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'It was terrifying to be at the heart of an event the world was watching'

Sligo man, Heber Rowan, who is living in Brussels says yesterday was a day that ripped through the heart of life in Brussels.

Heber Rowan

A FEW DAYS ago we heard news of the capture of a wanted terrorist, Salah Abdeslam. I didn’t rejoice. The fact that it took months to procure his capture didn’t fill me with awe in the Belgian security services. I thought they were simply lucky.

Protected by a community in collective fear and respect, he walked around freely because he knew he could. That is the sad reality of events that precipitated yesterday, the 22 March.

Yesterday morning upon waking, I was listening to the radio. Suddenly, amid all the talk of Irish politics was a new crisis. News from Brussels. I bolted up alert. A small explosion… maybe two. So, I went online and searched on twitter for updates. A small smoke cloud, crowds running. It didn’t seem initially like the end of world. Sadly, for some, it was.

I didn’t think deeply about it all until I was near the end of my regular walking commute after Maelbeek station when more and more blacked out cars screeched by in a flare of blue lights and speed. Something was happening and I just didn’t know what. I thought it was just part of the overall increase in security for the day after the attack in the airport. Though more was to come.

Brussels Airport explosions Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Just a normal day 

That particular day I was attending a training session a few blocks down from the Committee of the Regions where I work as a trainee.

Upon entry, security into the building was tight and inside my classroom I glimpsed a scene of collective shock. Everyone was huddled on their phones searching for the latest information. We discussed what was happening and the sporadic official messages we received from our respective institutions. There were reports of a bomb at the Shuman Metro station only a block away from us, we weren’t sure. All we knew was that a class on European institutions was the least thing on our minds. So it was agreed to cancel the class.

I tried calling my parents yet the phone signals were blocked amid the storm of traffic. The official advice was to stay inside and await further instructions. So we waited, discussed events, our lives, our hopes for Europe, and the difficulties of multilingual integration for children in Belgian schools, while attending to a flood of concerned messages from home and abroad; then we waited some more.

I posted an update on social media, to reach the most amount of people the fastest, all the while it was really touching to know that people reached out to check if I was okay.

Surreal and terrifying. After so many years following events unfold through television and social media, growing up with endless cinematic entertainment that demanded the suspension of disbelief, it was striking and unbelievable how suddenly I was at the heart of an event the world would discuss and debate.

Brussels Airport explosions Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

The streets and the sound of silence 

Inside, we discussed when and where to go, difficulties from the closure of public transport. It was awful to stay inside on such a sunny day. I felt enclosed in the building, so I left late in the early evening. At that stage the ‘yellow alert’ security posters had all changed to ‘orange alert’, and we were bid farewell.

Walking down the street the first thing that hit me was the silence. Normally Rue Belliard (where the Committee of the Regions is), is a torrent of traffic, yesterday it was silent, surreal. Occasionally the odd police car ripped through that placid illusion of calm, yet largely, it was silent. People in the familiar stiff attire of the EU quarter made the long walk home while I passed the pair of soldiers I normally greet every morning. Yesterday was different. They wore their helmets and no smiles.

Brussels Airport explosions Source: AP/Press Association Images

Walking home was a labyrinth, street after street were blocked by police and soldiers. While outside the EU Council the media scrummed to get a juicy background shot of Maelbeek in the background. I heard Chinese, Japanese, BBC British, Arabic, French and a few tongues I may never know.

Upon my return home, I met my fellow housemates crowded around the TV showing the latest updates. There was emotion in the air, horror and anger. One friend of friend was on the train only behind the one that exploded, so he had to walk through the tunnel to escape while another just missed that exact train by minutes.

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Others stayed on lock down throughout Brussels all day like myself struggling to find the will to work as if it were a normal day. But it wasn’t.

Brussels Airport explosions Source: Gareth Fuller

A day that ripped through the heart of Brussels 

It was a day that ripped through the heart of life in Brussels.

This Tuesday was a failure of the Belgian security services, that reminded us of a painful reality; some people cannot be reasoned with. Some cannot be bartered with and some cannot accept the idea of living in peace.

Growing up in Sligo, the troubles are a distant memory, dim and foggy with the passing of time. Something that I only recall happening through a TV screen or in the papers, not on my streets or in my life.

Yesterday reminded me of the traumatic reality of violence as an end. Just because it is on the screen doesn’t make it any less real. This Tuesday in Brussels, ordinary lives were lost. Not because they wanted anything nefarious or the like, but because others choose the path of hate. That is the reality.

I do not feel that it will get any better in the near future. As a human being, I am fed up of the idea that we should transfer the Paris bombing slogan ‘Je Suis’, to another tragedy.

Such an awful tragedy need not happen. European ideals of unity and pluralism should have prevented this level of raw hate and twisted beliefs. Yet it didn’t.

Heber Rowan is a trainee within the European Committee of the Regions in Brussels. He is passionate about international relations, Irish politics and transport policy. He participated in the JET program in rural Japan for two years and enjoys a spirited debate from time to time. You can follow him on Twitter here

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Heber Rowan

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