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Inside Brussels in Lockdown, as the European Union Shuts Down After the Attacks

Shut down by the Islamic State attacks that killed at least 34 people, the de facto capital of Europe finds comfort in fries and sticking together — because no one is going anywhere.
Des soldats belges près de la Commission européenne à Bruxelles, le 22 mars 2016. Photo de Yoan Valat/EPA

Hours after the terrorist attacks that have killed at last count 34 people and injured dozens more on Tuesday, Brussels was a city on lockdown, its airport, railway stations and public transport closed and its central district, where the European Union's nerve center is located, sealed off.

At 8 am local time, a suicide bomber and one or more gunmen killed at least 13 people at Zaventem airport, 11 kilometers (7 miles) northeast of the city center. Just an hour later, there was a second attack inside the Maelbeek metro station in central Brussels, which has paralyzed the institutions at the heart of the European Union. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

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Police have blocked off the quarter extending from the Rondpoint Schuman, the seat of the European Commission and the European Council, to the Maelbeek station, just a half-kilometer away. Some roads linking the European Parliament to the Maelbeek station have also been closed.

Paralysis comes after hours of extreme chaos. As emergency services rushed to the Maelbeek station this morning to escort the injured to safety, clouds of smoke had already enveloped the southern half of the European Quarter, where medics and firemen disappeared into the smoke, bringing back the injured covered in dust and blood.

The most common word on the lips who survived was "choqué."

"I was in the subway train, and then we saw a flash of light on all the train. Then I was on the ground, and then there was a second explosion," a 24-year-old Belgian woman on her way to work this morning told reporters, giving her name only as Laura. "I am just… shocked."

STIB, Brussels' transportation authority, announced that subway, bus, and all transportation services have been indefinitely closed. Buses that usually carry everyday citizens of Belgium's capital have been redirected to transport the injured to hospitals around the city. The city's train stations reopened at 4pm local time.

A ride-sharing community has quickly come together on Facebook and Twitter to get Brussels' 250,000 daily commuters back home. For those stranded because of cancelled flights or trains, people have even offered couches and spare bedrooms in their homes.

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"I created this group because I wanted to make myself useful in the face of this tragedy. It's frustrating to stay seated and not be able to do anything," said Thomas Rocher, 33, a Brussels resident who created the Facebook group "Solidarity against attacks — transport in and around Brussels," which had over 2,700 members just two hours after the attacks.

"Certain of my friends wanted to give their blood and fight because of the attacks. Me, I wanted to help people get back home."

The thousands who work for the European institutions in Brussels have been told to remain in their offices, or if they are out of the office, to find safety. A popular island of refuge has been Maison Antoine, one of the most famous chip shops in the Belgian capital , known for its fries, often served in shops called fritkot. Civil servants passed around fries, mayonnaise, and cigarettes while glued to news on their phones or calling their families across Europe. (The European Quarter, home to the common institutions of more than two dozen nations, is one of the most cosmopolitan places on the entire continent.)

"Even fries can calm the soul, eh?", the fritkot's manager said, looking at the long line outside her shop.

Other Eurocrats remain confined in their offices. A source inside the European Parliament who requested anonymity told VICE News that several members of the European Parliament have tried to leave the capital, but have had to resign themselves to staying there — Brussels is in effect isolated from long-range public transport.

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"All of the meetings have been cancelled, and the MEPs are pissed as all hell," she said. "We're trying to find ways to get them all home, but who knows when that might be."

On the Place Luxembourg, just outside the European Parliament and outside the police cordon, the displaced gathered for coffees at Exki, a well-loved chain of cafés in Belgium. Conversations around the attacks and their consequences ranged far and wide, from the closing of schools to migration politics. Even Donald Trump was on the lips of a few people.

"He called the city an unsecured hellhole, and how can we say he is wrong? Look!", said Luc, a 54 year-old from the Belgian town of Uccle, who pointed to the clouds of dust still visible in this distance towards Maelbeek.

The European Union's gold-starred blue flags and those of the EU nations have been lowered to half-mast across the Union's de facto capital, and the French government has announced that the colors of the Belgian flag will be lit on the Eiffel Tower tonight. As the afternoon comes to a close, the sound of sirens and helicopters have become more faint. A vigil has already begun at the Bourse, a locale popular with tourists in the very core of Brussels.

The sirens may have disappeared, but loud voices from the European right are taking their place. Some of them are speaking from Brussels itself. The UK Independence Party's spokesman for defense and member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire, Mike Hookem, linked the attacks to free movement inside the European Union's Schengen area and said "open borders are putting the lives of European citizens at risk" — only two hours after the subway attack.

Beatrix von Storch, MEP for Germany's Euroskeptic and anti-migration party AfD, said on Facebook that "we have a problem in Europe. The problem is imported. And we let the problem grow everyday."

Brussels may have begun to lick its wounds after the attack, but a political storm is only beginning to envelop the bereaved de-facto capital of Europe's 27-nation union.