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Survivors of Brussels suicide attacks seek closure at trial

Police and rescue teams outside the Maelbeek station in Brussels in 2016 (Martin Meissner/AP)
Police and rescue teams outside the Maelbeek station in Brussels in 2016 (Martin Meissner/AP)

Jaana Mettala was six months pregnant and on her way to work when the bomb exploded in the heart of Brussels’ EU quarter.

She suffered severe burns, but Ms Mettala and her baby survived – 32 other people did not.

It is more than six years since the deadliest peacetime attacks on Belgian soil and Ms Mettala seeks closure as the trial of 10 men accused of the suicide bombings at Brussels airport and an underground station gets under way on Monday.

“I hope that the trial ends with a fair result and we can put this behind us,” she said. “Even if there are after-effects that we will keep forever.”

She is going to give evidence at the trial, which will be the biggest in Belgium’s judicial history. It is expected to last between six and nine months.

Belgium Terror Attacks
The courtroom at the Justitia building in Brussels, Belgium (Stephanie Lecocq/Pool/AP)

The 10 defendants face charges including murder, attempted murder and membership of, or participation in, the acts of a terrorist group, over the morning rush hour attacks at Belgium’s main airport and on the central commuter line on March 22 2016.

If convicted, some of them could face up to 30 years in prison.

Among the accused is Salah Abdeslam, the only survivor among the so-called Islamic State extremists who in 2015 struck the Bataclan theatre in Paris, city cafes and France’s national stadium.

He was sentenced to life in prison without parole over the atrocities in the French capital.

He will be joined in the dock by his childhood friend Mohamed Abrini, who walked away from Brussels’ Zaventem airport after his explosives failed to detonate.

Abrini was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 22 years, on charges including complicity to terrorist murder, at the Paris attacks trial.

Brussels Attacks Trial
The blown-out facade of the terminal at Zaventem airport (Peter Dejong/AP)

Oussama Atar, who has been identified as a possible organiser of the deadly attacks on both Paris and Brussels, will be tried in absentia.

He is believed to have died in the Islamic State’s final months of fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Ms Mettala hopes that facing most of the accused will help her leave behind the anguish.

“It’s a step on the path toward another kind of serenity,” she said. “It will be very, very hard. But I’m not someone trying to avoid difficulty. Because you need confrontation to get stronger.”

In addition to the 32 people who died in Brussels, some 900 were hurt or suffered mental trauma.

Frederic, who asked to be identified only by his first name, was in the underground when the bomb went off.

Brussels Attacks Trial
The trial of 10 men starts in earnest this week (Martin Meissner/AP)

He said he was only slightly injured in the leg, but what he saw that day in the carriage where the device exploded keeps haunting him.

“I’ll skip the macabre details,” he said. “These are the details that remain and that are hard to get rid of. This trial will be for me the possibility to heal, to go through the grief process.”

When the bomb went off at the Maelbeek station at 9.11am, Ms Mettala was on the platform. She was badly hurt but did not lose consciousness.

She sustained serious burn injuries to her face, legs and hands and was taken to a Brussels hospital where she was prepared for urgent surgery.

She woke up a couple of days later and was transferred to a intensive care unit in the nearby town of Louvain.

“That’s when I realised that I could have died,” she recalled.

“I did not think about it when (the attack) happened. I only thought about the baby in my belly. I did not think about my injuries, I was only focused on reaching the hospital to find out whether the baby was doing fine.”

She and her newborn daughter were discharged four months later.

“She is six and a half now. She is healthy.” Ms Mettala said. “She knows I was injured when she was in my belly. And I always told her it’s she who gave me the strength.”

The trial at Nato’s former headquarters was initially expected to start in October but was pushed back to allow sufficient time to replace individual glass boxes where the defendants were expected to sit.

After defence lawyers argued that they could not consult with their clients and that the boxes make them look like animals in a cage, they have been replaced by one large cubicle shared by the defendants.