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Entries in Belgium (193)


Last day in Belgium

Final day of 2018, and our last night together in Belgium. 10 years of memories and friendships here. The last box is packed and tomorrow we’re off to a new adventure in Cambridge.



Family portrait from Li Chen:


Dunkirk and Brussels

I saw Dunkirk today. For a WWII movie, it was surprisingly low-violence, nothing like Saving Private Ryan, the opening scene of which so movingly illustrated the pointless slaughter of war. Yet in another way, the first few seconds of Dunkirk was more disturbing. We are used to WWII movies set on the bombed out ruins of shattered cities, but the Battle of Dunkirk was right at the start of the war. There is something just profoundly disturbing about seeing soliders flee machine guns in a charming European city, no different from the Belgian sea-side towns of today.

My first thought was revulsion, I hope to never see the military occupying my beloved home cities. My second thought, following rapidly, was anger - I do see military vehicles and machine-gun wielding soliders on a daily basis. For the last 18 months, Brussels has been living under military occupation. This cowardly and repressive action does nothing for our safety; it is designed to bolster fear and feed upon that fear for short-term political gain. 18 months in, this seems like the new reality, with the government too gutless to admit it was wrong to respond to a criminal situation with tanks instead of police and social workers. I love Belgium, but I hate, and will always hate, living in an occupied city, where my 6 year old son doesn't blink twice at casually seeing machine guns.


EU open day

EU Open Day at the Commission. Hayden met Captain Europe, but was somewhat dubious.

Every country had a booth. Hayden's favourite was the Netherlands.

Disgracefully, the UK didn't bother to turn up for Open Day.

Fortunately, the official UK negotiator realised the collosal mistake the UK was making, and formally made a plea to re-join the EU.

The Minister for Belgium nominated the UK to rejoin the EU

Seconded by Poland

And the UK is back in the EU! Crisis averted everyone!


We are now Belgian!

Today our citizenship papers came through, and Lydia, Hayden and myself are officially Belgian!


Father's Day

While Lydia was away we went to the medieval fair in Porte de Hal (isn't it nice to have a castle in the park across the road?). Hayden dressed up as Captain Hook and I was Mr Smee. Okay, it wasn't exactly the right historial period, but we get points for effort, right? We put on puppet shows for each other, tried the archery and then went jousting!  





A spring day in St Truden


Living under military occupation

Four months ago, Paris was hit. Two weeks ago, we were hit in Brussels. It was a senseless tragedy, violence destroying lives. Does that make anything and everything a government does in the name of security allowable?

In most countries, being the target of an attack brings out the patriotism, with the city targetted becoming a symbol of the country. In Belgium, just an association with Paris attacks was enough to have leading politicans come out against Brussels, slandering the city every which way. It is hard to blame the international media for buying up gullible stories of Brussels being jihad-central, when those same stories are peddled for political purposes by certain Belgian politicians. Still, it is tough to bear the self-satisfied smugness of American media claiming that Europe is much worse than America in integrating Muslims. Clearly they are clueless about Muslims in Belgium, and just as clearly they are drinking the kool-aid of patriotism when they ignore the racial, religious and social fragmentation of America (especially when the US primaries brings it up for such clear display). 

So we had our idiotic lock-down after the Paris attacks. And it turns out, putting military boys with big guns on every street corner does not actually stop explosions. Huh. Maybe the Belgian security apparatus would have been better served by concentrating on intelligence rather than repressive symbolism. You know, the opposite of capturing Salah Ab Salah Abdeslam, issuing a press release that he is going to help the police, and then taking a long weekend rather than actually asking him about any plans for an attack. 

Now what?

I want my city to heal. In the short-term, we need to make a conscious effort to bring normality back to our lives. We need to walk through the city, have a beer, eat chocolate at a cafe, smile at strangers. In the long-term, we need to fix the economic situation of immigrants, and we need to tear down the barriers that hinder integration. We need to make sure immigrants can buy houses and get jobs, becoming invested in the community. We need to hire immigrants for our police forces and put them in parliament and on TV as role-models. We need to make sure that children going to the poorest schools have the brightest opportunities. Yes, we are far ahead of America and even much of Europe on most of these fronts, but there is hard work to be done. We need to start today.

That is my vision for the future. What about the vision of the Belgian politicians who toy with Brussels for political gain? They advocate the opposite. In the short-term, they want Brussels to cower in fear, to be... terrorised. The arteries of the city, the metro, is either erratic or shut-down (with mysterious inconviences that seem to actually decrease safety, such as shutting down almost all the exits). We are told to not come out in public. In fact we were actually admonished for coming out to demonstrate for peace and healing of our city, to which I, for one, said "tough luck":

As for the long-term... well, there is no long-term plan. One suspects that the planning ends at the next election (although how they plan to campaign mystifies me: "vote for N-VA/MR, we took away civil liberties, destroyed tourism and didn't keep you safe!"). There is good work being done at the local level, but at the Federal level, there is no interest in helping Brussels. No, check-that, there is an actual interest in holding Brussels up as a threat or a warning, in painting Brussels as a hell-hole to gain votes in the rest of the country.

Today the American embassy sent our a warning to all American citizens living in Belgium:

The U.S. Embassy strongly urges U.S. citizens to continue to maintain a heightened sense of awareness, and to continue to avoid large crowds or areas that might attract a substantial gathering of people. 

Additionally, several other simple security processes can also help mitigate risk as you go about your day.

When possible, vary your route to work or school or to shopping. Rather than taking the same route each day, you should have two or three deviations you can randomly choose from. The entire route need not be different, but even minor deviations can be beneficial. Also, leave from work or school at different times.

Searching your automobile each morning, especially if you park outside, is also an important safety step. Start with a 360 degree sweep, looking around and under the vehicle. Be alert for anything suspicious, such as wire, tape or string. Be systematic -- start and finish your search at a predetermined point. Look for any out-of-place packages or items in, on, attached or under the vehicle, and/or tool marks on the vehicle or other indications of forced entry.

I mean, come on! Brussels is not Baghdad. It is a thriving, cosmopolitan and international European capital, which just happened to get hit by a couple of criminals. The life you advocate is... not living. I can deal with a remote possibility of a freak death. Plane crashes, factory explosions, terrorist attacks - they happen. Not often, but they happen. It doesn't keep me awake at night, and I'm not going to be unhappy today about what probably won't happen tomorrow. What I can't deal with is the daily repression we are currently dealing with. For four months Brussels has been under military occupation. I hate seeing camouflaged boys with machine guns on every corner. I hate being worried that some freaked-out over-trained kid will panic when they see someone running for a train, and respond with a shower of bullets. I moved out of America because I don't want to be surrounded by guns. I don't want Hayden to grow up thinking it is normal to see machine guns and tanks outside our house. Knowing that their presence is the equivalent of Trump protesting he has large hands just makes it all worse. 

I love Brussels and I love Belgium. I want to be part of the movement to make our city better than it ever has been. But I can't live under military occupation indefinitely. 


Comic book walls

Even though certain Belgian politicans seem insistent on selling Brussels as the next Baghdad, it is actually a great city. Here are a few of the cartoon walls that spring up around the city in unexpected places:



The Brussels lock-down: how not to respond to terrorism

Two weeks ago we had the horrific attacks in Paris, with 130 innocent people killed. Senseless violence, breeding a senseless response. It is hard to fathom why an attack in France, committed by French nationals, had to result in bombing in Syria, anti-refugee sentiment directed at those fleeing similar terrorism, and the lock-down of Brussels. The lock-down of Brussels was the least of all these events, but it is the one I lived through.

Armoured personnel carrier on the streets of Brussels. And a waffle wagon - it is still Belgium afterall

A week after the Paris attacks, the international media was slamming Belgium to an absurd degree. The US media called Belgium a "failed state", something so patently absurd for the 14th safest country in the world that the ex-US ambassador called them out on it. And as for the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, well, in the words of the Australian media:

Molenbeek is a bleak hellhole that is exporting bigotry and hatred beyond Belgium’s borders. The area has become notorious as a breeding ground for jihadis and was home to several of the terrorists responsible for the latest attacks on Paris

Patently absurd. Yes, Molenbeek is one of the poorer and rougher neighbourhoods of Brussels, which would make it... safer than the safest part of New York? Our babysitter lives there, and our son sometimes goes over her house to play with her rabbit. Think we would allow that if Molenbeek was a bleak hellhole?

There are problems in Belgium. As in the rest of the world, Belgian immigrants are shut out of the economy in hundreds of subtle (and some not so subtle) ways, leading to poverty. In Belgium, for historical reasons most of our immigrants are Muslim, and most live in the poorest neighbourhoods of Brussels, so these economic problems are concentrated in places like Molenbeek. Show me any neighbourhood in the world with a young population and high youth unemployment and I'll show you young men getting into trouble. Belgian Muslims are generally less religious than Belgian Catholics, but out of a lot of angry young men with no jobs and little prospect, yeah, you'll get some radicalisation. 

Want to hear my one-step solution to Molenbeek? Jobs. Make jobs for all the youths. Young men with too much time and nothing to do? Give them jobs. Young men start spending all day at work and all night spending the money. Trash-talk on the streets is much less fun then drinking or taking your girlfriend out for dinner. Young women with jobs are now financially independent and harder to impress. The actual jobs don't matter, but why not have them improving the place? People are much less likely to destroy things they built. Or employ them to give Arabic lessons to public servants such as police? So many advantages - upskilling employees, building relationships, just conversations leading to people recognising each other as people. Sure, it would be expensive, but cheaper than what we actually did, and more effective.

Which brings me to the government's response to the Paris attacks. The Belgian government is currently led by the anti-immigrant xenophobic side of politics, and don't miss many chances to slam immigrants. I mean, seriously, we had to pass regressive new legislation to make sure an estimated five Belgian women don't wear face-coverings. These are people who shut down a Syrian refugee camp calling it "almost a music festival". So rather than try to inject some sensible calmness into the conversation after Paris, we had the Belgian PM say "Now we’ll have to get repressive". There were serious proposals to shut down mosques and put electronic tags on young Muslim men. A week later, Brussels went into lock-down.

#catphotos #notusinghashtagscorrectly

Repression. Let's talk about that word for a minute. Repression means that what is going to come next is going to be excessively harsh, because part of the point is to inflict pain on you, to crush you, to beat you down. Repression is invariably the response of tyrants to any dissent, and in turn repression acts as the pressure cooker that extremism is forged in. I challenge anyone to give me an example, one single example, where repression has solved extremism. Why not ask Assad how repression has worked for him? He certainly inflicted a degree of repression on Syria that would be unthinkable in Belgium, and it just bred ISIS. Gaddafi? The Saudis? You don't think all of them tried brutal repression to stamp out Islamism? Each generation they stamped out just bred bigger resentments and more radical extremism. Repression is not only immoral, it is stupid

After annoucing the government was trying for repression, Brussels was put into lock-down. Military flooded the streets, the metro and schools were shut-down, tanks were driven into the city. Completely unprecedented. Why did this happen? The stated reason was that one of the French attackers, Salah Abdeslam, was thought to be in the city. Certainly there was a security situation, but we would be naive to assume that the international media frenzy and the domestic agenda weren't also at play. Governments love to look "strong" after a terrorist attack (think: George W. Bush getting 90% approval ratings after 9/11), and this government had already announced its plan to get repressive. The timing at least was unusual, starting a week after the Paris attacks, and ending four days later without Abdeslam being found. The response was also patchy - the metro was shut down, but train stations and parliament were not, despite this being the highest possible threat level Belgium has. Now level 4 is gone, but the military remains. Until when?

The scene outside our house during lock-down

We have to ask, was the massive response proportional and was it wise?

Proportionality. The simple fact is that the Brussels response to the Parisan attacks was bigger than the Parisan response. It was bigger than London or Madrid after their major terrorism attacks. Scratch that, it was more extreme than New York City's response after 9/11. Was the risk in Brussels really the biggest risk that any western city has been exposed to since WWII? Most likely, the government over-reacted. Deliberately or in a panic, we'll never know. Governments never like to admit when they are wrong, and with security issue they never have to - they can just claim to have prevented attacks and say the records are sealed for security reasons. The Bush administration still won't admit that invading Iraq and torturing innocent prisoners was a mistake, so don't hold your breathe waiting for the Belgian government to fess up. I hate this idea of giving the government the benefit of the doubt. It is something we only do in the realm of security, even after we see incompetence or mean-heartedness in the less shadowly aspects of their job. I mean, this is Belgium - even loyal Belgians would be forced to admit that we probably did better when we didn't have a government for a few years, so let's not pretend sinners turn into saints behind closed doors.

Wisdom. What did ISIS want from the Paris attacks? Quite simply, they want to radicalise the Islamic population of Europe. They want European governments and the general public to turn against the local Muslim communities. They want harsh repression to foster resentment. They want the next generation of Muslim youths to feel like every non-Muslim hand is against them, to see an Islamic state as their only saviour. Unfortunately, the right-wing pant-wetters always respond exactly as terrorists want them to after each attack.

Let me tell you about my experiences during the lock-down. I love being able to walk through Brussels. We resettled here from America to get away from guns. The day of the lock-down I walked outside to find a military camp, complete with armoured cars and machine guns. I then waded through security theatre at the train station, everything slowing down to a crawl as armed police checked train tickets but not bags. When my little boy was finally allowed back to school I was blocked at the gates by an armed guard. My son is used to me taking him to his class and giving him a hug and a kiss; he started crying when led off instead by a guy dressed in black carrying a gun, and who can blame him? I walked through the city to find no-one, my vibrant home turned into a scared wasteland. Today on the train I saw a teenage boy led off the train by armed police - it was probably just due to not having a ticket, but the boy was almost wetting himself, like he expected to be executed on the platform. This is not my city. I feel anger, resentment, confusion. Now multiply that by a 100 and imagine how young testosterone-filled Muslim men are feeling right now in Brussels. This was not a wise move to make. 

Opening evening of the Brussels Winter Markets

The lock-down is over, but Brussels still doesn't feel the same. The city lost €200 million due to the shutdown, and the long-term economic effects have just begun - tourists are cancelling trips to Belgium in droves, we even had guest professers cancel on giving university seminars because of the perception of threat. People feel isolated, they look over their shoulders. When the metro broke down today you could see the nervous glances people were making. ISIS was responsible for the Paris attacks, but the Belgian government was responsible for the impact it is having on our society. Sadly, I don't see this government making any effort to repair the damage it caused.