As I woke on March 22, 2016, I woke to devastating news: there had been a number of explosions at Brussels Airport and Maalbeek metro station in the heart of Belgium's capital city. I was horrified — terrorism was something that was only beginning to come to the fore within Europe following the attacks in Paris the previous year.
Walking the mile to school felt so much longer, so much slower, so much more poignant, than it usually did. Horrific events were unfolding so close yet so far away, and I felt so helpless. People in so much pain, suffering, tragedy, and so little any of us could do. I had to do something... I couldn't just watch on.
As I arrived in school, I was in a small group with my tutor and three other students. We had very little work to do since it was the last day of half-term and it was all stuff I could do on the computer. "Nice one," I thought — "this is going to be an easy school day."
Of course, all the while, I began monitoring the events in Brussels. News organisations everywhere were reporting live from the sites of the blasts, broadcasting scenes of horror, devastation and sheer carnage. Quite frankly, I could have cried and at one point, I very nearly did. I don't think anyone could witness what I did and not wonder what the point to existing was, to be honest.
One news article led me to Reddit, a social news website, where people were actively discussing the horrors unfolding in front of us all. There were various pages being run by wonderful people, dedicated to updating people live. I watched on as update after update trickled across the Internet, reaching me minute by minute.
I knew I had to do something: I just knew. As a human myself, if you hadn't guessed, I couldn't sit back and watch my fellow humans in this state—it was morally corrupt to ignore their suffering. I reached out to the person who was administrating the largest "live thread" and asked if there was anything I could do to help. I was promptly added as a contributor, and began sharing what snippets of information I could find.
That morning, I begged and pleaded with idiots on the Internet not to post photos of the Police's ongoing operation. It was in vain, sure, but enough people had died — a vicious and wanton ambush against the Police by armed terrorists was the last thing Brussels needed in its time of crisis.
Updates kept trickling through to us from so many Reddit users — the world was on Brussels side, and rightly so. Phone numbers for embassies, unconfirmed figures of the dead and injured, more suspicious package alerts: it was all unfolding right in front of us.
As my day went by, my tutor turned Sky News on the projector. All I could see, hear, imagine, was the plight of those poor poor people, all so happy for their holiday, and now not going on holiday... or home to their families. There were no words to describe it then, and there are none now. As I write this, I can feel myself shivering in sheer sadness and my eyes watering up. They didn't deserve that—nobody does.
Later that evening, as information started to slow, I shared an update with the world on behalf of the 32 contributors with whom I'd worked:
From the bottom of my heart, I'd like to thank each and every one of you for your hard work.
I never imagined how busy this would turn out yet you've all stood up and met the mark. You've helped Belgium in its time of crisis and I'm exceptionally proud of each and every one of you.
You, my friends, are the best. Thank you.
I think that quote epitomises what we must remember about Brussels: everybody—irrespective of religion, nationality, gender, any personal differences—came together, united in shock, disbelief and a desire to do their bit. We were one with Brussels that day, and we must remember that, not the nameless cowards who caused such horror.
A year on
Fast forward a year (oh, how time flies) and I'm lay at home on the sofa. My family had just themselves gone on holiday to Paris and I'd just awoken from a nap. In hindsight, it's probably a good thing that I stayed up all night and slept through the day, for I think I'd have struggled mentally that day, looking back at the previous year.
As I woke from my slumber at about 7pm that evening, I went onto Facebook to search for a girl—what else do teenagers do these days (or rather, what did they do in those days)? As I clicked the search bar, I was greeted by search suggestions—one being "Westminster attack". My mind immediately turned to thoughts of a London Has Fallen style situation, having seen the film just a few days earlier.
Clicking on the link, I was met by scenes—again—of sheer devastation. Many dead, many more injured—one of the dead including a Police Officer. If a Police Officer has been killed by an armed terrorist, the situation must be absolutely dreadful. I had to wonder what the hell had happened, as I quickly opened the BBC News application on my iPhone.
Another armed terrorist, who I shan't name in order not to support his extremist views, had struck at the very heart of our democracy. The scenes I had grown up with as a British child — Big Ben, Westminster, the London Eye — the backdrop to an international loss of life, and all for what?
I'm sure it goes without saying that my heart bleeds for all those who have had to endure terrorism in some way — its victims, their families, the first responders. Having seen some horrific things in similar circumstances—though luckily only through photos—I can only begin to empathise with the first responders to such horrific acts of violence.
Equally, I think it's so important that no matter who we are—which God we pray to, where we live, what we pack in our underwear—that we come together to fight hate. Hate breeds extremism, and extremism is what took 126 lives in the UK between 2000 and 2017. Our world can and will achieve so much if we break down the barriers that divide humanity.
Finally, let me say that today, I'm thinking of Brussels, Westminster, and humanity as a whole. Thank you to the wonderful people who I had the sombre honour of presenting to 50,000 people with, and I hope it helped someone, somewhere. No matter what your connection to terrorism, please reach out to someone if you're struggling—it's okay not to be okay.