Brussels – will it ever be the same?

Posted on 10. April 2016

by Darija Maric

darija-maricI will never forget the first time I went to Brussels. I was part of a leadership development programme and we were presenting our project in the ‘capital of Europe’. After our seminar was over, we did the whole tourist experience – we ate waffles at the Grote Markt, posed for pictures in front of the Place Royale and took a walk through Parc du Cinquantenaire. I remember Manneken Pis was a bit disappointing for me (I expected it to be bigger!) but I found some comfort in excellent Belgian beer, which we all had together in the famous Delirium bar. After that, the image of Brussels that stuck in my head was this photo we all took together in front of the Saint Michel Cathedral. I remember it was raining horribly that day and the wind seemed to plan to blow us all away, but nevertheless we were all so happy and relaxed, smiling under a big yellow umbrella and holding our thumbs up.

A few years passed before I visited Brussels again. The next time we met, I was part of the FutureLab Europe programme. The city was the same as I remembered it, but this time we visited the European Parliament, worked in the European Commission, and had important meetings with MEPs and members of different NGOs and lobby organisations. I met some new, socially engaged, smart and talented people who shared my passion for politics, international law and European affairs. We discussed various topics, shared our impressions, dreams and visions and somehow, through all that hard work, dedication and involvement, became friends. Although we did not have much time to explore the city, we managed to make the best of the time we had; we relaxed over a glass of wine in a bar or hung out as a loud and cheerful bunch in someone’s hotel room. So, I am not really sure why, but when I thought of Brussels, one image would always come to mind: an early afternoon, and a metro full of important, busy people in suits and costumes, rushing from one place to another, from one meeting to another, carrying big leather bags and looking serious, focused and full of great plans and hopes.

Next time I was in Brussels, it was again because of FutureLab Europe. This time we presented our projects and publications at a conference and discussed the results and recent political developments. Although I enjoyed the official part immensely, it was even more special for me to see all those people again, after less than a year. It is still very hard to explain how we managed to develop such a strong bond over the relatively short period of time we actually spent together, but we acted like a big family that had, after many years, finally been reunited.

The last time I was there, I noticed the grey, big modern buildings, grey suits and grey metro trams. But now I started to see Brussels in its true, beautiful and vivid colours – I saw the people enjoying their time in the afternoon, sitting in coffee shops and gardens; I saw yellow, red, pink and white flowers which were blossoming all over the city; I saw green parks full of children running after their pets and laughing. And this time, the image of Brussels I carried with me, in my heart, was this image of us all, FutureLabbers, getting ready to take a group photo on the terrace of the restaurant where we had dinner on our last night there. I remember the skies were full of stars, the city lights were lit and the view was simply beautiful. We all went out without our jackets, which turned out not to be such a smart idea, but we hugged each other and laughed, so happy and at the same time a bit sad because we would have to say goodbye to these wonderful people we grew to love and appreciate so much.

I planned to come to Brussels again, for sure. People say that when you love a city, the universe will make it so that you return to it over and over again. I had the feeling it awaits me, the way old friends wait for you to finish your other business and then return to them, full of exciting new stories to share. While I was in the middle of recollecting these experiences, new colourful images in my head and heart-warming memories I will cherish, the news came. I was about to go to work and my roommate was listening to radio. Then she came to my room and said: “There was a terrorist attack in Brussels.”

What happened next is kind of blurry to me now. I do remember I had some phone issues and could not call or reach anyone I knew from the city, I could not talk to any of my friends or make sure they were all right. In the Berlin metro, I heard stories of the second attack. That happened in a metro. And the name of the station where the attack occurred was way too familiar.

I am a person who survived a couple of wars up until this point of my life. I am someone who had to leave the place where I was born, the place where my roots lie, because someone had a problem with my ethnicity and my name. I am also someone who sat with her family at the dinner table and heard the planes flying over our heads, carrying bombs that could be dropped on our house. That also means that, like many others who went through the same, I know fear. And anyone who ever felt this deep emotion, this horrible unease and sense of panic in his chest will tell you one thing: it is always the same. And you never get used to it. And you can never forget it.

So on that day I felt the same, the familiar fear for the people I care for and whom I knew live in Brussels. Many of them live or work near the station that was attacked. And then I saw the images. The injured, the panicked people, the destroyed metro station, the smoke billowing from it and this atmosphere of horror and disbelief. My mind could not grasp it – why would anyone, for any reason, decide to activate a bomb and kill so many innocent people? What purpose does it serve? What kind of a war is being fought? And how can this madness be stopped, these random acts of terror that are taking their gloomy toll all over the planet?

The relief I felt after I found out that all my friends were unharmed was bitterly mixed with sadness for the people who lost their lives on that cold day in March. I could not get that photo of horror and fear on people’s faces out of my head. The warm, colourful images of Brussels as the city whose inhabitants know how to enjoy the small things in life – a cup of coffee in the sun, a taste of a small piece of the finest chocolate melting in your mouth, a run through the park in the early morning – was replaced by this disturbing image from the news, flashing in front my eyes.

Just a couple of days later, in Berlin, I was taking the morning metro. And at one point, in between stations, the lights went off and the metro stopped. And although this unexpected and unforeseen delay lasted for less than a minute, I saw the fear on people’s faces. And I knew they all had the same image in their head: the one of Brussels under attack, the threatening grey smoke, coming out of the station, the serious and worried faces of police and military officers who did not succeed in foreseeing and preventing this tragedy from happening.

But we do have to make new images and we do have to fight that fear. Because that is the thing with fear – once it conquers you, it is over. We all have to fight that, very humane and very common, instinct to run, to surrender and to give everything away, in the vain hope that you could feel safe again. But giving in to the fear is never the answer. One must do the opposite, and that means to live life to the fullest, despite all the things that have happened and despite the fear of them happening again. We all, as Europeans, have to go beyond the old images of destruction and renew, regenerate and rebuild, forming new images and creating new memories. Because in the words of Nelson Mandela: “the courage is not the absence of fear, but triumph over it. The brave man is not who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

And now to answer my own question: Brussels will never be the same, because one cannot erase what has happened. It will take some time to mourn and heal, as it always does. And that sad day will not and should not be forgotten. But Brussels can again be as beautiful and special as it once was. It can once again be the city of happy people, who share the same values and work for a cause they believe in. And we can help it to restore its colourful beauty, by conquering our own fears and showing our support and love.

Yesterday, I asked my parents to send me a postcard I once received from Brussels. I will put it in my room in Berlin, as a dear memory of a wonderful time I had under a yellow umbrella, in a heated debate in a European institution or at a particular restaurant terrace under a starry sky. And I am looking forward to meeting my old friend again and to making new memories, full of colour, strength and bravery. Because that is the only image of Brussels I will have and cherish.