Marit van Renterghem, a 22-year-old from Belgium, was in the French city of Nice on Bastille Day in 2016 when a man drove a truck into the crowd and killed 86 people. The next month, she was at a bar in Thailand when terrorists detonated one of 11 bombs in the area. Marit talked to VICE about close calls, guilt and the ongoing process of healing.
On the 14th of July, 2016, I was on vacation in Nice with my mum and a friend. Our rental apartment was in the city centre, less than five minutes on foot from the busy Promenade des Anglais. That night, lots of fireworks were going off to celebrate Bastille Day. The streets were filled with people and the mood was festive.
After the fireworks, we discussed walking about 200 metres down the promenade to see some live music. But my friend had to catch a flight in the morning and wanted to go to bed, so we ended up heading home. At that same time, that man must have already been driving the truck on the other side of the promenade. Only a few minutes before he was shot, we were standing in the exact same place.
Despite hearing lots of police sirens on our walk back to the apartment, we didn’t know what was going on. We turned off our phones and went to bed. Early the next morning I had a lot of missed calls. When I found out what had happened, I started to shake. I woke up my mum and together, we told everyone who had called us that we were OK. We imagined what would have happened if we walked in the other direction that night.
We arrived back home in Ghent the day the Gentse Feesten [a music and theatre festival] started. The mood was less exuberant than usual, because everyone was scared of another attack. When people asked me if I was afraid, I literally said: “Not really, what are the odds of someone being around two terrorist attacks?”
A few weeks after the trip to Nice, I flew to Thailand. It was the summer after my first year of university. I didn’t like the course I had been in, so I had quit and didn’t feel great about it. Three weeks of volunteer work in Thailand was supposed to lift my spirits.
The first week I was assigned to work in an orphanage, the second week I was cleaning temples and beaches in Hua Hin and the third week I was supposed to teach English. The Thursday in Hua Hin was the final night for another group of volunteers, so we went out.
There were 12 of us in total, hanging out in a busy street with lots of bars and clubs. I suggested we go to the Blue Monkey cafe, but when we got there it looked too busy and expensive. “You know what, why don’t you all wait here, I’ll look for something better," I said. Together with one guy from our group I headed further into the street. Outside the Blue Monkey was a woman selling papayas. I remember thinking I’d like one when I got back.
Once we’d found a nice bar around the corner, we turned around to go and get our friends. But at that very moment we heard a loud bang. I immediately sensed that something was wrong. The first few seconds after the bomb exploded were very calm, but once we got closer, we saw a whole bunch of people coming towards us in a state of complete panic. The police showed up right away. As it turned out, another bomb had gone off at another location 30 minutes earlier. The police wouldn’t let us get closer to look for our friends.
We called the people in charge of the volunteer program. Their advice was to go home and wait for news there. The nail bomb had been detonated in a big flower pot right next to the woman who was selling papayas. She died on impact. All of my friends had been hit by shrapnel. They all survived, but half needed surgery.
I texted my parents saying, “I think there’s just been a terrorist attack, but I’m OK”. I didn’t want them to worry after they heard the news in Belgium. We later learned that several bombs had gone off in the south of Thailand, most of them in Hua Hin.
The next day I decided to go back to Belgium. I was in a complete state of disbelief and also felt guilty. It felt like everyone had been hurt because of my suggestions that night, except me. Nobody claimed the attack, but separatists from the local Pattani province were suspected to be behind it.
These two events have completely changed who I am. I used to be more self-involved, but since the attacks I’ve become much more empathetic. All I want to do now is help other people, give them advice and support, even if I don’t know them.
After Thailand, I suffered from nightmares, which became the catalyst for my anxiety disorder. I’ve had this nervous tightness in my stomach every day for the past three years. I’m always alert and constantly try to prepare for the worst. When I was at my worst, I couldn’t walk down the street without monitoring absolutely everything. Whenever I went out and had fun, a little voice in my head said, “What if someone has a knife and starts stabbing people? What if a bomb went off right now?”
I wasn’t just nervous about potential terror attacks; I literally became afraid of everything. My parents finally decided it couldn’t go on like this, and I started taking anti-anxiety medication. Thanks to therapy and specialised victim support, I’m not scared of attacks anymore, but the nightmares and the fear of losing people I love are still there.
I recently quit my Bachelor's degree in Japanese Studies. I was close to finishing and lots of people think I should have kept going, but I stopped because I became very anxious after that summer. The fear got worse and worse until I couldn’t take it anymore. At some point, something clicked for me and I started doing a lot of research. I read about alternative ways to heal, including yoga, meditation and journaling.
Now I feel more in control of my fears. It’s still a journey of sorts and I do experience panic every now and then, but it’s manageable at the moment. And while I’m not comfortable in large crowds, I haven’t stopped traveling. There is so much to see and discover in this world. Everyone goes through tough times, and it's important to remember that the world keeps turning and that you can’t hit the pause button on life.
This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.