Brussels // Brussels returned to work on Wednesday overcoming the sense of shock with a spirit of calm defiance as the population struggled to digest the impact of the country’s worst ever terrorist attack.
Much of the city returned to normal as Belgium began three days of national mourning for the 31 people killed by the bombers.
Most of the areas previously cordoned off by the police were restored to full public access. Offices and schools throughout the capital reopened for business on a cold and drizzly morning, while the city’s above ground transport services resumed limited operations.
However many of the capital’s workers opted not to come into work, with some parents keeping their children away from school.
“Usually the trains are full at this time of morning, but there was hardly anyone on my train this morning,” said Chloe Dieleman, 26, a teacher in a Brussels school. “Everyone is just afraid, really afraid.”
Zaventem international airport, where two explosions set off nine seconds apart in the departure hall had left a scene of devastation, remained closed until further notice.
“It wasn’t a good feeling at all travelling in on the train this morning,” said Jorg Kelig, 53, a policeman from Berlin who had just landed at Zaventem when the first of the explosions happened.
“You just feel that at any time it could happen again. Right now I’m just trying to find a way to get back home.”
Flags throughout the city flew at half mast, with impromptu memorials of flowers and candles set up around the city’s “European” district and Place de La Bourse, following a candlelit vigil on Tuesday evening attended by thousands.
Security was significantly stepped up at major railway stations, with armed military personnel checking the bags of all passengers coming in and out of Brussels Central Station during the morning rush hour.
Such security measures provided little comfort for many however, serving as a reminder of the attacks at Zaventem airport and Maalbeek metro station.
“When I left home this morning I just wanted to forget what happened yesterday, but then you see all the soldiers and the security and it brings it all back,” said Evodie Pouzet, 28, an assistant manager with a local start up.
“It’s supposed to make you feel more secure but for me it has the opposite effect in reality.”
Most Brussels workers interviewed expressed little surprise at Tuesday’s attacks, as the extent of extremist networks operating in the city emerged in the aftermath of November’s attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people.
Belgian security services last week arrested Salah Abdesalam, the last surviving member of the Paris cell, following a high profile stand off in the Molenbeek suburb of the city.
“I guess terrorism is just becoming a part of our daily life,” said an official with the Brussels metro operator. “Before you saw these things happening in places like London and Paris, and now it’s come to Belgium.
“It’s shocking, even though I always thought it would eventually happen here. I just feel lucky that me and my family weren’t hurt. It feels very strange.”
And while there was widespread appreciation for the work of emergency and security services in the aftermath of Tuesday’s attacks, there was a recognition that more needed to be done to prevent a repeat of similar attacks.
“There needs to be increased cooperation between local police and security forces and support from other EU member states to help Belgian security services,” said a senior EU security official.
“The security services here don’t have a lot of means at their disposal and are doing the best with what they have, so we need to provide them with assistance.”
Yet among the shock, grief and fear, there was a gentle but firm defiance on display among the city’s workers, a determination to carry on living and working in spite of Tuesday’s horrific events.
“After what the attackers did we have to show confidence, and continue living and not let what they did disturb our lives,” said Marcello Cesaro, 53, an employee of a local notary office who has worked in Brussels for 30 years.
“It’s a great pity what they did, but we don’t want to give them the satisfaction of changing how we live our lives as a result.”