Belgium falls silent a year after attacks

Belgium's King Philippe laying a wreath to commemorate the victims of the attacks at Zaventem airport and Maalbeek metro station last year.
Belgium's King Philippe laying a wreath to commemorate the victims of the attacks at Zaventem airport and Maalbeek metro station last year.PHOTO: REUTERS

Sombre ceremonies begin at exact times that ISIS bombers struck in Brussels

BRUSSELS • Belgium fell silent yesterday to mark the first anniversary of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suicide attacks in Brussels that killed 32 people, on a day of emotional ceremonies.

A sombre King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, along with Prime Minister Charles Michel, led ceremonies at Zaventem airport and Maalbeek metro station to commemorate the victims at the exact moments the bombers struck.

Watched by families and survivors, they also unveiled a new stainless steel memorial near the European Union's headquarters to the dead and the more than 320 wounded in Belgium's worst peacetime attacks.

In an act of defiance and solidarity, trams and buses ground to a halt across the Belgian capital and commuters and public transport workers applauded during a "minute of noise".

Ms Kristin Verellen, whose 58-year-old partner Johan died in the metro attack, told the crowd at Maalbeek: "I would like to speak for all those affected by the blind violence from up close and afar. March 22 is also my birthday - nothing to celebrate, and yet love triumphs."

Premier Michel said Belgium, which faced accusations after the bombings of being a "failed state" for not stopping the terror cell despite several chances, stood strong one year on. "Today, we remember the victims of the attacks. We all remain united," Mr Michel tweeted.

The ceremonies began at exactly 7.58am (2.58pm Singapore time) when suicide bombers Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui struck in the departure hall of Zaventem airport on March 22 last year, killing 16 people.

With hundreds of people gathered under a clear sky just like that of a year ago, Belgium's King and Queen led a moment of silence before an airport official read out the names of the dead.

Musician Eddy Van Calster played a rock ballad in tribute to his sister Fabienne Van Steenkiste, a check-in counter agent who was among those killed.

At Maalbeek, there was another moment of silence at 9.11am, the time that Ibrahim's brother Khalid El Bakraoui detonated his bomb on a crowded train and killed another 16 people.

The King laid a wreath before a subway wall scrawled with anguished messages from loved ones and stamped with a red heart.

Addressing the families of victims, he said: "To hate and to violence, you responded with dignity."

EU leaders, including the bloc's president Donald Tusk, attended the opening of the new memorial to the victims, which consists of two pieces of curved steel punctured with holes to look like shrapnel.

Later, children from schools in Molenbeek, a largely Muslim area where many of the attackers hailed from, met victims of the attacks in a show of solidarity.

Also, three marches by Brussels residents were to meet at the Place de la Bourse, transformed into an impromptu flower-strewn memorial after the attacks last year.

Finally, Brussels' most famous landmark - the Manneken Pis statue of a little boy - was to be dressed up in a fireman's outfit to hail the efforts of rescue services.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2017, with the headline 'Belgium falls silent a year after attacks'. Print Edition | Subscribe