After three days of being on high terror alert, Brussels is not quite empty: Some tourists are still enjoying a bit of early winter sunshine. And they're only a little afraid, Bernd Riegert reports.
Many children in Brussels were excited. They had Monday off from school, and not because of extreme heat or cold, but because the Belgian capital has declared its highest level of terror alert. It's not just schools, day care centers and universities that were closed. Many big companies, including insurance firms and banks, told their employees to work from home. Many parents were also at home, simply because they had to take care of their children. The sun was shining, and it was a beautiful winter's day.
Tourists continued to wander around the Grand Place, the big square in the center of town with its famous renaissance-era facades. They snapped photos of the city hall and study their travel guides. Anna Makri, a native of Germany who flew to Brussels for a short visit, said she was convinced that the terrorists being sought by police had long since left the city. "The soldiers with the machine guns are scary," she said. "You're here in the European capital, and it feels like a ghost town." Makri said security was lax when she arrived at the airport. She planned to catch a flight to Greece Monday night, and said the thought of that had left her a little fearful. About half of the shops, cafes and restaurants in the historic town center around the Grand Place were closed. Some shop owners complained that they were making just 10 percent of their usual turnover.
Places where foot traffic normally moves slowly along crowded streets and sidewalks suddenly seemed roomy. "If you look at it like that, then we're lucky," said Gho Jam Phui, a tourist from Singapore. He said he was not really worried: "The restaurant we went to was almost empty. It's really quiet. But we feel safe enough to continue walking around here." An armored vehicle drove up to the city hall. Now and then, a police car drove by. A huge Christmas tree and a nativity were being put up in the Grand Place. Aside from the few tourists, there were mainly journalists out and about.
Closed shops in Molenbeek
The nightly house searches across the city seem to be over, as does the massive police presence around the Grand Place. On Sunday night, 21 people were arrested and more arrests would follow Monday, but Salah Abdeslam, suspected of aiding the attackers on November 13 in Paris, was not among them, a Brussels public prosecutor confirmed. Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon said the operation was not yet over, and the search for Abdeslam continues.
Like at least three of the men suspected in the attacks in Paris, Abdeslam lived in the Brussels district of Molenbeek. There, many businesses remain closed because of the terror alert. Subway stations have been barricaded, and buses are only running sporadically. Police continue to patrol the streets.
An elderly Flemish man named Marcel shook his head about all the fuss. He said the city had to react this way, because it's the headquarters for institutions such as NATO and the European Union. "But, for me, it's all a bit too much," Marcel said. "People are getting scared by it. But, of course, these are not normal problems, so maybe extraordinary measures are necessary." He does not think that the police will be successful in their search - it's too easy to go underground: "Finding terrorists in Belgium is a problem. There are many people who are here illegally." People in Molenbeek, which is now seen as a haven for terrorists by many around the world, are annoyed by their neighborhood's new image. Signs reading "I love Molenbeek" and "I am Molenbeek" can now be seen hanging in many windows, and those hashtags are also trending on Twitter.
A student cycled around the empty square in front of Molenbeek's city hall. Normally, the square would be filled with market stands. He came to a stop in front of the building where Salah Abdeslam's family lived. The young man had come from the nearby university town of Leuven just to see the building. "I didn't have any lectures, and I wanted to take a look around," he said. Is he a terror tourist? "Well, something like that," he said. "And I'm also going to have a look at the market and some other places where the terrorists were hanging out." He straightened his helmet and cycled off.