Welcome to the fourteenth edition of the V-Europe newsletter. This week’s newsletter is written by Nicolas Estienne, a lawyer for many civil parties during this trial as a member of V-Europe’s defence team.
The victim and bereaved families’ testimonies continued over the past week before the Assize Court. They were very emotional and intense, conducted with great dignity. The President welcomed all those called to testify with a lot of empathy and respect. As for the jurors (there are still 31 of them), they followed the hearings with the necessary attention, some of them at times unable to hide their tears.
All the defendants, including Salah ADBESLAM, attended the hearings, except Bilal EL MAKHOUKI who was absent due to illness (justified by a medical certificate) on the 15th and 16th of March.
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Table of contents
- Monday 13 March - Thursday 16 March: testimonies of civil parties
Monday 13 March: testimonies civil parties
At the start of the hearing, the counsel for one of the defendants communicated the judgment rendered that same morning by the Court of Appeal of Brussels in the context of the summary proceedings opposing certain defendants to the Belgian State regarding the issue of "strip" searches to which they are subjected during their transfers from Haren prison to Justitia.
The Court of Appeal finds, prima facie, that the kneeling imposed on the defendants during body searches carried out by the police on the occasion of their transfers are devoid of legal basis and orders the Belgian State to put an end to this practice, under penalty of a penalty payment from the day of the judgment's notification by a bailiff.
Some may legitimately be surprised that the Court of Appeal has thus sided with the defendants. Nevertheless, its decision, legally very motivated, should make it possible to restore greater serenity in the ongoing debates before the Assize Court and, hopefully, to encourage the defendants to cooperate more during their interrogations. It will also be necessary to verify how the Minister of Justice will concretely follow up on this decision, the defendants having confirmed that they had still been subjected to kneeling after March 13.
The first witness called to the stand was Ms Katarina VIKTORSSON, daughter of Mrs. Berit VIKTORSSON, who died in Zaventem. Mrs. Katarina VIKTORSSON was very emotional throughout her testimony.
She began by recalling how close she was to her mother. On 19th March 2016, Katarina's mother came to Belgium to celebrate her cousin Tina's 50th birthday, with whom Katarina had worked as an au pair. Berit had her return flight to Sweden on 22nd March early in the morning.
Katarina explained that on the surveillance videos, her mother can be seen heading towards the check-in counters because she insisted on printing her boarding pass on paper despite having it on her phone. She is then seen running to save herself. It turns out that she was actually running next to the second suicide bomber, and a few seconds later, a ball of fire is seen, after which the signal is lost.
It was only several days after the attacks (on Saturday) that Katarina received confirmation that her mother had died. The pathologist at the hospital in Leuven confirmed to her that her mother had died on the spot, that she had not suffered because she had no smoke in her lungs. She decided to see her mother's body. Only her hands and arms were visible, her head was bandaged because, according to the pathologist, she had "received a projectile to the skull."
Today, Katarina feels torn between being "in pieces" and being a "warrior." She oscillates between anger and sadness. For almost 7 years, she has not been living, she has only been surviving, thanks solely to her children. Katarina ended her testimony with a letter written by her eldest son's teacher, who has been getting worse since 2022. The teacher explained that Gabriel has not only lost his grandmother, but also his innocence, that he is still abnormally sad and has become an adult more quickly than he should have, notably because he had to take care of his younger brother when his mother was not strong enough...
The morning continued with the testimony of Mr Pierre-Yves DESAIVE. He explained that he quickly felt illegitimate to complain because he was not physically injured at the airport and developed a "survivor's guilt". He invests a lot in the press, notably with other victims, to somewhat fill this feeling of illegitimacy.
The afternoon began with the testimony of Ms Valérie MBOKANGA, who had been working in a snack bar at the airport for 10 years. On the day of the explosion, she was working in the dining area. She was not physically injured, but all that remains in her head is a "war zone." After talking to the police during the investigation, she learned that she had served the terrorists shortly before the double explosion and had spoken with the "man with the hat" (ABRINI) who was on the phone at that time. She had not noticed anything special: for her, they were three tourists.
It was then Ms Mbelenge GBAKO who was heard by the Court. She was an assistant manager at Exki at the airport. She was not physically injured but remains deeply psychologically marked. Today she forgives the terrorists because she wants to move forward and no longer live in fear.
The afternoon continued with the hearing of the JANSSENS - DE BACKER couple. At the time of the explosion, the couple had already passed the security checks and were no longer in the departure hall. Mrs. JANSSENS saw bloodied people passing by her and she was paralyzed, sitting on a bench continuing to eat her breakfast. She felt out of reality, "as if it was a movie".
Even today, she is crushed by the guilt of not having done anything to help others. She emphasized the considerable impact of the attack on her family life as she no longer considers herself a good mother to her children or a good wife. She does not dare to call herself a victim since she was simply sitting on a bench, paralyzed. She can no longer eat because with every bite, she sees herself on that bench, eating and doing nothing ("I disgust myself"). She must therefore be fed with a tube.
Mrs. JANSSENS made a request for euthanasia "which was, to her deepest regret, refused". Today, if she is still alive, it is only for her husband and children. She should be grateful to be alive, but she is not. According to her, some of the accused are in a cell but it is by their own choice. As for her, she "feels locked up against her will in life".
The last witness of the day was Mr Alphonse YOULA, who worked in baggage security at the airport. He was not physically injured but helped several injured victims. Today, he remains haunted by what happened. He regrets not having saved more people. He does not sleep well, has nightmares, and cries regularly. He has cut himself off from the world, without friends, without family. He has a feeling of mistrust against absolutely everyone.
Tuesday 14 March: testimonies of civil parties
The day began with the hearing of Ms Sylvie INGELS who was present at Zaventem with her husband, Abdallah, returning from Thailand. She had left the airport but went back to the departure hall to go to the toilet. The first bomb exploded behind her as she was leaving the toilet. The second bomb then exploded in front of her. She thought she was going to die but was able to get up and go outside to find her husband and they drove home.
Ms INGELS continues to suffer from many health problems due to her psychological trauma. For her, the terrorists did not physically kill her, but they destroyed her psychologically, as well as her whole family. She no longer lives, she tries to survive.
The President then mentioned the memory of Jingquan DENG, who died at Zaventem and whose parents unfortunately could not travel from China to testify at the trial.
The morning continued with the hearing of Ms Orphée VAN DEN BUSCHE, the first victim to testify for the Maelbeek bombing where she was seriously injured (including burns to her face and very disabling hearing damage).
Orphée was a young mother and had just opened a hair salon. She has very few memories of the explosion: "My head and body protect me from that moment." When she returned home, her 2-year-old son did not recognise her because she had bandages all over her head. Regarding her tinnitus, she emphasizes: "I have no respite with this." She also points out that because of her hearing sequelae, she can no longer practice scuba diving, which was a passion for her ("Diving is just magical"): "It's the only thing the terrorists could break in me."
Orphée then explains that it is difficult for her to accept her legitimacy to be alive. After fear, anger also set in her. Rather than against the terrorists, she focused it more on medical exams and procedures to be treated and compensated. She says she would have preferred to lose an arm or a leg because it would have been easier to justify to doctors from insurance companies "who throw a pen on the floor to see if you can pick it up." She describes her state of hyper-vigilance, constant fatigue, fear of noise and crowds: "The enemy is invisible."
Orphée eventually had to close her hair salon, with debts left behind, and her job "now is to be a mom." For her, "everyone thinks I'm fine. But it's the Wonder Woman costume, for family, children, and others. At night, I find myself in the dark, everything is scary."
At the end of her testimony, Orphée stated that she does not forgive the terrorists because "only God is merciful and I do not seek to understand their actions." She emphasizes that they did not win because there is a great solidarity among the victims. She hopes that the judgment that will be rendered will serve as an example.
Ms Kaddouj RIFFI was then called to the stand. She was working at the airport as a security agent at the time of the attack and was able to help several people evacuate to the tarmac. She returned to work at the airport after a few days, but then collapsed psychologically, never being able to resume her professional activity again, her health deteriorating significantly due to the trauma suffered: "Today, I vegetate in my armchair. I can no longer sleep in a bed. At my daughter's wedding, I was there like a Buddha." Her great suffering is no longer being able to help her daughters when they need her: "I have made my daughters suffer."
In the early afternoon, the Court heard from Ms Valerie VERVOORT, who was at the airport with her 5-month-old baby and was close to the second explosion. Beyond her hearing damage, it is mainly her psychological consequences that remain "a scar engraved for eternity," the trauma being omnipresent in her.
Mr Youssef SOLHI, accompanied by his wife Ms. Corinne ROUSSEAU, was then able to be heard. He was the coach of a team of young teenagers in Eupen who were supposed to leave for Barcelona for a tournament. The team members were supposed to meet around 8 am in front of the large departure board in the airport hall. After the explosions, he first went out to hide, but then returned to the airport to help different people, while worrying about "his kids" because they didn't know where they were (none of them were physically injured).
His wife, on the other hand, expressed the very great guilt that still haunts her husband: "Why did others die and not me?"
The day ended with the hearing of Ms Marie LAMBLIN, sister of Claire LAMBLIN, who was present at the airport at the arrivals level and who also retains great psychological suffering from the events.
Wednesday 15 March: testimonies of civil parties
The day began with the testimony of Ms Nathalie DEXPERT, who was at the arrivals level at the time of the explosions. As the doors to the baggage reclaim area closed, she expressed her fear that the terrorists would come in and kill everyone with automatic weapons, as happened on November 13, 2015 at the Bataclan. She suffers from a phobia of ceilings because she saw many elements of the airport ceilings falling. She has since developed several OCDs. It was especially the day after the attack that she began to realize the psychological trauma she had suffered: terror had taken over her entire body and she had cried a lot ("That day was the beginning of the end of who I was before").
Nathalie also spoke about the devastating consequences of the attack on her children, while declaring: "I am ashamed to be in this state when I was not on the first floor, when I am not physically dead or injured." For her, "Zaventem is there all the time, with ups and downs."
As for the ongoing trial, it is "a real ordeal to endure", but one that will help her move forward and take back control of her life: "The defendants will never win."
Next, the family of Fabienne VANSTEENKISTE, who died at the airport where she worked at check-in, was called to the witness stand and testified for nearly an hour.
Her mother, Ms Jeannine LUYPAERT, spoke of the extreme anxiety she and other family members felt at the news of the attack, as well as the endless wait for confirmation of Fabienne's death, 3 days later. She also spoke of the immense void left by her daughter's disappearance, while emphasizing her good fortune to have a close-knit family.
Ms Jesca VAN CALSTER and Mr Laurens VAN CALSTER, Fabienne's daughter and son, praised their mother, who was a "wonderful grandma," a super kind person who helped others a lot. For Jesca, the terrorists "can go to hell. I do not forgive them. If they think they have won, they are far from it. Our love, our sense of family, is stronger than their selfishness."
Mr Thomas SAVARY, Jesca VAN CALSTER's husband, emphasized his daughter's trauma, who had a very close relationship with her grandmother Fabienne. He presented to the Court a mask made in the context of art therapy and decorated by his daughter, on the outside of which she wrote "Super Moeke" in memory of her grandmother, but on the inside of which she wrote the words that describe her suffering: "sad," "sensitive," "afraid," and "stressed." Regarding the defendants, Thomas wishes for them to be found guilty and for no one to ever speak of them again, that they be forgotten, because those we need to talk about and not forget are the victims, the survivors, and the rescuers.
For her part, Ms Zora VANSTEENKISTE, Fabienne's daughter-in-law, emphasized the distress she felt at the news of the attack and Fabienne's death, as she was a pillar of the family ("I didn't know what to say or do. Seeing the whole family suffer was very hard").
As for Mr Philippe VANSTEENKISTE, Fabienne's brother, he notably reminded everyone not to forget all the victims who do not come to testify in court: "It's not for lack of courage, but it's because they are in survival mode." He stated the 4 pillars he sees for victims, survivors: dignity, memory, truth and justice. He emphasized that the goal of Daesh and terrorist acts is to make us suffer, and he deplores that in suffering, we are somewhat stuck.
Philippe also stated, "People feel sorry for us, but it's a mistake. We try to rebuild ourselves to reintegrate into society as best as possible. It's the most beautiful gesture we can make against terrorism." He also emphasized that if there is no request for forgiveness from the accused, it is difficult to forgive them.
The morning ended with the hearing of Ms Maryse MASSET, a member of the STIB staff who was at the Arts-Loi metro station when the explosion occurred at Maelbeek. She immediately went to the exit of the Maelbeek station and the sight of the many victims evacuated by the emergency services still haunts her today. She also feels a great sense of guilt, especially towards her children, having become, according to her, an "unworthy mother who has locked herself in her own bubble" because of the attack.
The afternoon opened with the testimony of Ms Cindy BUELENS, who was driving the metro train in the opposite direction of the one that exploded at Maelbeek. She explained that she started from the Arts-Loi station, seeing in the distance the Maelbeek station and the headlights of the train that was stopped there. Then she heard a huge noise and saw nothing in front of her. Although the power was cut off due to the explosion, her train continued to move forward and approached Maelbeek station about 30 meters away. She saw people and bodies on the tracks. She immediately thought of a terrorist attack and immediately applied the safety instructions to evacuate her metro passengers on foot to Arts-Loi.
Cindy described the very significant psychological aftermath that she experienced: "I became a zombie. It feels like our life was taken away from us."
Next, a man full of suffering came to testify: Mr Christian DELHASSE, the driver of the metro train that exploded at Maelbeek. He had been a metro driver for over 30 years and had returned to work the day after the attacks. He appeared "solid" but two years later, he broke down, "solid and deep." Christian meticulously recounted everything he could do in the minutes following the explosion. He evacuated the passengers from the first car through a window and guided them towards the escalator leading to the exit; seeing that the second car was "destroyed," he went to the third car to evacuate passengers through the other exit so that they would not have to pass in front of the second car; he then entered the second car where he "did not know where to start." He notably helped a mother find her baby. Despite the incredible bravery he demonstrated, Christian remains devastated by guilt because, for him, the driver of a metro is responsible for the safety of his passengers.
The President reminded him that he had absolutely nothing to blame himself for, that he had not made any piloting mistakes. However, for Christian, life no longer has meaning and he no longer wants to live.
At the end of the day, the Court also heard from Mr Louis VANARDOIS, accompanied by his mother, Ms Marie-Hélène POTTIER. Louis VANARDOIS was the partner of Ms ATLEGRIM, a 30-year-old Swede who died in Maelbeek.
He shared the "very laborious" grieving process he went through, with a first phase of denial and avoidance, followed by a very difficult phase of reconstruction during which he was hospitalized twice for PTSD. He stated: "The terrorists kidnapped the most precious person from me. But I refuse to let them kidnap my life, my psychology, my philosophy. My goal is not to forget but to devote myself to me. I refuse to be paralyzed again, to live under the influence of terror."
Thursday 16 March 2023: testimonies of civil parties
The day began with the testimony of Mr Pierre BASTIN and Eric BASTIN. These are the father and brother of Ms Aline BASTIN, who died in the metro at Maelbeek.
Aline's father began by reading a beautiful poem by Prévert. He then spoke about the last telephone conversation between Aline and her mother, which took place at 9pm on the evening before the attacks: Her mother had said to her "tomorrow you will be very happy, make yourself beautiful and see you tomorrow" because Aline was supposed to sign the deed of purchase for her apartment on March 22, 2016 at noon.
Several days passed between the explosion and the moment the family received confirmation of Aline's death: "We were no longer living, we were like robots. What pain not to know, we stand but we don't know how. We feel like we're on a slippery slope. Our reason tells us there is no reason to hope, but our heart tells us the opposite. It's terrible to wait, to still wait, when we have little hope left. Where are you, Aline?".
Pierre BASTIN ended his testimony by saying: "Next week, I will go to Maelbeek to pay my respects for the 7th consecutive year. You took the life of my daughter and almost destroyed mine and my wife's. But you will not have my hatred. I am proud that you are defended by great lawyers and judged by an impartial jury as provided for by the rule of law, the rule of law that you wanted to destroy. In reality, I pity you. You will not have my hatred but you will not have my forgiveness either. I don't even know if forgiveness interests you. You only spoke this year about the conditions of your transfers. You are a group, bound by strong ties of friendship and ideology. At the end of this trial, the invisible thread that connects us will be broken forever. You and I share the same human nature. You are the same age as Aline (if she were still alive). So I will wish you the best possible outcome, to understand the mechanism by which you could end up here, because only that will make you free".
As for Eric BASTIN, Aline's older brother, he expressed his anger towards certain politicians who directly or indirectly contributed to the return of Oussama ATAR. How is it possible to have "been so stupid, to have lacked so much humility"? He is also deeply saddened and disgusted by how the victims of terrorism have been abandoned by the Belgian State, left without assistance, forced to struggle with insurance companies over compensation.
The President also read the joint testimony of Aline's parents since the mother was not present. In this testimony, Aline's mother said, "I am anesthetized by my pain."
The morning continued with the testimony of the family of Mr Yves CIYOMBO, a young man of Congolese origin who died in Maelbeek. Yves was the eldest of five siblings. Before the attacks, Yves' parents and sister lived in Congo. He was an example for his brothers and sister, both in his studies and in their upbringing. He instilled in them the importance of taking life seriously: "Yves had this thing of always wanting to take care of everyone." At 23, Yves - who had come to Belgium to study - was already married and had a child. In addition to his family life, he also took care of his brother who was studying at university in Mons.
Yves' sister, Ornella, described the weeks following her brother's death as follows: "When we heard the news, my mother stopped eating. I learned that my father had tried to go to the electrical cabin to electrocute himself because the pain was so great. I had to manage my parents alone when I was only 13 years old. They didn't want to eat or drink. I couldn't come to Belgium for the funeral. I stayed alone in Congo, alone, without my parents, without my brothers. I always hid my feelings. Today is the first time they see me cry. I wanted to show them my strength. I wanted to stay strong for them. My parents have changed so much. My mother no longer has the joy she had before. They force themselves to pretend to be happy because they have 4 children and grandchildren left, but Yves was the head of this family's locomotive."
The floor is then given to Yves' parents:
- The mother: "I suffer for the rest of my life, my life ended on March 22, 2016."
- The father: "They are here, they can see us and hear us, but we can no longer see or hear Yves. I told my wife that we had to stay and live in Belgium for Yves' children. Yves is constantly in our heads, in everything we do we see Yves."
The end of the morning was dedicated to the hearing of Christian and Jessie MANZANZA MAYIKANZI (brothers and sister). Christian was in the second subway car that exploded and he was severely injured: "I can see the reflection of my burnt face and hands in a mirror". His daughter was born 3 months after the events.
For him, "there is one missing accused, the Belgian State, who became an accomplice through negligence. Today, I feel like I'm closing a chapter, I want to focus on my family, on my children." Jessie then took the floor to specify that, in her opinion, no response from the accused or their defense could explain or justify what happened that day.
After the break, the Court heard the testimony of the relatives of Mélanie DEFIZE, who died in the subway at the age of 29. Her mother, Marie-Andrée LEFER, spoke first, with a lot of emotion: "I had only one desire, to collapse and let despair overwhelm me. The brain goes on standby. I went through all the stages of mourning, anger, abyssal sadness. As a mother, I felt like I had lost the best part of myself. It's unbearable for me to know that she experienced such a cruel death in such a chaos of suffering without being able to hold her hand." Mélanie hated violent noises and bad smells, so it is unbearable for her mother to know that she died in these conditions of horror for her.
Mélanie's brother, Thomas DEFIZE, described his sister as a gentle, passionate, gifted person, driven by a thirst for learning. "I realized she was gone when I put my hand on her cold forehead." The death of his sister destroyed his parents and he tried to be a support for them. He couldn't collapse because he became the father of twins two months after his sister's death. But this only postponed the mourning. Everything came to the surface later. To the accused, he wished to say: "I am sad and angry but you will not have my hatred, I was raised in tolerance. That's how I raise and will continue to raise my children. There will be no forgiveness because it is not for me to forgive but for Mélanie, who is no longer here to do so. To obtain forgiveness, one must first express regrets."
He ends his testimony with Mélanie's epitaph: "Music is the only religion that neither threatens nor promises."
Cédric HUSTINX, Mélanie's employer at a classical record label, was able to explain that he spent the evening of March 21, 2016 with her at the Octaves de la Musique and that on the evening of March 22, 2016, he was supposed to attend the Cécilia Prize ceremony at the Monnaie Opera with her. For him, "they killed a musician but they did not silence the music," adding that he feels it is ignorance that led to barbarism, and therefore education is important. He specified that he is part of the 3rd circle of victims, namely friends, roommates, and colleagues.
The last testimony of the day was given by Ms Anne-Sophie CLOQUET. Madame CLOQUET was in the 4th car of the metro that exploded. She used to get into the middle carriage, but that morning she felt tired and got into the last carriage. She describes an unbearable smell, she was choking, and with each breath, she felt a burning sensation... She had the impression of living a scene from a war. She was afraid that there were other armed terrorists who would enter the carriage to leave no survivors: "I feel like a fictional character in a war video game. We all moved forward in rhythm like soldiers, like robots. Some victims have faces full of nails." She mentioned the "impostor syndrome" and described herself as a strong survivor rather than a victim.
At the end of the hearing, the memory of Olivier DELESPESSE, who died in the Maelbeek metro, was evoked by reading the moral inquiry of Olivier's mother and brother.
Support and representation
V-Europe provides support to any victim of terrorism who requests it. At least one of our coordinators is present every day at the trial, wearing a distinctive white jacket with the V-Europe logo on the back. Feel free to let them know you are there if you wish. More information about our coordinators can be found on the V-Europe website, by calling this number:
Do you want to be represented at the trial? V-Europe has set up a group of lawyers who defend the victims during the trial. Guillaume Lys, Nicolas Estienne, Adrien Masset and Sanne de Clerck are joining forces to defend you during this long trial. More information here or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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