23 March 2016
Yesterday morning, as I walk to my office in Geneva, I hear there have been terror attacks in Europe again. Bombs exploded in Brussels. Quickly getting behind my desk, I start reading the news. I easily imagine the small Zaventem airport, as I was there in August. I start crying where I sit as I watch the eyewitness video clips that start appearing on news sites and on Twitter. The upsetting images of people running, to get away from the source of destruction, touch me deeply.
For a few hours my work demands my full attention, so when I start reading analyses later, I realise that the vice grip on my heart has started to ease its hold. I can breathe normally again and I realise I took my blazer off when reading the earlier news, and I am cold. I go to make a cup of tea and continue working, but there is always an open tab on Chrome updating itself. I cannot distance myself completely from the events on this continent.
I reflect that the tightness around my heart is familiar, it’s what I last experienced in the final hours of 13 November 2015 when the explosions happened in Paris. At the time I was home alone in my sublet in France. It took me a while to realise I was living in a country that declared a state of emergency. It is a concept I associate with the 1980s in South Africa, not with Europe. Adrenaline kept me awake till late in the night. At first I spoke with family in Australia and then with a friend in Brazil. It helped me calm down. In moments like those I am deeply grateful to Skype.
My brother departs for Europe in a week’s time. Yesterday I said to him: “Bro, the fear you experience in Europe is of a different type” and I tell him about the new experiences I gained in the past year and a few months I have spent in Europe. There was the attack in Copenhagen and for a few hours I struggled to reach a friend. In the Netherlands there were suspect incidents on trains and station evacuations (although I am critical of the USA’s involvement in those stories). Even after I exchanged my frontalier lifestyle for a flat in Geneva within view of the UN buildings, there were so-called suspect activities here too. Men with big guns and strict gazes appeared on the street. I really don’t like guns.
I am very happy in Europe. There is plenty that makes building a life here for the long(er) term attractive: beautiful architecture around every corner, I can attend concerts covering a diverse taste in music, I escape the February heat of the Boland, travelling is easy and there is a large portion of anonymity that my 25 year old soul seeks. It makes sense to let my career take root here. It’s a good place to live because your friends come here for exchange programmes, conferences and holidays and so, from time to time, you get to explore Europe together.
What I would like to emphasize is something that few Europeans can comprehend: I feel less safe here than in South Africa. At home I have a fair idea of what to avoid in terms of behaviour and location, and I should be fine getting from A to B. Yes, while my family and I were asleep, our house was burgled, but a bomb in the city? Here, walking home alone at night is not a cause for concern, but I frequently visit what are terror target areas. Even though South Africa has high mortality figures due to, amongst other things, gun violence, I experience these random attacks differently. I know it is in part because I grew up in the seat of white privilege, Stellenbosch. However, that does not blind me to the often violent culture that reigns “at home”, in South Africa, especially towards women. It is about known limits of risk. I am planning a trip to Istanbul - in Turkey terrorist attacks are more common than in Western Europe, especially lately. And through my job I am going to Israel and Palestine - there people’s lives are in danger on a daily basis. I am sincerely grateful that my known limits of risk are not that of the Palestinian people. Wow. What a life. It touches me deeply, also.
This morning I read an article by a Lebanese-born man in Brussels, pleading in Flemish that the terrorists should not be allowed to win, that we should not let fear reign over our lives. Of course I agree with him. Still, at times I shake like a leaf, even in Geneva, city of peace. Is Europe losing some of its mock-idyllic identity? Fear of the foreign or the faceless risk is not something that we know well, not here. As substitute there is fear of the face associated with the risks, and I cringe when I read what people write, think and believe about the so-called foreigners. In the past years I have witnessed at least as much blatant, unrefined-by-subtlety racism in Europe as in South Africa. Last October in Amsterdam, I took part in the march to call on the Dutch government to take in more refugees with enthusiasm. It was a cheery event. When I contrast the images of that day with the faces of people walking from Greece to Germany, there is so much sadness in the hearts and faces of those saying goodbye to their homes. My fellow demonstrators were joyful. How does one look past the sadness of the refugees and see only risk? Where is the imagination, the empathy, the crying together over destruction of hearth and home?
Europe is more complex than a 10-day Kontiki tour will let you see. If you’re coming here to escape the South African complexity, you are conning yourself.