On the morning of the deadliest attack in Belgium since World War II, Dries Valaert left home without waking his parents.
He was relaxed and excited. He was going to the Brussels airport. For the 30-year-old businessman, flying had always been an adventure.
Fatima, a 53-year-old Moroccan immigrant, was helping her daughter by dropping off the grandkids at a Brussels day-care center. The skies were gray; spring hadn’t quite arrived.
For Serge van Duijnhoven, 45, it was a typical Tuesday. A Dutchman who had lived in the Belgian capital for 17 years, he was taking the subway to Parliament, where he prepared summaries of reports, part of the efficient machinery of democracy.
Like so many others in Belgium, the three had long known this country could be targeted by the Islamic State. Some 500 Belgian extremists had gone to fight on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria – the highest number per capita of any country in Europe.
Belgians were also instrumental in plotting last November’s massacre in Paris, which left 130 dead.
But it wasn’t until Tuesday that the Belgian militants struck at home.
When the nail-packed bombs burst, leaving 31 people dead and about 300 injured at the Brussels airport and a metro station, the country was caught off-guard, unprepared for acts of war on its own soil.
Now Belgium is waking from its slumber, its citizens reckoning with how this nation allowed murderous cells to metastasize in the heart of prosperous and orderly Europe.
For Valaert, the day would shatter his faith that his government could protect him. It would undermine van Duijnhoven’s comfort with multiculturalism. And for Fatima, the grandmother, it would drive home in the most painful way Belgium’s inability to integrate its immigrants and their children. For it could have been her son who detonated the bomb, if his path hadn’t taken a different turn.
Injured people in the Brussels airport after the explosions. Photo / Giorgi Tabagari Twitter
“The only thing I regret”
The Brussels airport is a functional place. No architectural flourishes. Nothing fancy.
But for Valaert, it had always represented a gateway from his tiny country, wedged into the northwest corner of Europe, to a wider world.
“The happiness that springs from travel – to learn from new experiences. That’s what an airport stands for,” he said.
Of course, the threat of terrorism always lurked in the back of his mind. He had heard all the warnings.
But as he traveled from his parents’ house in an Antwerp suburb on Tuesday morning, he was comforted by what he saw: Between the train station and the airport, he passed no fewer than three contingents of heavily armed Belgian troops.
An earnest and practical-minded man, Valaert had faith in the Belgian security services. They had just arrested Salah Abdeslam, the last major suspect in the Paris attacks, in a Brussels neighborhood. If another plot was in the works, the authorities would surely be able to stop it.
“I always think, ‘Well, they’ll be able to roll up these networks in the end,’ ” he said.
In any case, he was more focused that morning on his work, in port logistics. He was on his way to Berlin to meet some prospective hires.
Dries Valaert says he saw military personnel out when he was on his way to the airport, a fact that comforted him. Photo / Capucine Granier-Deferre, Washington Post
And he was running late. By the time he reached the security gates, he realized he had forgotten to pick up his boarding pass.
He had to go back: first to one line, where an elderly couple ahead of him bantered with the ticket agent about the weight of their luggage for what seemed like hours, then to another where a service representative informed him it was his lucky day.
The budget airline he was flying normally charged a fee to print a boarding pass.
“But I’ll do it for free this time,” she said, smiling.
She turned to the printer behind her. And then the bomb went off.
“The sound was so artificial, so unnatural,” he said. “It couldn’t have been anything else.”
People sprinted away in every direction. But before they could get very far, there was another boom – this one even louder and closer. The ceiling came tumbling down.
Now Valaert was running, past the wounded and the dead.
“That’s the only thing I regret. I didn’t think in those first 50 seconds that there could be a baby or an old guy I could help,” he said. “I was just thinking of self-preservation.”
He scrambled behind a group of soldiers and pulled out his phone. Going to Facebook, he typed: “Two bombs just exploded at brussels airport.”
It was 8 a.m., exactly two minutes after the blasts.
He found his way out of the terminal. Others who had been closer to the explosions emerged, their hair coated in a fine gray dust. He saw a young girl whose hand had been pierced by a nail, and a large man whose leg was leaking blood.
Reflecting on the attack days later, he wondered how Belgian authorities could have failed to address the threats in their midst.
“It’s been known for 10 years there was a problem with integrating [North African] people,” he said. “It was just gravely underestimated.”
“Time was closing in on us”
It was one of the million seconds he had spent on the subway, commuting to work at Belgium’s Parliament. Van Duijnhoven had taken a job there writing summaries of meandering reports. But his real passions were nonfiction writing, poetry and music. And, of course, his girlfriend, who at 9:09 a.m. on Tuesday sent him the oddest text.
“Is everything OK? I hope you are safe,” it said.
He didn’t think much of it, until he heard some chatter among the other passengers. Something about a bomb at the Brussels airport.
He remembers shrugging it off. Probably rumors.
Then the explosion ripped through the tunnel.
“And then the car stopped and the lights went off.”
Van Duijnhoven had known that this kind of thing could happen. A former journalist, he had followed the news about the growing terrorist threat to Europe. And he had watched uneasily as an increasing number of Arabic-speaking immigrants moved into Brussels, their children sometimes becoming petty thieves or ultraconservative Muslims.
“It felt like time was closing in on us,” he said. The attack “was what we had been waiting for. It was happening.”
The area near the Brussels Stock Exchange has become a makeshift memorial, with people etching tributes in chalk on walls and sidewalks. Photo / Capucine Granier-Deferre, Washington Post
Even in the darkness, he could see clouds of smoke outside the subway windows. The rumors came back to him. A blast at the airport. Now this.
A woman on the train started crying uncontrollably. A young child called out for its mother. Frantic passengers raced to the back of the car, away from the smoke, screaming in Dutch and French.
Strangely, van Duijnhoven was struck by a feeling of relief.
“I thought, ‘OK, thank God I changed my will.’ I had done it recently and had been thinking about doing it for a while.”
The panic in the car grew. A group of men next to him began shouting, “We have to get out of here! We cannot wait!” van Duijnhoven recalled.
“So they started to look for that tool you use to open the window in an emergency,” he said. “But they couldn’t find it in the dark, and they began to bash the window.”
It shattered, and smoke started pouring in.
“It smelled like burning plastic, like burning flesh,” he said.
The group of men climbed through the smashed window and disappeared down the tunnel. The rest of the passengers, van Duijnhoven included, waited in the car for 20 minutes. He tried to text his girlfriend. But there was no signal.
A member of the Belgian Special Forces stands in the departure hall of Brussels airport after two explosions. Photo / Twitter
Finally he spotted rescue workers arriving with ladders. The passengers were led down the dark, smoky tunnel to the next station and then to the street, where a triage center was being set up.
He soon learned an explosion had engulfed a train a bit farther down the tracks. He felt numb, he said. Then he heard screams again, this time coming from below a subway grating. It was the men who had left the train earlier through the window.
“They must have missed the emergency exit in the darkness,” he said. “And there was smoke coming up from the grill. Someone found a hammer, but the grill wasn’t budging. They were yelling and yelling. I left. I couldn’t feel anything anymore.”
He went home, he said. He shut the door. He sat down. Suddenly, it hit him.
“I was shaking and crying,” he said. “I just couldn’t stop thinking about the guys who were trying to break through the grill. There was so much smoke.”
The next day, he would pack a bag and travel to Amsterdam. He made a snap decision: to put his house in Brussels on the market and leave.
He had long enjoyed life as an expat in an international city, home to the European Union. But Brussels had changed.
Families of North African descent, he said, had moved in around him, with their sons “turning into little drug lords and converting into radicals.”
“One of them on my block keeps sending me texts and telling me I should convert to Islam. The first language in Brussels is no longer Dutch or French, but Arabic. This is a reality.”
Floral tributes placed in memorial for the victims of the attacks. Photo / AP
“Thank God he is dead”
In front of the Brussels Stock Exchange, the sorrow of a nation is written on the sidewalk. Messages in chalk surround little memorials – flowers, homemade cards – to the victims. “Peace Please,” says one. “Stay Strong,” says another.
Among the mourners stood a group of Moroccan Belgians, their grief mixed with outrage.
“Those guys who did this, it is the failure of their parents!” said Naima Boukhoubza, 61, a resident of the Molenbeek area of Brussels, a neighborhood that has become home to dozens of young Islamist radicals. “Yes, I blame the parents.”
A woman nearby, stout and wearing a practical black jacket, seemed to suddenly go pale. She looked down at her feet.
It was Fatima. Unemployed caregiver. Moroccan-born Belgian.
Mother of a jihadist.
Her son, a computer whiz, fell under the spell of the Islamic State in 2014, when he was 26. He found the group’s messages online, said Fatima, who agreed to be identified only by her middle name to protect her family’s privacy.
“He saw all the images of the bloodshed” from the Syrian government’s attacks on its own people, she said. “He believed it when they [the radicals] said, ‘You must come and defend because Muslims are being killed.’ ” He eventually joined the Islamic State’s fighters in Iraq.
On Tuesday morning, she was dropping off the two grandchildren at day care when a friend called to say that the airport bomb had gone off.
“I did not react,” she said. “I was numb.”
An hour later, still in a daze, she was on the Brussels metro heading home when an announcement came on the loudspeaker. “Please exit the metro,” it said, in a loop. She was confused, she said, and just sat there. Then she overheard a group of people talking nearby.
“The metro,” she recalled hearing them say, “it has also been bombed.”
A complex wave of emotions hit her. Her son had died in Iraq in a bombing raid by the U.S.-led coalition in December. Suddenly, a thought crossed her mind – one that brought up a flood of tears.
“I thought of my son, and I thought, ‘Thank God, thank God he is dead,’ ” she recalled, crying. “I thought, ‘He could have been one of them – one of the attackers – if he were still alive.’ I lost him, but that would have been worse. So many innocent people, dead.”
And yet, she said, there is so much blame to go around.
She blames Belgian society for ostracizing people like her son.
“My son, he was born here, but he was always ‘the other,’ ” she said. “He left because of the racism here. He would try to get a job, but they would always say no. He was always being stopped and checked by police. He was born here, but they called him a foreigner.”
She couldn’t bring herself to condemn Tuesday’s attackers.
“They were taken and changed by the Islamic State,” she said. “That is not how they were born. They were indoctrinated. Like my son. They were victims, too.”