BRUSSELS — Silence fell over the typically noisy and crowded European quarter.
Replacing the usual routine of busy Eurocrats rushing to and fro through the Schuman neighborhood, a litany of chrysanthemums, black hats and plastic umbrellas formed a solemn procession for about half and hour, laying wreaths on the memorial of the 32 victims of the Brussels terror attacks.
Silence during the ceremony was punctuated by the drab sound of a boiler in a nearby garage and an accompanying orchestra playing classical symphonies, including the Belgian anthem and the European one.
On Thursday, Brussels commemorated the victims of the coordinated terror attacks at the Zaventem international airport and the Maelbeek metro station, which claimed 32 lives on March 22, 2016.
To mark the seventh anniversary, the Belgian government brought together those who will never forget that day.
“I try not to think about that day, in my mind it is like a closed drawer which I rarely open,” said a firefighter who was part of the first rescue team at the Maelbeek metro station and who preferred to not be named. “But yesterday evening, I opened that drawer — and all the memories flooded back.”
His first commemoration since 2016, the Belgian firefighter seemed overcome with emotion. Although, he added, the presence of his comrades who were also there that day gave him strength.
At the start of the ceremony around 10:30 a.m., a government official read the names of each victim before family members laid wreaths on a remembrance monument. Attendees recalled one of the darkest days in Belgium’s recent history, as the country came under attack by Islamist terrorists committing a spate of strikes across Europe.
At the commemoration, a group of firefighters and rescue service workers lined up next to an L-shaped modernist metal sculpture honoring the terrorism victims at the heart of the European neighborhood, tucked between the brutalist HQ of the European Commission and the classical Cinquantenaire park.
Beside the emergency workers were the families of the 32 victims, who took turns approaching the memorial. Each bearing a white flower, they walked to the statue in turn, bowed and then moved onto the busy Rue de la Loi — doing their best to forget those terrible moments from 2016.
“When we got to Maelbeek station, we knew it was a terror attack,” said the firefighter, who extracted several people from the flames, including a 3-year-old toddler.
“I don’t know the names of the people I have saved, and haven’t kept in touch since … This is the only way to forget the tragedies,” he said.
At the end of the procession, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo shook hands and spoke with the emergency workers, afterward meeting family members in De Croo’s official residence.
The deadliest terror attack to ever take place in Belgium came at a time when European countries faced a series of Islamist terrorist strikes and growing anti-immigrant sentiment, prompting a surge in far-right politics across the continent.
The terrorist network that had orchestrated the attack in Brussels was also involved in the November 2015 Bataclan attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people and injured hundreds more.
In December 2022, the trial against 10 individuals accused of playing a role in the Brussels attacks began but faced repeated interruptions due to procedural controversies, sparking anger from the families of victims. Six people currently on trial in Brussels have already been found guilty of being involved in the terror attacks in Paris.