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Brussels: Mood in a City on Lockdown

  • Heather Murdock

Walking down Brussels' pristine streets, with tourists shopping at the abundance of chocolate shops still open, it is hard to imagine gunmen jumping out of cars or anything blowing up.

But as heavily armed soldiers and police wander through the light crowds, the idea must be on many peoples' minds. A lovely afternoon turning into sudden carnage.

“We don’t think about it because it’s just too much,” a salesman at one of the tourist district’s many Belgian beer shops tells me.

The Belgian government says it is now hunting "several" suspected militants in Brussels, after locking down the city over the weekend. Shopping malls, cinemas, sporting venues and much of the public transportation system are closed.

The suspects include the brother of one of the suicide bombers responsible for the November 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 people in a coordinated rampage that set off a ripple effect across the globe. The brother, Salah Abdeslam, is believed to have been one of the Paris attackers, but he somehow survived and is believed to have slipped back into Brussels.

As the search continues, there appears to be as many journalists as tourists on the damp cobble stoned streets surrounding Brussels’ famed Grand Plaza. In the early afternoon, police order reporters out of an area near a heavily guarded train station.

A journalist describes the scene rapidly on the phone as a sign that something might be happening. But it could just be that security forces don't want so many cameras on a soft target like a train station? An hour later, the area is again crowded with pedestrians, but only a few cameras remain.

And it’s not over yet. Long after the appointed times that officials said they would review and possibly relax security, we learn the alert will remain in place on Monday, and schools will be closed.

Paris ripple effect

The Paris attacks terrified people around the world who have long been worried that the rise of Islamic State militants will eventually bring widespread terror to their countries.

It has also galvanized right wing politicians in many countries, including the United States, which is voting on legislation to reduce the number of Syrian refugees to be admitted. Supporters of the legislation argue one of the Paris bombers may have traveled into Europe amid the hundreds of thousands of refugees and other migrants.

The Paris attacks have also horrified refugees in Europe, partially because they thought they left that kind of violence behind in the wars they fled. But many also fear that the already-growing xenophobia in Europe will become all pervasive, with Arabs or Muslims being associated with Islamic State militants.

“I don’t want people to think I'm like Islamic State militants,” said Reema, a refugee that fled IS-controlled territory in Syria, at a market in Germany on Saturday. “It’s insane.”

In Belgium, other Syrians say even among long-term Arab residents, fear is mounting.

As soldiers load in and out of tanks, deliberately rotating their watch over different tourist destinations, Ayman, a Syrian man who has been living in Belgium since 2001, is quick to point out that the men being hunted deserve the harshest punishment.

But Arabs fear a double threat, he said, because not only could they become victims of attacks in Europe, they could be blamed for them as well.

“Thirty or 40 percent of Arab people here are afraid,” he estimated.

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