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Terror survivor's story offers hope for Brussels victims

The carnage in Brussels brought back horrific memories for victims of attacks in the US, London, Madrid and Paris. But one woman's story offers an optimistic glance into the future for those caught up in the atrocities.

On the morning of July 7, 2005, Australian Gill Hicks was admitted to the emergency room at London's St Thomas' Hospital as "one unknown, estimated female."

One of the hundreds of casualties from the suicide bombings by Islamist militants on underground trains and a bus, she'd lost both her legs below the knee, 75 percent of her blood, and suffered severe burns. Doctors later told her she wasn't expected to live.

Minutes earlier, she'd been standing next to 19-year-old bomber Germaine Lindsay as he detonated his explosive on a packed train moving between King's Cross and Russell Square stations.

Alive but dying

"I remember, as if it was yesterday, the euphoria I felt when I opened my eyes and knew I was alive," Hicks told DW. "I was aware that I had lost both legs and was badly burnt and injured, but I was alive and that was everything."

2005 London bombings

Fifty-two people died and more than 700 were injured in the 2005 London bombings

More than a decade after being given her "second life," Hicks appears to be thriving. She now walks with high-tech titanium prosthetics, has moved back to Australia and, three years ago, had a little girl, Amelie.

But like many survivors of terrorism and violence, she is instantly returned to that traumatic day whenever graphic images of the latest Islamist militant violence hits her TV screen, such as this week's attacks in Brussels that killed 32 people.

"Every single time a violent extremist takes action, not only does my heart break, but my anger increases," Hicks said, adding that the "fools" who detonate the bombs were nothing more than "pawns being used to divide societies across the world."

Memories return

Psychologists say each successive terror attack can retraumatize survivors and send many dead victims' families back into mourning. Social-media reactions to last Tuesday's atrocities gave a hint of their grief.

"Once again they (the terrorists) have murdered the smile, dreams, life; now they (the victims) will never again be able to kiss, to caress, to feel or to repeat our names. Why?" tweeted Spaniard Pilar Manjón, whose son Daniel was murdered in the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

More upbeat was Briton Mark Margolis, who, like Hicks, survived the 2005 London bombings. A couple of hours after the Brussels attacks, he tweeted: "Full of sorrow for those in pain, full of hope for I've seen first hand the power of the human spirit to love."

Similarly, Frenchman Emmanuel Domenach, who escaped the Bataclan attacks in Paris last November, described being "united in grief" with other terrorism survivors.

"A thought to all victims of attacks, who just like me are reliving some very bad moments at this time," he tweeted as news broke of the airport and metro attacks in the Belgian capital.

Survivors work together

Domenach helped found a group for the relatives and survivors of the Paris attacks. The "November 13 Victims' Association" has spent the last four months contacting all those affected by the shootings and bombings.

Similar organizations, set up following 9/11 and the Madrid and London bombings, have attempted to identify the survivors' needs and represent their rights and shared interests.

Many survivors struggle to cope with the new realities of life, dealing with lifelong injuries and long-term psychological illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and survivors' guilt, with some questioning why they were spared when loved ones were killed.

"I accepted many years ago that there would never be a 'normal' for me again - that the severity and permanency of my injuries ensured that any idea of 'normal' would only be heartbreaking to contemplate," Hicks told DW.

Every day is a challenge to learn to adapt physically, mentally and spiritually to what's happened, she added, and she tries to channel her anger to be a "positive motivator as opposed to something negative and destructive."

Rebuilding her life

As well as creating a charity named "M.A.D. for Peace," Hicks conducts public speaking tours and often works with other survivors of terror attacks.

2005 London bombings

On July 7, 2005, bombs exploded on three underground trains and a bus during the busy morning commute in London

In her talks, Hicks often describes how the hospital resuscitation team attempted to revive her for almost 30 minutes, deciding to continue for another 3 1/2 minutes. Recounting the story in one YouTube clip, she stunned the audience by admitting that her heart started beating again just 30 seconds before doctors were due to call time.

Hicks has received an honorary doctorate, along with the prestigious MBE awarded by Queen Elizabeth, and was named "Australian of the Year." She says she's devoted the last 10 years to exploring ways of being part of the "solution" to help end violent extremism. Among the recipients of her peace offering are former extremists.

She often credits first responders at the London attacks, who she says saved lives "without discrimination" or fear for their own safety.

"Rescuers entered that tunnel and carriage not knowing if there were deliberate secondary devices laid, if the tunnel was going to collapse; they put their own lives at risk in order to save as many as they could," she told DW by email from her home in Adelaide.

"Not only did their actions save me on 7/7 – but every day since, for they showed me how to live!"