Monday 23 September 2019

Sarah Collins: Struggling to get back to normal in a divided city

An armed soldier stands guard in a quiet Grand Place, Brussels, after security was tightened following the arrests of 16 suspected terrorists following the Paris attacks
An armed soldier stands guard in a quiet Grand Place, Brussels, after security was tightened following the arrests of 16 suspected terrorists following the Paris attacks

Sarah Collins

At first glance, things look normal. Shoppers stroll the footpaths, bars and restaurants are open for business and cars jostle for position on the roads of the EU's second-most congested city after London.

There's a mixture of bemusement, wariness and defiance in the air now as the Belgian capital creaks back to life following the four-day security lockdown.

Yesterday, traders at the Brussels Christmas market were sanguine as they set up their stalls, relieved that they would be allowed to open and kick-off the festive season.

It was a last-minute reprieve after a terror alert shuttered shops, gyms, schools, metros and concert halls in the city of just over a million people last week.

But soldiers continue to patrol the streets and public places and stand guard outside government buildings and EU institutions, despite the terror alert dropping from level 4 ('Serious and imminent') to level 3 ('Possible and likely') on Thursday.

People are at turns spooked and reassured by the military presence, which is a first for a country that has seen its fair share of home-grown violence in the Cellules Communistes Combattantes (Communist Combatant Cells) and the Bende van Nijvel (Nivelles Gang) in the 1980s.

"People never saw this before," says Tom, a Belgian native and long-time Brussels resident. "There is war in the air," he added. "More and more I'm wondering if we're going to end up with a police state."

It's hard not to draw comparisons with 1980s Belfast, although not even during the worst of the Troubles did the whole city shut down over a terror threat.

However, in Brussels the mood is relaxed, particularly since the terror alert was lowered, with soldiers routinely greeting passers-by with a nod and a smile, and groups of police chatting amiably.

"Growing up in Northern Ireland has its benefits," said Julie, an Irish expat living in Brussels. "I don't have a fear of it at all. I figure you just have to carry on."

But for restaurants, bars and shops in the city centre, it's a different story. In the city centre branch of a major supermarket chain, business was still sluggish on Thursday evening. "What, do people not eat now?" one cashier asked, his humour belying his concern at the drop in trade. "That's what the terrorists want," he said. "I read in a newspaper that they've achieved their aim."

Tipperary man Jack O'Shea, who runs two butchers' shops in the Belgian capital, says trade has taken a major hit since the lockdown.

"The huge police and military presence is absolutely disastrous for business," he said. "It's quite eerie to see the big bustle of traffic after 6pm, with people rushing home and panicking."

Speaking to the Irish Independent at his steakhouse in Brussels city centre, he said the security crackdown was "overkill". He estimates that the four-day lockdown will cost him 25pc of his monthly profits, with bookings leeching out since the city was put on guard last Saturday.

Brussels' cultural scene, usually so vibrant and diverse, has also taken a knock.

At the Ancienne Belgique, one of the city centre's main concert venues, the mood was jubilant when the terror alert was lowered.

"It's been a tough week for everyone," said the AB's General Manager, Dirk De Clippeleir. "It's good that it has ended - day by day you could feel the tension rising," he added.

The AB has had to cancel 20 concerts since the lockdown, and ticket sales for future concerts have also slumped, De Clippeleir said. But he is philosophical about recent events. "I learned a lesson that places like the AB are much more than music venues - they are places where people come to seek comfort, to be with their friends and other music lovers," he told the Irish Independent. "In these more difficult days, people need more music than ever."

People here are still processing what has happened over the last week, and what it means for Belgium's reputation.

The cashier in the tourist office in Brussels' gilded central square, the Grand Place, said there was a noticeable fall-off in visitors over the last week.

Belgium is a country notorious for its surrealist humour, strong beer and rich chocolate, but the twee stereotypes belie the fact that it is a deeply divided country, and Brussels a deeply divided city.

The view from abroad has been scathing, with an editorial in French daily 'Le Monde' last week dubbing the entire country a terrorist hub, and blaming its fragmented political and security systems for allowing jihadism to flourish. Most of the attention has focused on Molenbeek, the neighbourhood in the north-west that was home to three of the suspects in the November 13 Paris attacks.

It's a largely residential area just across the Canal from the bohemian central Brussels neighbourhood of St Catherine. Attempts have been made to gentrify Molenbeek but it has only partly taken hold and unemployment in the area is stuck at around 30pc. Fouad Ben Abdelkader, a Molenbeek resident and local youth activist, says social exclusion, rather than religion, is radicalising kids.

"It's not because of religion but because of a social fabric that has been completely torn asunder," he told the Irish Independent. "I mean, you have young people who are discriminated against, either at work or in education, or discriminated against by the administration," he said.

Frederic, a Belgian native who has lived in Molenbeek for eight years, says the media's depiction of his neighbourhood is "exaggerated". "I mean, Molenbeek is a very poor community so you have a lot of problems, but I never experience these no-go zones - I walk everywhere. On the other hand, terrorism is difficult to see. People don't have a sign on their head saying, I'm a terrorist.'"

Irish Independent

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