23 Mar 2016

Brussels bombings hit close to home for ex-pat Kiwis

1:48 pm on 23 March 2016

As sympathy for Brussels flows from around the world following three deadly bomb blasts, New Zealanders in the city say tensions are high.

Bomb attacks at Brussels' main airport and a metro station have left more than 30 people dead.

A New Zealander in Brussels said it was scary one of the attacks in the Belgian capital happened so close to home.

Messages of support flow for Belgium

Paul Culliford, who works as a lawyer in the Belgian capital, said he heard about the attack at the Maelbeek metro station when he got to work.

Mr Culliford lives only three blocks from the station and uses the metro on the weekends.

"It's quite a scary thought, that that happened somewhere that I go so often and I guess you never think that something like that would happen so close to where you live and work and go about your daily lives.

"And to think it could happen one day when I happened to be using that - and I'm glad it didn't obviously, but it's terrible that it did happen."

Mr Culliford said the station was closed off, with police, ambulance and fire at the site.

He said the walk was more sombre and quiet than other days.

Another New Zealander who lives five minutes from the airport, Andrew Burton, said emotions were raw after the attacks.

"Zaventem is quite a small village ... a lot of the passengers from the airport have been transferred to various schools and sports halls.

"I guess we would've known that something serious had happened within about 10 or 15 minutes," he said.

Mr Burton, who works for a non-profit organisation, was taking his teenage daughters to school when fire engines sped by.

He said from that point, "everything hit the fan", and there has been huge activity from all emergency services.

"At various train stations and bus stops traffic has been either completely stopped or they've been bringing various buses dropping people off or picking them up trying to figure out where to put all the displaced people from the airport.

Two of his colleagues who were working for the Red Cross had been helping people at the airport, he said.

Three friends were also on the metro and got stopped just before Maelbeek, and were there "just about at the right time".

"At this point we don't know of anybody we know personally who's been injured which is absolutely amazing.

"The emotions are quite close to the surface, I must say."

Any New Zealanders in Brussels were urged to make contact with their families.

The Eiffel tower in Paris lights up in the Brussels national colours of black, yellow and red.

The Eiffel tower in Paris lights up in the Brussels national colours of black, yellow and red. Photo: AFP

The attacks in Brussels came as a shock, Belgium's Honorary Consul in Auckland Elizabeth Jacobs said.

"I've been able to ascertain that all the family and friends are OK, it has been very difficult to get through at times because all the cellphone networks weren't functioning properly.

"We are all in shock and people say it was inevitable... it is still very very shocking, we will be waiting and seeing what happens in the days to come," she said.

Dr Jacobs said New Zealand's small Belgian community, which officially numbers about 1,800, will be following events hour by hour.

"I think all the Belgians that are here in New Zealand are just trying to get in touch with loved ones in Belgium to make sure that their friends and their family are OK," she said

"We're a very tight-knit community, we don't get together all that often but when we do it's as if we've known each other for a long time."

Dr Jacobs said she has had a lot of messages of support from other members of the consular corps in New Zealand.

Dave Sinardet from the Free University of Brussels told Nine to Noon there was still uncertainty about what happened.

"Unfortunately of course these kind of attacks can happen anywhere, they have happened in the past already in London, Madrid, in Paris, now in Brussels - and so of course it it not just a Belgium situation, so clearly terrorism is borderless."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) said it had received no indication any New Zealanders were caught up in the Brussels attacks.

MFAT said 72 New Zealanders were registered on the Safe Travel website as being in Belgium and a message has been sent to all of them asking them to get in touch with family in New Zealand.

A spokesperson said a steady stream of positive responses has been received overnight and the New Zealand Embassy in Brussels continued to keep in close contact with the Belgian Crisis Centre.

Anyone with concerns about family members in Brussels are asked to make direct contact with them in the first instance, but can call the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on 04 439 8000.

-BBC/RNZ/Reuters