BRUSSELS (AFP) – For Philippe Vansteenkiste, whose sister was killed in the Brussels attacks one year ago, the suffering is made worse by the battle with the Belgian authorities for support.
“We are victims twice over,” said Vansteenkiste, mourning his sibling Fabienne, 51, a check-in agent at Brussels airport. She had stayed on after her shift to help colleagues and died when two suicide bombers blew themselves up there on March 22, 2016.
The attacks claimed by the Islamic State group on Maalbeek metro station and Zaventem airport killed 32 people, wounded around 230 others and shattered the lives of hundreds of their loved ones.
After battling to get support from a labyrinthine Belgian bureaucracy, Vansteenkiste founded an association, V-Europe, to help all victims receive adequate medical and psychological care as well as proper financial and moral assistance from the authorities and insurance firms.
“It was like we had to get down on our knees to receive minimum compensation to be able to continue,” Vansteenkiste told AFP at his home outside Brussels, where he and his family moved to be closer to his ageing parents after the tragedy.
Unlike in France and some other countries, those affected by terrorism in Belgium do not receive a document officially recognising them as victims of an attack, he said.
In France, he added, the government arranges for the victims to receive the document within 30 days.
In financial straits himself, he said it is also “extremely urgent” for the state to provide a lump sum of tens of thousands of euros so victims can meet the initial costs of things such as medical treatment and accommodation.
– ‘How human is this?’ –
Vansteenkiste said he was also shocked when the airport’s insurance firm gave him 250 euros ($270) compensation for his sister’s iPhone but nothing for the loss of his sister.
“How human is this?” he asked.
Nicolas de Lavalette, a 56-year-old Franco-American English teacher, criticised the Belgian bureaucracy about the help for his 18-year-old daughter’s recovery after she lost both her legs below the knee in the airport attack.
“I wish there was in Belgium a structure which takes care of victims from A to Z,” Lavalette told AFP. “There is no overall organisation to handle something of this magnitude.”
The married father-of-three, who is also a member of V-Europe, said he was worried whether the Belgian authorities would follow up Beatrice’s file when the family goes back to live in the United States.
Belgian authorities — heavily criticised immediately after the attacks for intelligence and security failings — insist they are not letting down victims a second time.
Interior Minister Jan Jambon told AFP that “we have understood well that there were things we could improve” to help the victims, and that the government was now doing everything to correct the situation.
Health Minister Maggie De Block recently lashed out at the insurance firms for having only so far covered some 15 percent of the estimated damages.
Under fire, the government promised in February to grant a “status of national solidarity” to terror victims guaranteeing them financial aid for life.
But the draft law fails to satisfy support groups partly because it covers only people who were living in Belgium at the time of the attacks.
– ‘Souls in another world’ –
Kristin Verellen, whose partner Johan Van Steen died in the bombing in the metro, has since founded the social support group “Circles — We have the choice”, which also has online participants from countries as far away as the Philippines.
The aim is to help heal people’s trauma from terrorism and other events as well as restore connections between them in an increasingly fragmented and less humane society.
“If one of the purposes of those who are doing these terrible terrorist attacks is further fragmentation of our society, the way of going beyond that is to connect again with people,” she said.
“What I discovered is that mourning is the other side of love and the other side of life,” Verellen told AFP. “And when I can try to share my sadness with others, something wonderful happens and there is connection.”
For the anniversary, she is launching an exhibition of Johan’s photographs in Brussels to pay tribute to his passion for the craft.
The healing process is a long one, both for victims and those who helped them.
Doctor Olivier Vermylen was among the first to experience the trauma of the attacks when he arrived at Maalbeek metro station.
“These poor souls… are in another world,” the bespectacled 47-year-old said, recalling the scene and how the victims looked.
Nor can he forget the acrid, throat-catching powdery odour from the explosives, the eerie darkness and silence, and the sight of train carriage doors blown open with such force.
“Very little light. A red light blinking. And no noise.”