work.

I immediately called my wife whose office is next to the Maalbeek station. Usually my wife takes the underground, but as that morning, she met a friend on the train who prefers not to take the underground anymore since the attacks in Paris, they had decided to take a morning walk to office together. On the way to her office, she had seen a sudden gathering of people outside of a metro station, but did not know what was going on until I called her. She told me that her friend’s sister was at the airport and had been evacuated; and that from her office window, she saw policemen and journalists arriving. There was no further news of deaths or wounded people.

I called my father who is a frequent traveller but luckily, he was not at the airport. In Belgium, the Easter break starts next week and many holidaymakers are taking charter flights out of the county to more sunny destinations.

By the time the news websites were announcing there had been at least 13 deaths and 35 wounded people at the Airport, and at least 10 deaths at the Maalbeek underground station, my wife told me that the area was being sealed off and that she was no longer allowed the leave her office building.

With all the information coming in and worried friends and family members contacting me regarding my wife, I revisit a feeling that I have not had in years. The last time I felt like this was in 2008 in Islamabad, when there was an attack at an Italian restaurant. Just out of the blue, we heard a blast. The feeling of not knowing what happens is chilling.

We in Belgium do know that bomb blasts take place, we see it on TV, but now it has happened in the sphere of our daily lives. Now there is the sudden realisation that such attacks do not only take place on TV screens in countries where people speak in other languages; it has taken place in our country with victims like ourselves and in the places where we live and work. This was not about Sadam Hussein somewhere in Iraq and American politicians claiming that they “got him”, this was about a man who was born and raised in Brussels and who had turned into a terrorist.

Only a few days ago when “enemy of the state number one” Salah Abdeslam — allegedly one of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks — was caught, the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior had claimed victory against the terrorists, although they did say that the “battle was not over yet” and that we had to remain vigilant. Belgian Minister of the Interior Jan Jambon tweeted a picture of himself and Prime Minister Charles Michel posing with the special forces of the Belgian police with an American-style comment “you got him boys”.

11:35 am Breaking news: the Federal Judicial Authorities have confirmed that it was a suicide attack at Brussels airport but right now, I care more about the victims. Another update: it appears that there are 11 deaths at the Maalbeek Metro station too. My wife is waiting for news of some of her colleagues. For now, I am happy that my wife is alive. I hope that the number of death and casualties will not increase.

12:00 noon Breaking news: 15 deaths in Maalbeek station and 55 others wounded. My wife’s colleagues are luckily not among them. My sincere condolences go out to the families of those who have lost a loved one.

Antoon Cox is a PhD researcher at Vrije Universiteit Brussels (VUB) and King’s College London (KCL). He lives with his wife Anneleen in Leuven, a university town close to Brussels. Cox interned at The Indian Express in 2007 and 2008.

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