Heartbreak and paperwork weigh on Brussels attack victims
Heartbreak and paperwork weigh on Brussels attack victims
By LORNE COOK
Mar. 21, 2017
BRUSSELS (AP) — In the year since suicide bombings ripped through the Brussels airport and subway, those affected have found themselves fighting to be recognized as victims, battling for compensation, and dealing with insurance bureaucracy like seeking three price estimates for a prosthetic limb.
The attacks killed 32 people and wounded more than 300; a year on, some 900 people now count themselves as victims and are seeking compensation. They include family members of those killed and wounded and people traumatized by the events of that day.
"We feel like we have to get down on our knees, those of us who still have them, to say 'Help us,'" said Philippe Vansteenkiste, whose sister Fabienne was killed at Brussels Zaventem airport. He is now leading efforts to get the government to help people be recognized as victims and deal with inheritance tax fights and tangled insurance claims.
The attacks blamed on the Islamic State group hit during the morning peak travel period on March 22, 2016. A year on, those worst hit are dealing with things in very different ways. But for all of them, this March 22 will be another test, another day to survive.
Andre Pinto is a bus driver for the STIB transport service. He was taking the subway to replace a colleague when Khalid el-Bakraoui detonated an explosive-filled back pack just after 9 a.m. in Maelbeek station, in the car right next to his.
Dazed by ear damage, disoriented by smoke and dust, and suffering from a leg injury he would only feel once the initial shock wore off, Pinto pried open the train door. He won't describe what he saw, only what he did.
"I just ran. I heard just before leaving the depot that there was an explosion at Zaventem, two explosions. I said to myself there could be a second one so I just got out of there," said Pinto, thinking only of his pregnant wife and child.
At the airport about an hour earlier, Sebastien Bellin had the same idea. The former pro basketball player who lives in Battle Creek, Michigan, also ran when a blast brought the ceiling down in the departure hall. Only he ran for the boarding gates, convinced that those heading for the exits were going the wrong way, maybe into a second bomb. He was right about the bomb, but wrong about where it would be.
"I don't think that you ever fully recuperate from injuries like this," he said. A year on, after several operations on a smashed hip and severely damaged leg, Bellin wears a cast. The former Belgian national team player walks with a limp, but still stands tall in many ways.
"Part of rebuilding yourself is focusing on the positives, and the positive is that I have both my legs," he said. "I'm alive, and that's much better than a lot of other people and victims from March 22 can say."
Bellin has spent some of his basketball money to raise awareness about those worse off than he is.
He regularly flies between the United States and Belgium, sometimes to see doctors to fulfill insurance requirements, paying for tickets out of his own pocket.
"Every time I'm at the airport I go and stand right on the spot where I was," he said, "to collect myself, and to say this is where my second life started."
When Jean-Pierre Meuwis got wind that something was wrong downtown, he and a colleague ran from the subway dispatching center to a station near Maelbeek, where hundreds of people were stuck in an unlit tunnel. The power was cut.
"We felt that passengers might be in danger. We had to go, it's our job," Meuwis said. They found a defibrillator and saved one person having a heart attack, while ambulances rushed past outside with other priorities.
It took more than a month for subway services to be fully restored. It has taken longer for the lives of staff to be restored to some semblance of normalcy.
"After the incident I felt bad," Meuwis said. "I went to see the doctor that evening who advised me to keep working, to talk with people, about my problems and my emotions."
"Sometimes we hide in our work, and sometimes we ask ourselves more questions, but you can't stop there. Life goes on."
For Pinto, the bus driver, burying himself in work was just not possible.
"I saw a psychologist for six months," he said. "I have never taken the metro since March 22. I'm scared of taking the metro."
Memories of that morning "come back every now and then when I think about it, or see the news about it on TV, mostly now. Last night I had a nightmare, because I watched it. It's like I was watching a film and it's starting all over again," he said.
Belgian justice authorities are watching film too — hours of security camera video, to establish whether people claiming to be traumatized were really there. They've set up a special team trained to have a genuinely "humanitarian approach" to those in need.
Tired of what he sees as the government's failure to act effectively, Philippe Vansteenkiste launched a group called V-Europe, which unites those hurt in several attacks. He's been in contact with victims of extremist attacks in France and the mass shooting in Norway in 2011.
The Belgian government pushed through a law to help victims a month after the bombings. But it still has not gone into effect, so limited compensation of around 5,000 euros ($5,400) is only being paid to certain victims, mostly spouses of those who died.
"You lost a husband, you got 5,000 euros. This is just crazy. This is first aid," said Vansteenkiste, who has sunk his money and time into V-Europe. "Many people were not contacted, even people who were fighting for their lives in hospitals."
"Each step you take you have to prove that you're a victim. You have to explain your whole story again," he said. "People have no time to mourn."
Over the past week, the government and insurance companies have pledged to speed things up and increase compensation payouts. But for those hardest hit, these announcements seem cynical, timed to the attacks anniversary.
Missing in all of this, Vansteenkiste and others say, is a law that recognizes people as victims and eases their legal, administrative and insurance burdens.
"We underestimated the impact on the families, the emotions, and the fact that they needed help, close support, very quickly. No one has really been listening," said Georges Dallemagne, a Belgian lawmaker and vice president of a parliamentary commission investigating the handling of the attacks.
"I think we could have gone more quickly, drawing lessons from the kind of things in place in other countries. We know that after 9/11 there was a fund set up by the U.S. Congress for all the victims. We could have taken inspiration from that kind of mechanism," Dallemagne said.
"The victims, above all, need to be acknowledged and to have support for a long time."