I think back to the afternoon of the 11th of September 2001. It’s after football practice, and television screens the world over are showing images of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre collapsing in the heart of New York. At the tender age of 11, I don’t really understand what’s going on. I just tuck my football under my arm and run back out onto the pitch, in Saint-Josse in the middle of Brussels. As far as I can recall, this is the first time I hear tell of “terrorist attacks”. Unfortunately, it won’t be the last. Madrid, London… It always makes me sad, but the truth is I just say: “It’s miles away, no?” Chalk it up to youthful nonchalance.
The 13th of November 2015. It’s a different story. Fresh off the boat in Paris, I’m powerless to do anything in the face of the terrorist attacks striking my new home. We’re out on the town with friends; everything happens so fast. A newsflash at the end of the France game: “Shootings in the centre of Paris”. Shots are apparently heard not too far away. The terraces quickly empty. Panic reigns. We head straight to Matthieu’s apartment, a stone’s throw from the bar. The TV’s lit up but no one says anything. My phone doesn’t stop ringing as I do my best to reassure friends and family back in Brussels. All my close friends in Paris are together in this little 40m square. I can see they’re suffering. Despite the horror, we start to get news that friends and acquaintances are safe. I’m obviously in shock, but I’m doing okay. Nevertheless, my nonchalance takes a hit. Even just a small one.
The 22nd of March 2016. Like every morning, I enjoy the view of the Parisian skyline from the bathroom window. It’s a beautiful day, off to a good start. Then again maybe not.
My little brother Elliot says there have been two explosions at Zaventem airport. Mum cries over the phone; she was woken up by the sound of an explosion and can see smoke from the house. We live a kilometre from the airport. The stress piles up. My thoughts turn to a friend who’s due to get on a plane. I don’t know her exact flight times but suddenly I’m worried. It turns out she’s not taking off until next week. The first sigh of relief.
The newsroom is buzzing. News arrives, messages are sent. Laurence writes to me from Istanbul: “Antho, our home…” I try to reassure her but can’t do much from behind a screen. Brussels is my stomping ground. Maelbeek is my metro station. I spent eight years there, at uni and later for work. Coline tells me how she’d passed through the metro nine minutes before it started billowing out smoke. The same goes for Borja, who says his girlfriend was on the train just before the one that exploded. At work the meetings continue but my heart isn’t in it. I put on a brave face all the same. The smile is a façade, the laughter forced. I’m pretending to work whilst sending messages to everyone I know to find out if they’re safe. The answer is yes. Second sigh of relief.
Getting back to the flat is difficult. My metro stops between Strasbourg Saint-Denis and République. The lights go out. Dead silence. It’s impossible not to think of the worst-case scenario. Fortunately, it’s just a technical hitch. Yet I can’t stop the questions from running round my head: Who or what could give people the right to go such a thing? As hard as I try, I just can’t understand. What a shit day.
The calls with Belgium keep on coming, without really doing me good; same goes for the wine and the cigarettes I stupidly buy on my way home. I need an outlet, but the football pitch of my youth is 300km from Paris. I’ve a nagging feeling that I want to write. Surely, voicing some kind of reaction seems the obvious thing to do? Like my journalist colleagues, who filled the same void just a few months ago. I’m no journalist, but somehow I had to be. For everyone who’d shared with me their anger, their incomprehension and their sorrow at today’s events. For Elliot, Coline, Sarah, Laurence, Costa… and all the others.
After Paris and Brussels, I’ve definitively lost the nonchalance that made that little kid go straight from that broadcast out to play on the pitch. Today, if I glance back at the past, I get the unnerving feeling that once-distant events keep edging ever, ever closer.