There is a saying that there is no bad luck. That someone from up there puts us in the right place, at the right time, for a reason. Do you believe that everything happens for a reason?
I do. But why was I then at the Brussels airport on March 22 when the terrorist attack happened? The answer came in the form of a man who slept in a bed next to me. He wore a black hat.
Upon our landing in Brussels, the captain informed us that we must stay put due to the minor incident at the airport. Three minutes before, without knowing, the first bomb exploded. I was thinking about him. I haven’t seen him for a year and that day was supposed to be THE day. I just had to hop on another plane. As I daydreamed about us getting lost in the romantic streets of Barcelona, several people lost their opportunity to daydream. To hope. To fall in love.
Like other passengers, I did not know what was going on but after two hours of waiting in a plane, I was determined to find out. Somewhere in between another bomb exploded. It was ISIS, we found out later, taking 11 souls in total.
Buses came to evacuate us to the safe zone. We were not allowed to take the heavy hand luggage. I grabbed my wallet and passport and left the plane.
I never got to Barcelona.
———-Safe zone ———-
A large hall for repairing aircraft was already filled with people and their suitcases. Everyone seemed busy and walked around as if waiting for the next flight. There were no more flights. A pilot in his shiny suit was coming in my direction, carrying grey blankets. I stood there amazed. He caught my eyes and smiled. Probably I looked like a child that saw a Santa Claus. I can’t help it but admire the pilots. And I could not help but notice that we were all suddenly – equal. Passengers and cabin crew were sitting on wodden pallets, together. First-class passengers mixed with passengers from economy class. It was cold for feet. Airport ground crew was giving blankets. The food was brought out of the planes. Water also. Staff walked around, patiently answering questions: „How long we will be here?“, „When can I have my luggage back?“, „Are there more bombs?!“ There were not enough outlets for all the phones nor WI-Fi, but then computers were brought. The queue was long. Everyone wanted to write to their families.
One woman was in her flip flops, freezing. Jewish family prayed. Two little girls played with each other. Many just sat there. Tired. Confused. And many people, including me, had only what was in their pockets. We had to wait. Endlessly.
What on Earth was going on in people’s minds, I wondered. Somewhere between helping others to login to Facebook, translating and collecting information on hand luggage, it hit me. With no luggage and no flights, I could not go anywhere. My hope that I will finally see him after a one-year waiting was scattered across the floor. People were chatting and shaking their heads in disbelief but I could only hear silence. „Hey, be happy you are alive“, I whispered to myself.
“I can’t come. Don’t wait for me”, I wrote him, forgetting both him and Barcelona.
If it’s love, it will find a way, I said and decided to do the most I could do in such situation – be human.
———-„Look for the helpers“———-
Night in the cold hangar was not an option. Despite the shock and the short time for preparation, the organization was top notch. Those who wanted, were finally allowed to leave the airport while the rest of us decided to wait. I had a place to go to, but didn’t wanted. My heart was where it should be. It was cold for my feet, yet it felt very warm in my heart. I wasn’t alone. We were all in this together. There were hundreds of us experiencing something that will stay with us forever. There were also Teresa, Pedro and John. Teresa is a journalist from Madrid and I will never forget her curly hair, nor her desire for constant reporting. She came as a reminder of what I want to do in life. Pedro is her husband who didn’t talk much and didn’t like Teresa’s habit – smoking. John is a handsome Colombian with Spanish address. We shared many chocolates together. Later, senor Estuardo joined us and the five of us stuck together until the end.
We spent the night in the Brabanthal Hall, while the first group was taken to the military base. From that moment on, we were in the hands of the Belgian Red Cross. Never in my life have I met kinder people. I know that volunteers are trained to deal with emergency situations but one’s heart cannot be trained. Whether they distributed blankets for the night or were preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner, or calling people for a cup of coffee, not once have they shown that they too were tired. „Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping“. That day I learned the meaning of these words. Volunteers talked with people, listened to them and ensured that everyone is well fed. There was a girl giving me Snickers chocolates. She was sitting by the coffee corner. Seeing so many people united for a good cause broke my heart wide. This world is still a good place. Believe me. I have seen.
———-Army green cots ———-
More than 1000 stranded passengers. No hot water. No showers. Crowded power strips. It was too many people inside but only one thought – „When are we going home?“
Late at night, I curled up on my military bed. Row upon row of army green beds. That was the third day since I was in the same clothes, but after I got thermal socks from the Red Cross, I felt much better. I turned around and breathed deeply. Hundreds of souls were sleeping around me. It was silent. I noticed a black hat beside me. The eyes of senor Estuardo were always smiling.
“Where were you supposed to go?”, he asked quietly.
“To Barcelona. To see someone I have been waiting to see for a year”, I whispered.
“If something of such great magnitude should happen to prevent you to see this person, maybe it’s time to think about it?”
“I don’t know. I wanted to try”.
“Don’t worry. The one up there has a perfect plan for you. Have faith!”, senor Estuardo said and I fell asleep.
Signs of hope came with the morning!
Airlines companies set up desks. It was time to go home. Charge the phones. Wait in a line for breakfast. Wait in a line to speak with the arline. Gather all your belongings. Help others to gather theirs. Go to the toilet. Then wait a bit more. The hours passed slowly. One African-American family was singing. „Would you like a cookie while waiting?“, Red Cross volunteer kindly asked me but I was already full and still very concerned about getting my red backpack back. Teresa was still running around, reporting about the situation.
As John and I waited for the tickets to Frankfurt, from where we had a flight for home, Teresa and Pedro came to say goodbye.
“I wish you big and important things in life!”, Pedro said, hugging me strongly.
Senor Estuardo also left, but before catching his train, he gave me a note from Guatemala with the green bird on it.
“It’s a symbol of freedom. Birds can’t be caged”, he looked at me significantly.
“Don’t ever let anyone take your freedom away!!”
So that day I made a promise.
———-What Brussels has taught me———
Once connected to the WI-FI I received many messages and one question which confused me: „Are you afraid?“
„It’s probably terrible there“. „Hang on!“
You cannot be afraid of what you don’t know that will happen. That’s why it is called terrorism. The other thing, two and a half days that I spent with the people from all over the world, made my heart grow bigger. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
The world can be a scary place, but it is usually not. I always say and I will stick to it – people are good. This comes from my personal experience as a solo female traveler. Traveling is not dangerous. Life is. And you know what else?
Brussels has taught me that living is beautiful, but that time waits for no one. To be alive is a fragile thing, especially when one finally realizes how unexpectedly life can disappear.
Travel. Don’t take terrorism as an excuse for not traveling. It’s not about them. It’s always about You. Be awake. Stay awake. And if something bad happens, always seek for the helpers. This world is still a good place. Believe me. I have seen.
Dedicated to all the volunteers of the Belgian Red Cross; to all the staff of Brussels Airlines; to all the stranded passengers and their families; to Teresa, Pedro, John and Estuardo.
And victims of terror? Sleep tight. I hope you found a place where there is no more pain.
Ivana Hanjs (Flight SN 2830, Brussels Airlines)