Sunday, March 15, 2015

Be on guard if you are visiting Belgium


Last Monday, March 9, I was on a flight from Philadelphia to Brussels. The reason for my business trip: I was to host a business workshop in Antwerp on Wednesday and present a talk there, too. My British Airways flight left on time in the evening of Monday to arrive the next morning in London’s Heathrow airport. Heathrow still does not have enough jetways or jet bridges, so all the passengers had to be transported by buses to Terminal 5 from our plane.

There inside the terminal I spent two hours relaxing in the Executive Lounge before my connecting flight for Brussels would leave. Since I did not have any checked out luggage it was a quick process to be in the exit lounge area of the airport. There I sent a text message to Sandy, a colleague of mine, who was supposed to be waiting for me there. Her flight was supposed to have arrived an hour earlier. But when she did not respond I started looking out for her inside the exit lounge area. She was nowhere to be found.

Spotting an empty chair next to a white European young woman, who was sitting and seemed like a passenger with a big suitcase and a small bag, I asked if it was available to put my computer bag there. She said okay. After putting my computer bag there and my carry-on bag on the floor next to the empty chair, I made a phone call to my colleague from my cell phone at 11:23 A.M. I was fortunate to find Sandy responding on the other end of the phone. She had taken a limousine that morning, which had come to pick her from the airport to Radisson Hotel in Antwerp. She said that there was another limousine driver waiting for me, too, at the airport, and that I should be able to quickly spot him under the company flag.

Hardly had I spoken for a minute with Sandy with my back to my bags when turning around I could not spot my computer bag any more on the chair. I quickly told Sandy as to what had just happened that I had possibly become a victim of an organized theft inside Brussels airport. I promptly ended my call with Sandy and asked the young girl sitting on the chair next to where my bag once belonged if she had seen anyone pick my computer bag. She said she did not. I simply could not believe her answer. It appeared so odd that someone sitting next to my computer bag would not notice such a theft unless she herself was a party to the crime. Without proof, I can’t, of course, accuse her of committing the theft or being a party to the crime gang. I ran towards the main exit gate to spot anyone carrying my computer bag, but could not find anyone. I tried to find anyone sitting or walking inside the exit lounge with my bag, but could not find anyone. I inquired about police.

Sadly, no police was available on the main floor, near the crime scene. So, I searched for the airport Information desk. The lady in the counter told me to go upstairs and find the police office. It was not an easy find and took precious minutes away when I ultimately found the security police office in one corner. After dialing a number and mentioning that my computer bag got stolen, the door to the office opened up and a police officer by the name of De Ruysscher let me in. He took the theft report from me. I told him exactly the time when the crime probably had taken place since my smart phone could provide me the precise time when I had made the call to Sandy. He said that the airport has security cameras and might be able to find the image of the criminal. In spite of my request to visit the crime spot, he declined to come down saying that he knew the spot well. He appeared helpful though and dialed my company’s computer Helpdesk office to seek information on serial number of my laptop computer. After nearly spending an hour with him, I came down again looking out for my computer. By that time, the young girl was nowhere to be found.

I was able to find the limousine driver waiting for me and disclosed to him as to what had happened to me. He was not surprised saying that shortly after I had lost my computer bag there was a Chinese traveler who also lost his bag. Apparently, the Brussels airport is one of the most insecure airports in the Europe with some organized crime gangs operating unscathed inside who victimize un-mindful passengers.

I was told as Brussels had become the center of the European Union the crimes in the city had skyrocketed for at least a decade. I surely fit into the mold of a targeted victim who seemed more interested to spot my colleague than minding my bags. I trusted the young white European girl to be on the watch while I turned my back to her while making call to Sandy. It is possible that she herself put my bag inside her large suitcase while I was talking with Sandy. God knows what truly happened and who did it! But I can’t ignore the possibilities. Although the idea of taking her picture with my phone camera did come to my mind, I did not take any picture. There were many Africans also sitting in the exit lounge of the airport, as were other Europeans. Anyone of them could be part of such an organized crime gang victimizing passengers.

I have been a frequent traveler for nearly a quarter century. Never before was I a victim of theft inside an airport although I had heard of similar stories from others traveling into various European cities, esp. Rome, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona and Athens. Although all the countries of South Asia are poor, in any of my more frequent trips there over the last four decades, I did not face theft personally or know of anyone being a victim of theft inside the airports there. As a very cautious traveler I have always been on my guard but did not realize that it was my turn to become a victim. And where else but Brussels for that rude awakening!

As a former colony of other European countries and herself once a colonizer of vast territories in Africa, e.g., Belgian Congo (Zaire/Congo) and Rwanda, the Kingdom Belgium –sandwiched between Germany and Holland – is trying to find her true identity these days. It is a founding member of the European Union and hosts the EU's headquarters as well as those of several other major international organizations such as the NATO. With a population of nearly 11 million people, it is roughly one-fifth the size of Bangladesh. It is home to two main linguistic groups: the Dutch-speaking, mostly Flemish community, which constitutes about 59% of the population, and the French-speaking, mostly Walloon population and Brussels inhabitants, which comprises 41% of all Belgians. Additionally, there is a small group of German-speakers who are officially recognized. Although Roman Catholicism has traditionally been Belgium's majority religion, only a quarter of the Belgians today claim to be Catholic these days.

I reached Antwerp, which with a population of half a million people is by far the most populous Belgian city, shortly after 2 p.m. on Tuesday. On my way I noticed many Hasidic Jews living in the city. The city also has a sizable number of Turkish and other Muslims. The Antwerp metropolitan area is currently the second largest in Belgium. The city is located on the river Scheldt, which is linked to the North Sea by the Westerschelde estuary. The Port of Antwerp is one of the biggest ports in the world, ranking third in Europe and within the top 20 globally. The city has many historical landmarks including churches and the municipal city hall building.

We were invited by the city mayor to visit the city hall, which is inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Erected in 1565, it was observing its 550th year anniversary. A tour guide showed us many parts of the city detailing its rich history.

Before leaving the city for my return trip to Philadelphia on Friday morning, all the inquiries from the hotel about my stolen laptop to the airport police office turned out negative: they were not able to find anything. That tells a lot about how insecure and unsafe Brussels airport has become.


So, if you are visiting Brussels: be on your guard. Apparently the city has become also the crime capital for theft in Europe!

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