The king and queen of Belgium led tributes Monday to the victims of the suicide bombings that killed 32 people and injured more than 340 in the Brussels subway and airport exactly five years ago. Sixteen people were killed at the airport and another 16 died shortly afterwards in another explosion at Maelbeek metro.
King Philippe and Queen Mathilde started the commemorations at Brussels airport alongside Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, meeting victims and their relatives before laying flowers in front of a memorial plaque.
They continued their journey to the Maelbeek metro station in downtown Brussels, observing another moment of silence at 9:11am local time, the moment the explosion went off.
The suicide bombings were claimed by the Islamic State group.
Then Belgian prime minister Charles Michel – now the president of the European Council – said the events of March 22 were a "terrible shock" that had a lasting impact, in an AFP interview Friday.
"The country is not the same after those attacks. A threat that until then we'd thought of as theoretical is now very real," said Michel, a liberal leader who was Belgium's prime minister between 2014 and 2019.
'I didn't want my life to end'
For Belgian Sebastien Bellin, who was seriously injured in the attacks, "rebuilding" is still an ordeal.
"I will be disabled for life, it is not easy but I have accepted it. It's a gift to have a second chance," said the 42-year-old, a former professional basketball player, at his home in Tervuren near Brussels.
Bellin, who has turned to technical design after his sports career, was supposed to catch a flight to New York that morning for a meeting with the US investors who had just bought his company. They were eager to meet him, he told AFP, and he brought his trip forward by 24 hours from Wednesday to that fateful Tuesday.
Bellin found himself on the ground, his legs bleeding, in the middle of debris and dust. The image of a dead woman next to him remains in his mind.
"I can still see the rings on her fingers and her face, the blanket she was covered with," he said.
"Of course my two daughters came to mind – I didn't want my life to end," he said, adding: I "remained calm, instead of panicking and losing the energy I needed to survive”.
He waited an hour and a half before being taken away in an ambulance, and does not like to dwell on his suffering as those minutes ticked by.
As he waited, Bellin managed to pull his 2.05-metre frame up onto a trolley, carrying the dead weight of his immobile legs. He compressed the bleeding as much as possible with makeshift tourniquets.
Today, his right femur and left tibia are replaced by metal pins. He can no longer feel his left leg and, to move, he must compensate with his right leg.
Five years on, Bellin's life is still punctuated by physiotherapy sessions and legal limbo over the medical expenses incurred for part of the treatment.
"The state could have made a much greater effort, but after five years we still don't have a tangible solution," he said.
Bellin trains intensively in the forest of Tervuren to prepare for this year's edition of the "IronMan" triathlon in Hawaii, one of the most famous in the world, scheduled for October.
"Being disabled is not an end in itself – a handicap can be improved, just like in golf!" he joked.
"The handicap will not beat me. I am going to win."
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)