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Brussels nowhere near 'normal'

Andrea Rönsberg, Brussels
April 11, 2016

Key members of the terrorism cell responsible for the March 22 attacks on Brussels have been captured, but Brussels residents returning from Easter holidays find a city still in turmoil.

lunch break at Parc Cinquentenaire
Image: DW/A. Rönsberg

On the surface, it seems like a very normal day in Brussels. With temperatures approaching 20 degrees, scores of people have left their offices at the European institutions to enjoy a break in the sun at a nearby park. In fact, some might say the only thing not normal about this day is that for once, it is not raining.

But that is only partly true. Three weeks after the March 22 attacks, and even after the arrest of the main suspects, the Belgian capital is still a city living with a three-out-of-four terror alert level, a city in which heavily-armed soldiers on patrol dominate the urban landscape, and in which metro service continues to be impaired.

It is a city in which the airport is partially operating again, but where extra security precautions provoked such a backlog on the roads and highways that people got out of their taxis to get to the airport on foot instead.

In short, all those people returning from Easter holidays in the hopes of finding a 'normal' city soon found out they were wrong.

Public transport still erratic

Monday may have seen the re-opening of another set of metro stations, but Maelbeek, where 16 victims died, is not the only station that remains closed. Another 17 out of a total of 69 stations are also not being serviced.

entrance of the Maelbeek metro station
Cars speeding along Brussels' Rue de la Loi ignore Maelbeek metro station, but passersby still pause to remember the victimsImage: DW/A. Rönsberg

"We are ready to open more stations, but we first have to get security guarantees," An Van Hamme, a spokesperson for the public transport company STIB-MIVB, told Belgian media. These 'guarantees' (aka security forces) have to come from the federal government.

More soldiers for more metro service

The government has mobilized a further 300 soldiers to guard the streets and metros of Brussels from this Monday on. But already, the union representing public service employees says that the "situation is slowly becoming untenable."

soldiers guard the office of Belgium's prime minister
Soldiers are everywhere in Brussels - as of Sunday, there's also an increased guard in front of the prime minister's officeImage: DW/A. Rönsberg

Brussels has been vacillating between a terror threat level of three (indicating a "serious and likely" threat) and the maximum four (when a threat is "imminent") ever since the November Paris attacks, and the police and military forces have been bearing the brunt.

"There are people who have not been able to take their vacations for months now, who are suffering from a burn-out syndrome," says Thomas Renard, a security expert with the Brussels-based Egmont Institute. "We cannot maintain this level of alertness of the military and police forces indefinitely."

But Brusselites are not necessarily convinced that more soldiers will bring the city's public transport closer to normality anyway. "I don't see what soldiers can do to prevent another terrorist attack," said Emanuel, a French citizen who works for the EU. "I mean, what are they supposed to do when someone decides to blow themselves up?"

'It's not over'

Blue skies and warm temperatures notwithstanding, the prevailing mood in Brussels is decidedly less sunny, despite the fact that security forces appear to have captured the key members of the terrorist cell responsible for the attacks, including Mohamed Abrini. Officials have identified Abrini as the third of the airport attackers, who - due to police outreach to the public to identify the man - became known as "the man with the hat."

Yet various terrorism experts have started casting doubt on whether Abrini really is "the man with the hat," and whether his statements to the police have not been a little too forthcoming. Why would he so readily confess, and reveal original plans of more attacks? And why would he choose to sell the hat so widely connected to him, instead of getting rid of it in a less public way?

"It is certainly not over," said Renard. "We are now seeing that it was not just individual cells that were responsible for the attacks on Paris and Brussels, but that there actually is a network. And we don't know whether this network has really been dismantled."

Sitting in the park, Emanuel and his EU colleagues aren't harboring any illusions. "The problem has yet to be addressed at its roots," said Nello, a Brussels-born Italian.

"I think that will take another 20 to 30 years."

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