‘The country is in shock’: Witness describes atmosphere after Maalbeek blast

Belgium is in a state of shock following the fatal attacks on its capital Brussels, a freelance journalist and witness of the explosion in the Metro, Simon Marks, has told RT.

RT: You witnessed the actual blast. Tell us what you saw, please.

READ MORE: At least 20 reportedly killed in blasts at Maalbeek metro station near EU offices

Simon Marks: I was very nearby when the bomb explosion went off at the Maalbeek Metro station, which is located just a few hundred meters from the European institutions in Brussels. I was arriving near the European Council building where heads of states often hold meetings. You could see smoke coming out of the entrance of the Metro station. There were many people that were injured, pouring out into the street. Soon afterwards there were many paramedics, police, military, soldiers arriving at the scene obviously to treat the wounded. Soon after the streets and the surrounding area were cordoned off and the press was pushed back beyond the safety perimeter.

RT: Can you tell us a bit more about the atmosphere. What’s it like in the city?

READ MORE: 1st time ever: Highest level terror alert in Belgium, borders reportedly closed

SM: The country is in shock, that’s an obvious statement. The government has announced that the country is on the highest terror alert possible, alert level 4. This is happening just a few days after French and Belgian police arrested Salah Abdeslam, who is the key suspect in the Paris terrorist attacks that took place last year. There were 130 killed back then. He is a Belgian national. The authorities have been hunting him for four months now and this is coming in the wake of that. I might add that they were looking for him at the beginning and in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, Brussels was again on level 4 terror alert. This is something the city is growing used to in many ways. In this case obviously lives have been lost, making the situation all the more real.

RT: Mr Marks, you look very healthy right now, but you were very close to being injured and perhaps critically. Do you think you’ve come to terms with that?

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SM: I wasn’t in the actual Metro. I was just outside the Metro station. Luckily I wasn’t in the Metro. I usually take a bus to work, I do take public transport. But I’m also a journalist, so I tried to get closer to the scene to see what was happening when I was aware of the attack being so close.

Brussels airport and metro bombings: 1st time ever highest level terror alert in Belgium. At least 34 dead, many more...

Posted by RT Play on Tuesday, March 22, 2016

RT: Mr Marks, you yourself are a frequent traveler to the EU. Now the Schengen visa-free travel zone is under a lot of strain because of these sorts of terror incidents in Paris last year and now in Brussels. Security levels are at the highest ever at the moment there where you are. Do you think this could be one of the final nails in the coffin of the visa-free travel zone? Or do you think a compromise could be found between security of the citizens and the freedom of movement?

SM: The Schengen area is coming under great strain. You have two reasons: one is the migration crisis, the other is terrorist threats. There are already a number of national borders which are carrying out checks. I think there are seven countries now who have implemented border controls. Obviously the border between Macedonia and Greece is sort of locked down due to the migration crisis. There are political groups on the right, particularly, who are saying that open borders, free movement is a free ticket for potential terrorists wanting to carry out attacks in Europe. There are many thought processes going on. The European Commission is thinking closely about how to perhaps reform certain parts of the Schengen area, but this is one of the core values of the EU and to give up on it is not something that is going to happen tomorrow. It’s very interesting to see what happens in right-wing groups that use this as an excuse I guess to talk up against Europe and more integration. Certainly this will add fuel to the fire for those calling for the end of the Schengen area and free movement.