On many, many occasions over the years, Albert Nijsten has traveled through the Brussels Zaventem Airport and the city’s metro subway station.
Some of the visits to the airport involved trips back to Roseburg where he was a foreign exchange student at Roseburg High School back in 1971-’72. He stayed with the Noel and Joanne King family and is a 1972 RHS graduate.
He had a 40-year career with Belgium’s ministry of finances, retiring in October 2013. During that time, he made about 10 return trips to Roseburg for class reunions, family funerals and visits.
But after terrorist bombings at the airport and the subway Tuesday morning, Nijsten and other Belgian travelers will view those familiar places differently and with sadness. He was 20 miles away at home in Holsbeek when the bombs were detonated by suicide bombers, reportedly Islamic extremists. He knew none of the 31 people who were killed, nor any of the 300 who were injured, but the 62 year old said there was still an impact on the Belgian people.
“I think there were feelings of fear followed by anger,” Nijsten said. “But I think our society will try to come together. I think people believe we can be stronger than those other groups, that we can stand up strong against the darkness of a few terrorists.”
Nijsten, who makes regular trips to Brussels, said he had never felt threatened even though he knows there are Islamic terrorist cells in that city. He said there had been a noticeable increase in security in the city since the terrorist attacks on Paris last November. Paris is only a three-hour drive south from Brussels and it was known that some of the suspected terrorists involved in Paris had escaped to Belgium.
“I now see soldiers, the military out in the streets of Brussels, but not too many,” Nijsten said. “That was not the case before the Paris attack. Now you see soldiers here and there.
“But the terrorists don’t call and don’t let us know what is going to happen and when so I just think people have to continue on,” he added.
Nijsten said Belgium is one-eighth the size of Oregon and is home to almost 11 million people, meaning the country has a dense population and it can be hard escaping a crowd. Islam is the second largest religion in Belgium with 6 percent of the population being Muslims.
Nijsten said he thinks there is a very small minority of Belgians who want all the Muslims to be forced to leave the country and a small minority who favor their full assimilation into the society implying the loss of their original cultural identity. But he added that he thinks the majority of Belgians don’t have a clear idea of the situation.
“They are part of our society whether some like it or not,” he said. “We can’t deport them. I don’t think we should. There’s just a very, very small group of terrorists, people who are evil.”
Nijsten said Belgium posts several levels of danger for its society and the country was at level 3 on Tuesday. Level 4 is the highest level of danger.
“We were at level 3 and that means a threat is possible, but not necessarily imminent,” Nijsten said. “We were expecting something, yes, but there wasn’t the feeling something was actually going to happen.”
Nijsten said he was only guessing, but he said the bombings may have been in retaliation for Belgian police last week apprehending a suspect from the Paris attack.
“It’s like they want to overthrow any society that is not an Islamic society,” he said of terrorists. “They want to bring panic and terror to our world. They use Islam to explain or to defend their acts.”
Nijsten said the Belgian Parliament held a special meeting Wednesday and all leaders of the country’s society and all heads of religions were invited and represented.
“Islam is an official organization and they want to integrate into the society here,” he said. “But within the Muslim world, not everybody goes by the formal standing of that religion. Some interpret the religion in their own way, in an extremist sort of way.
“But those people don’t dominate society so we just have to stand up against them,” he added. “I won’t hesitate to go back to Brussels. Belgium is and remains a hospitable place.”