“Off we go! Life goes on!” said the Brussels subway driver, slamming the cabin door and pulling away from the station.
Barely 24 hours after Belgium’s worst-ever terror attacks, underground metro services resumed in the capital as life began to return to normal on Wednesday.
Part of the line where a suicide bomber killed around 20 passengers Tuesday remained closed, but most trains, trams and buses ran to schedule -- even if some commuters seemed reluctant to use public transport.
“I’m a bit afraid, especially for my little brothers,” said Dominique Salazar, 18, as he took his siblings, aged three and six, to school. “But we don’t have any other choice to get around.”
Soldiers checked passenger bags at entrances to the subway stations in Europe’s symbolic capital, where some entry points had been closed to enable tighter security.
The usual morning rush hour crowds on underground train platforms were noticeably thinner, however, and there were fewer cyclists on the streets above.
As workers headed for work in the city centre many stopped off to leave flowers at the historic Place de la Bourse square in the heart of Brussels, which has become a centre for public outpouring of grief.
By midday, a huge crowd had gathered there to observe a national minute of silence in memory of the around 30 people killed and the 270 hurt, some seriously.
With Belgium unusually clear of rain Wednesday, chalk messages scrawled on the pavements testified to a people coming together in mourning.
“Solidarity”, “We are one”, “Love Brussels”, said messages left beside candles, flowers and notes to the families of victims.
“Last night I came to leave a candle and I’m back this morning out of solidarity,” said Latifa Charaf, 50, a teacher. “We thought it couldn’t happen here, but it did and it’s terrible.”
Jokes amid the fear
At Schuman metro station at the foot of the European Union’s headquarters and just one station from the Maalbeek stop where the attack took place, travellers seemed more confused by changes to the usual schedule than fearful.
One passenger who stepped onto a train and then off again, asking: “Where’s that one headed?”
“I haven’t yet fully realised what’s happening, I’m still stuck in my daily problems but perhaps it’s better that way,” said Pierre Pardon, a social worker.
But he said fear was at the back of everyone’s minds.
“Obviously! We heard that the son of one of my wife’s colleagues died during the night. I myself was only 20 minutes away from the Maalbeek attack,” said Pardon, 43.
“I guess my time hadn’t yet come.”
A 40-year-old secretary who gave her name only as Valerie said she had no time to worry. “I’m too busy figuring what’s working and what’s not, what stations are open, what trains are running,” she said.
“And I don’t want to be paranoid. People here are looking out for our security,” she added, pointing to the three soldiers armed with assault rifles on patrol nearby.
Cries of “long live Belgium” and defiant applause broke out after the symbolic display of solidarity at noon at the central Place de la Bourse.
But the mood remained sombre at EU headquarters where Belgium’s King Philippe and his wife and Prime Minister Charles Michel, joined officials led by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker for the minute’s silence.
“We are showing our compassion,” said Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur. “We need to reach out today to all those who were hurt.”
Stepping off a train from Enghien, some 30 kilometres away, a supermarket employee who gave his name only as Vasco said “people are not as calm as they like to seem”.
“But we’re still smiling and making jokes, even about what happened yesterday. The Belgian spirit lives on.”