Talking to People on the Streets of Molenbeek, Brussels' 'Terrorist Hotbed'
While Brussels was on lockdown yesterday morning, Molenbeek was not. The market on the Hertogin van de Brabantplein was filled with shouting salesmen. "I have to make a living; that attack has already happened now," said a Flemish baker.
A soldier stands in front of the European Commission, 150 meters away from the Maelbeek subway station. All photos by Bertrand Vandeloise
This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
Once the world found out that three of the terrorists who committed the attacks in Paris last November grew up in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, the area became known as a "hotbed for terrorists". This week, the news that the fugitive suspect Salah Abdeslam managed to stay out of the hands of the Belgian anti-terror units for 126 days by hiding out in Molenbeek, gave way to even more suspicion surrounding the area. After the terrorist attacks on Brussels' airport and underground system yesterday, a number of news crews travelled straight to Molenbeek to see how the locals reacted to the events.
Freelance journalist Paul Schram went to the market in Molenbeek yesterday – which was open for business as usual. We asked him to describe the atmosphere in the neighbourhood.
Since yesterday's attacks, Brussels has been on high alert. Special forces, the police and the army shut down the entire city centre. Maalbeek station is only a stone's throw away from the Berlamont building, which houses the European Commission. Near Maalbeek, cars were being checked and bags were being overturned, while the streets were full of police vans coming and going.
Once word of the attacks got out, the rest of the city centre quickly turned eerily quiet. Most citizens of Brussels followed the advice of Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel to stay indoors. Because the tunnels in the centre were shut down, it was almost impossible to get around in the city, anyway. Only emergency services were allowed to use the tunnels, and in large parts of the city the only vehicles you could see on the road were police cars, military vehicles and a lot of ambulances. Trams and busses had come to a standstill – as if someone had shut them down with one push of the button.
The hunt for the perpetrators was still in full swing around midday in the centre of Brussels. Near the metro station, the DOVO (the bomb disposal unit) checked a car for explosives, but that turned out to be a false alarm.
Yesterday morning, just after the attacks, I visited Molenbeek – the neighbourhood of Brussels that recently gained a reputation as a "hotbed for terrorists". Two days earlier, a police officer had told me that the arrest of Salah Abdeslam would mark only the beginning of the "clean up" of Molenbeek. Apparently, yhere are another 21 terrorist suspects on the police's wanted list. The list is posted in the police office around the corner from the market square in Molenbeek. The Abdeslam family lived on the same square.
That square mile is where three out of the five terrorists that committed the attacks in Paris came from. This impoverished area that lies adjacent to the centre of Brussels has both the youngest population and the highest rate of unemployment in the city.
While Brussels was on lockdown yesterday morning, Molenbeek certainly was not. The market on the Hertogin van de Brabantplein was filled with a large number of greengrocers, shouting salesmen and clothing stands. A Flemish baker hadn't dismantled his stall yet, despite the authorities asking everyone to stay indoors. "I have to make a living and the people here will come anyway; that attack has already happened now," he said matter-of-factly.
A middle-aged man seemed annoyed when I asked him if he sympathises with the victims: "If you hurt them, they'll hurt you! That's what Belgium gets for joining in on the war on terror."
A Flemish-speaking woman of Moroccan decent who was wearing a hijab, shook her head when she heard the news. "Again they're looking at us; everyone is pointing to Molenbeek yet again." A few kids that were hanging around on the street got furious when they saw me and my colleague: "Reporters! Scum! Get out of here!" they shouted.
A couple of streets away, in the Vier-windenstraat, baker Omar looked out on the house where Abdeslam was arrested earlier this week. He was saddened by the news of the attacks and wanted to close up his shop for the day. He said he had been glad to hear of the arrest of the terrorist: "It felt like the tumour had finally been removed from Molenbeek."
Before I left, I talked to a shoe salesman who also works at the market: "A couple of lunatics commit a terrorist attack and people immediately look in our direction. I am deeply ashamed that some Muslims do things like this. And a lot of people here [in Molenbeek] feel the same way," he sighed.
[Editor's note: The photos in this article were taken in downtown Brussels on the 22nd of March 2016. They were not taken in the Molenbeek neighbourhood.]