BRUSSELS—In the days since Islamic State suicide bombers attacked the Brussels airport, survivor Walter Benjamin has been plugging away on Facebook from his hospital room, sharing his story, telling loved ones not to worry.
He has met the king of Belgium, the queen, and the country’s chief rabbi—but it was an airport technician who made the biggest impression.
Hassan Elouafi stepped over corpses at the airport to hand Benjamin a telephone so he could call his mother and tell her he was alive. At a time when many Muslims are being demonized because of the actions of a few, Benjamin feels the need to tell Elouafi’s story.
“Hassan cried in my arms and told me, ‘I am so happy to see you alive.’ His name is Hassan, he is a Belgian Muslim, father of four children, technician at Brussels airport. THIS MAN IS NOT A TERRORIST,” Benjamin, who is Jewish, wrote in one Facebook post. “He acted as a normal human being. He is a Mensch. I will plant a tree in Israel for him, his wife, and his children.”
In a daily recounting of his convalescence, the 47-year-old matchmaker for a dating agency has become the voice of the wounded, offering a firsthand look at the suffering and triumphs of those who survived the March 22 bombings that killed 32 others.
Through all this, the survivor who lost a leg in the attack is trying to heal—physically and spiritually—as he reaches out to persuade others that hating Islam is not the answer.
“One can criticize me and tell me that I am an idealist, that I first defend the Muslim community,” he told The Associated Press. “Well I don’t think I defend them only. I still think that 99.99 percent of Muslims are good people, extraordinary people, people like you and me. They are not terrorists.”
The attacks at Brussels’ main airport and on a subway train left 270 people wounded, many with severe burns and maimed limbs. A handful have already died in the hospital.
One doctor at the military hospital where many are being cared for said colleagues were accustomed to treating such wounds in soldiers but were so shocked at the carnage in Brussels they would likely need counseling.
Two weeks after the attacks, 66 people are still hospitalized in Belgium while others are being treated abroad. Foreigners from 20 nations were affected. Among them were three Mormon missionaries from Utah, two Jet Airways cabin crew members from India, and a newlywed from Germany.
Benjamin, a balding man with dark horn-rimmed glasses, was on his way to Israel to visit his daughter. A large backpack shielded his chest from the explosion and probably saved his life. Many died around him.
His heart-rending posts remind readers that many survivors are still at the very beginning of a long road to recovery. Doctors and psychologists who treat attack victims say healing the body is only the first step. More difficult is healing the spirit.
“Discharging a patient from the hospital doesn’t mean the end of care,” said Dr. David King, a trauma surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital who treated victims of the Boston marathon attacks. “There could be months, or years, or decades of physical and psychological healing that needs to take place.”
Sara Freedman, who works with survivors suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said after an attack, the people near it—even those who aren’t wounded — may suffer from nightmares and flashbacks. For many, those symptoms diminish over time. But she said 35 percent of people who experienced such an incident will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, versus 17 percent of those involved in car accidents.
It’s a unique journey for everyone, and Benjamin seems to be finding his way, post by post.
Interviewed from his hospital bed by Belgium’s RTL television network soon after the blasts, Benjamin declared that most “Muslims are extraordinary people,” and that the actions of a few should not represent the whole community. People started sharing the interview.
“After my first interview, people started posting it on social media and then the messages starting coming in,” he said. “People even send me gifts. It helps me a lot mentally. Sometimes I get glum, so I read all my messages, and I see that there is still humanity.”
Benjamin takes pictures with his nurses and describes his visitors, like the paramedic who treated him at the airport.
“I talked for an hour with Louis, the ambulance driver, and he told me in detail how that March 22 day unfolded, from the first text message informing him of an explosion inside the airport to the rescue operations,” he wrote.
Elouafi, his guardian angel, filled in other details in one of his almost-daily visits.
“Everything was darkness, people were screaming. I thought I was in a nightmare,” Elouafi said as his eyes welled up. “I saw Walter, he was suffering … Walter kept repeating: ‘I want to talk to my mum. I want to talk to my mum.’ “
To him it was the simplest of reactions. He reached for his phone for the call that will connect them forever.
Some of Benjamin’s posts have been shared thousands of times in a country still in shock over the attacks. At one point he had so many outstanding friend requests on Facebook that his profile wouldn’t accept any more. He says that has been fixed.
Nurse Diana Vandersteen jokes that when Benjamin gets out of the hospital, he’ll never lack for dinner companions because so many people want to meet him. He still gets some negative comments, but he tries not to let those get to him.
“To those whose anger is growing in their heart. Do you have a better solution than the one I am suggesting to try and be together and build bridges?” he wrote. “Walls have so far always failed to prevent growing misunderstandings.”
Benjamin is appealing for better education in Belgium’s schools to make sure new immigrants learn French, to teach them what Europe is, and how they can retain their own cultural identities even as they assimilate. He says European politicians need to address the problems of the troubled neighborhoods seen as recruiting grounds for Islamic State extremists.
He wonders what he’d ask Salah Abdeslam, the top suspect in the deadly Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, who was arrested in Brussels just four days before the airport attacks. He wants to know how this person born in Brussels ended up like this.
“I want to listen to him, to know where the flaw is—not to justify what he has done, because I lost a part of me that day,” Benjamin said. “But with what he would say, it would maybe prevent that millions of potential little Salahs end up growing up on our streets in Europe.”