More on the Brussels lockdown -
Jason Burke in Brussels
Monday 23 November 2015 17.21 GMT Last modified on Monday 23 November 2015 18.09 GMT
Dusk is gathering but the pale wintry sunshine keeps temperatures above zero for a final hour. Annelise Augustyns is on her way to a playground near the Gare du Midi with her two children, aged three and five. All three are wrapped against the wind scything across the bleak concrete plaza outside the station.
It is the third day of lockdown in the Belgian capital and the Augustyns have spent three days confined to their small apartment. The 35-year-old government worker’s office in the centre of the city has been shut. So too, on Monday, were the children’s schools.
“You have to live after all, despite all this tension. The kids are going crazy and no one knows how long this is going to last,” Augustyns said.
There is currently no end in sight to the unprecedented crackdown put in place by the Belgian government as security services hunt a network of local Islamic militants linked to the Paris attacks and suspected of planning a similar operation in Brussels. The threat, ministers have stressed for more than 72 hours, is “serious and imminent”.
Armoured vehicles and soldiers remained deployed throughout the historic centre of the de facto capital of Europe, and at major stations. Most shops, cafes and banks, most government offices, all museums and cinemas were “exceptionally” closed, according to the hastily typed notices pinned to their windows. About 300,000 children did not attend classes or creches, and universities were shut. The metro and its feeder lines were suspended.
Most remain anxious, but some are beginning to doubt the need for such stringent measures. “It seems pretty drastic … But there you go. We’ve got to keep safe, I suppose. So I’ll take the kids to the swings, have a coffee with a friend, then go back home and stay there,” said Augustyns.
Hans Kengen, a startup founder living in the suburb of Woluwe, watched his wife cycle to work on Monday morning at the European commission – which remains open albeit with a reinforced security regime – and was relieved when she called to tell him she had arrived safely at her office.
“I’ve lived in India and South Africa so am pretty used to security issues. But I never expected to see the violence of war in Europe. We’re just not used to it. And I know it’s not going to go away soon. We are going to have to get our heads around that,” Kengen said.
Like many others, he had discussed the threat, and its causes, with his children, aged 12 and 15. “You can’t hide it from them. They are clearly affected. I’ve tried to reassure them,” Kengen told the Guardian.
There is little respite from the constant reminders of danger. TV networks have altered programming. Newspapers are almost entirely taken up with reports on “the situation”. Some offer advice on what to do in the event of a terrorist attack and the subject is discussed in cafés, trains and taxis.
A police operation in Molenbeek, Belgium. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA
“I’m not too worried but I just find myself thinking about what I would do if I found myself in that situation. Or what my mum might do. She’s 65 and arthritic and isn’t going to run anywhere very fast,” said Martine Lorent, a shopkeeper working near the Midi station.
The failure to find 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, a suspected participant in the Paris attacks known to have returned to Belgium after the killings, has added to the tension. Abdeslam, from the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, was the principal target of a series of raids involving thousands of policemen and soldiers on Sunday night and Monday morning.
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