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Safe on the streets? Brussels expats share their experiences
On a warm spring evening, Maja M was driving to Evere with her friend to have dinner in one of their favourite restaurants.
The Slovenian telecom manager had just returned from a sabbatical abroad earlier that week and the two were looking forward to catching up over a glass of wine.
Pulling into a parking spot, she caught a glimpse of three young men walking in their direction and she told her friend to not leave any valuables in the car. As she stepped out, she felt a knock on the head and fell to the ground.
Looking up, she recognised one of the men from moments earlier. Having had her wallet stolen in the past, her first reaction was to fight back. “I thought to myself, no, I’m not giving you my bag,” she says. “But then I realised there was a gun pointed in my face and I started to scream.”
The next minutes unfolded in slow motion. She dropped her bag, got back on her feet and started to run. Her friend, who had been shoved into the back seat of the car, managed to free herself and followed her. As Maja looked back, one of the men picked up her keys and the three drove away, leaving her bag on the ground.
Fifteen minutes later, the police arrived and Maja and her friend were taken to a nearby station, where they filed a report. At midnight, a friend came to take them to his place.
Since then, Maja says she hasn’t felt safe in Brussels. She’s changed the locks in her apartment and is getting psychological help from a victim organisation, but the recovery, she says, is a slow and excruciating process. “I suffer from frequent panic attacks and I get startled by loud noises. Now I always make sure my car is locked, even when I’m inside. But there are still times when I’m waiting at a red light and I just freeze up.”
'When there's a gun pointed in your face, don't worry about your car or bag'
The carjacking occurred a few blocks from one of the main buildings of the European Commission, where Amira S has just finished teaching her self-defence class.
“Running away was the right decision,” she says when I recount Maja’s experience. “When there’s a gun pointed in your face, don’t worry about your car or your bag. Just give up the keys, save your life.”
Krav Maga, the self-defence system that the Hungarian teaches in her free time, was developed in the 1930s to protect the Jewish community living in the ghetto of Bratislava. “It was later picked up by the Israeli military, but in the 80s it was adapted for civilians,” she explains. “It’s a very basic technique that can be taught in a matter of weeks. You use your natural reflexes and simple movements that are all about efficiency.”
When your life is at risk, flee. But when you’re being attacked, she says, “try to kick their genital area before you run away. Use the element of surprise. The attacker doesn’t suspect that you can defend yourself. Use objects like your bag as a weapon.”
Be aware of your surroundings, she continues. “Don’t put your handbag on the passenger seat; lock the doors. When someone breaks the window, there isn’t much you can do in terms of prevention. Your instinct will tell you to reach for the bag and try to wrestle it away. But don’t actually do it, just punch the attacker in the face.”
Since she began training five years ago, she’s never had to put her skills to use. “The European neighbourhood doesn’t have the best reputation, but I definitely feel safer now than ever before. I’m not afraid to walk alone after dark, though I still wouldn’t advise it.”
Make a noise
Last summer, UK expat Pauline was walking home one night with a friend near Cinquantenaire Park. Deep in conversation, she didn’t notice two teenagers who crept up behind them and snatched her bag, running off down the street ahead of her.
“It all happened so quickly,” she says. “My first reaction was to chase after them. But I didn’t just run, I started screaming, they’ve stolen my bag, they’ve stolen my bag, as loud as I could.” Her partner, a former police officer, has always advised her to make as much noise as possible when being attacked. “You have to shock the attackers, he’d tell me.”
By the time she reached Avenue de Cortenbergh, she had lost sight of the two teenagers, but continued to make a noise, even stopping car traffic in the process. “There were people coming out of the nearby mosque. They told me they’d seen them run down the street on the right, so I continued running in that direction, shouting and screaming.”
As it was getting too dark for her to see, she was about to give up the chase. “The next thing I knew, two guys from the mosque came running towards me with my bag. I was lucky there were other people around who were decent enough to help me. I think my screaming is what alerted them.”
She decided not to go to the police and, in retrospect, thinks she could have prevented the whole ordeal. “I was carrying a clutch bag under my arm, which was a bit careless. If I was travelling in a city I didn’t know, I would have put the strap around my neck and I would be holding on to the bag more firmly. But I think when you’re in a more familiar place, you let your guard down. Ever since that night, I’ve been much more careful.”
It wasn’t the first time she’d experienced or witnessed criminal activity in Brussels. “In the street where I live, which is very near the EU institutions, if you forget to lock your car at night, chances are anything in your glove compartment will be gone by the next morning. I’ve seen groups of young guys walking around at night, trying every car door. It’s a regular occurrence.” Still, she adds, Brussels feels no more dangerous than her native London.
Three years ago, a member of the Brussels Parliament compared the European capital to the dystopian universe of A Clockwork Orange, where youth gangs engage in ruthless acts of violence to kill their time. That same year, the UN published a report that ranked Brussels as the second most violent city in Western Europe.
How does Brussels compare?
But a study released this year by the global consulting firm Mercer paints a more positive picture. The Brussels region was assessed on the overall aspects of personal safety, drawing on a range of factors, including internal stability, crime figures and performance of local law enforcement. As the 21st safest metropolitan area in the world, it outperformed other cities such as London, Paris and New York.
Police statistics also show an overall decline in crime rates. In 2000, the earliest available data, the Brussels region saw 6,810 reported car thefts, including 311 carjackings, and 1,674 reported purse snatches. Last year, the figures were 1,220, 49 and 330 respectively.
On average, the Montgomery police zone experiences the least crime, while the city centre zone, which also includes Ixelles and is the most populous, the most. The overall decline is attributed primarily to the police reform of 2000, which reduced the number of police zones in Brussels to six and dissolved the much-criticised gendarmerie.
Even with the terrorist attacks, this year is predicted to be the safest one yet. Experts say this is due to the raised threat level, which has increased police presence throughout Brussels, discouraging criminal activity.
Other explanations are a lot simpler. Ellen Van Dael, a statistics analyst for the public prosecutor’s office, says criminals haven’t suddenly become better behaved, just lazier. “Young people are not going out in the evening anymore,” she says. “They are staying in front of their computer on Facebook, which means they are committing fewer crimes.”
'There's nothing the police can do'
Lauren A is a Canadian expat living in Brussels. Overall, she says she feels relatively safe here, but points to a pressing matter, which she says hasn’t been given enough public attention.
“Men of all ages come up to me on the street, trying to start a conversation, telling me how beautiful I am and asking me for my name, or following and shouting at me,” she says. “Most recently, an older, well-dressed man in a really expensive car drove by and told me to get in, asking how much money it would cost.”
She says it’s a widespread issue, but one that isn’t addressed effectively. “It’s scarier at night, but it happens during the day as well. I work in various locations in the city and one of the most frequent hotspots is in Etterbeek at around midday. It’s so strange. In toronto it happens almost entirely during the evening, but here, there’s no real distinction.”
The safest option, she says, is to ignore the comments completely and keep walking. “It may not be very satisfying and might be embarrassing, but it’s definitely better than engaging with them.” She has never reported the incidents to the police either. “I don’t think there is anything they can do, really.”
In 2012, Sofie Peeters, a student at Brussels’ RItS film school, released a documentary called Femme de la rue, which brought the issue of sexual harassment to public attention. Using a hidden camera, she recorded being harassed and intimidated by men in the streets of central Brussels. In one scene, a man walks alongside her on the pavement, asking her repeatedly to have a drink with him. “At my place, of course, not at a cafe. Or at a hotel, in bed,” he says.
The film prompted widespread discussion in the government and led to a law, passed in 2014, that made it illegal to sexually harass people, including on the streets and on social media. Anyone found guilty faces up to one year in prison or a maximum fine of €1,000.
This article first appeared in The Bulletin Newcomer, autumn 2016