Updated 15 April 2016

Stop hating: Brussels bombing survivor shares his story

Walther Benjamin survived the Brussels bombing and has taken his story to Facebook where he's urging people to stop hating and start healing.


While still holed up in a hospital in Brussels, bombing survivor Walter Benjamin started sharing his story on Facebook, urging his loved ones and friends to stop worrying. 

Although he's the king and queen of Belgium as well as the country's chief rabbi, he's been most impressed by an airport technician, Hassan Elouafi, who stepped over corpses at the airport to hand him a phone so that he could call his mother.

Walter, who lost a leg in the terrorist attack, wants more than anything to tell Elouafi's story at a time when many Muslims are being demonised because of the actions of a few.

"Hassan cried in my arms and told me, 'I am so happy to see you alive.'

Hassan is a Belgian Muslim, father of four children and a technician at Brussels airport. Benjamin is a Jew. 

THIS MAN IS NOT A TERRORIST," Benjamin 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."

They are not all terrorists

Walter, who is 47-year-old and a 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.

He passionately is reaching 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. 

The attacks at Brussels' main airport and on a subway train left 270 people wounded, many with severe burns and maimed limbs. Some 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 crewmembers from India and a newlywed from Germany.

He was on his way to Israel

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 an act of terrorism will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, versus 17 percent of those involved in car accidents.

Benjamin was interviewed from his hospital bed by Belgium's RTL television network soon after the blasts. He told them that most "Muslims are extraordinary people," and that the actions of a few should not represent the whole community.

"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.

Image: Walter and Louis pose together in the hospital where Walter is recovering. Read the original post on Walter's Facebook page. 

Hassan Elouafi walter benjamin

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.

As happens on Social Media, many people post negative comments, but Benjamin 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 November 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."

Read more:

Why terrorists choose soft targets

How ISIS has limited where you can go on holiday



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