Friday, March 16, 2012

A moment of silence

One hour into today's lecture on language and text structures, the professor glanced at his watch and saw that it was nearly eleven.

We all knew what was coming. "A day of national mourning has been declared," he said (in Dutch), "for the victims of the tragedy that happened in Switzerland on Tuesday evening." He then called for a moment of silence.

The room, and the six hundred students in it, fell completely silent. The auditorium, which normally hummed with stealthy conversation, was as quiet as a tomb.

An emptiness filled the room. It was like an echo of another, more horrible kind of emptiness, one that only those directly affected by the disaster would know.

What went through our minds in those moments of silence? I remembered waking up on Wednesday morning and groggily hearing a 90s pop song crossfade into a news bulletin. A bus full of Belgian school children had crashed into a tunnel wall on the way home from a ski camp in Switzerland.

The tragedy unfolded as the day progressed. The twisted wreckage of the bus was put on display. The death toll went up to 28, 21 of which were Belgians, 6 were Dutch, and 1 was German. 22 of the victims were twelve-year-old students. Two of the survivors are still in a coma.

To say that the nation is in shock is an understatement. Prime minister Elio Di Rupo held a press conference, stating that there are no words to describe the loss of a child.

Mr. Di Rupo is right. If anyone thinks otherwise, I would ask them to look at the little caskets that arrived by plane at Melsbroek military airport this morning.

The last time I observed a moment of silence, I was alone in the room. On my computer screen was the Norwegian prime minister. He was standing on the city square in Oslo, talking to a crowd of some 100,000 people. It was three days after the bombing in Oslo and the shootings on Ut√łya. As the minute of silence went on, the screen showed long panning shots of the crowd, and a sea of flowers laid down in front of Oslo cathedral.

Last year's terrorist attack and this week's tragedy are different in many ways, but the one thing they have in common is the loss of many young lives. Nothing is worse than losing a child, something far too many of us can attest. A young life, so full of energy and potential, so irreplaceable, yet somehow not there anymore. Sometimes it's too terrible to believe. One thinks of all the years that could have been, all the wasted potential, all the dreams that were never to be. The parents live on, remembering birthdays and wondering what life might have been like, if only...

The hopeless question: Why do such things happen to children?

At the carnival in Halle this weekend, the participants have chosen to wear white ribbons as a sign of remembrance and hope for the future. My wish is that we all somehow, eventually, regain that hope. Until then, my heart goes out to all the victims of this terrible tragedy, those who were lost and the ones who are left behind.

You can read articles and watch newscasts on this topic in English on


  1. I think the loss of a human life is always tragic. Child, adult, ... Everyone leaves someone behind. I don't want to think in terms of which loss of life is worse, because every single one who dies leaves loved ones, friends, family, ... behind. No matter how old or young, every single person dying is a tragedy. Of course I realise death is an essential part (the final part) of life, but it's tragic nevertheless. Of course this event is extremely tragic as so many innocent lives were lost in one single accident. Really makes you think... enjoy every moment you can, because you never know when it will all end. To say one loss of life is worse than another, I don't exactly feel we should think in that way. Because every single death is tragic, and there should be no degrees of more or less tragic than another person who dies and leaves people behind.

    As I am not in Belgium myself I only received vague reports on the tragedy. But according to the online papers, a young girl awoke from her coma yesterday. Good to hear that at least some will survive the drama, and probably a huge sign of hope for the family of the others who still fight for their lives. I am unsure how many exactly are currently in hospital fighting for their lives but this girl awaking from coma must be a sign of hope for the others who survived the drama.

  2. Thank you for a thoughtful post about this horrific event.