This international break was supposed to provide Arnaud Djoum with a welcome chance to nip over to Brussels and spend a few pleasant days with family members while recharging batteries for the final eight games of Hearts’ season.
The past nine days, however, have been anything but relaxed for the 26-year-old midfielder after the lurking threat of terror in his home city reared its evil head to devastating effect a week past Tuesday. Djoum was still in Edinburgh, preparing to head to Riccarton for training, when he started to get wind of the horrific news that the Belgian capital was under siege from lawless militants. First the city’s main airport – which Djoum uses regularly – was being bombed, then it emerged more carnage was unfolding at a metro station in the city centre. The footballer was petrified over the wellbeing of his loved ones and Brussels in general.
After learning that none of his family or friends were among the 32 people killed or the hundreds of others injured amid the explosions, the defiant but shellshocked Belgian went to training as normal.
Events in his homeland could easily have caused him to pull out of a pre-planned trip to visit his family three days later, especially with Brussels Airport having been closed. Instead, the overwhelming urge to see his parents, his brother and the rest of his nearest and dearest, at a time when they were trying to deal with the horror which had just changed their city forever, helped him cast aside an understandable sense of trepidation to head to Belgium last Friday.
“I was scared for my family and friends when I first heard and I called everybody to ask if they were okay,” he said after returning to the relative sanctuary of Riccarton. “Hopefully my family will be okay but for the people who were killed, I am very sad.
“I don’t understand these kind of people [the terrorists] and how they can do these things. I really wanted to see my family so I went out Friday to Monday. My family are very sad and worried about what happened, but they see it the same way as me – you have to continue living your life.
“I had to fly into Antwerp because Brussels Airport was closed. I usually fly into Brussels so it could easily have been me. It’s very bad to think like that, but that’s life now.”
Although the sense of unease was inescapable, Djoum was heartened to see that the people of Brussels were attempting to go about their business as normally as possible.
“I went into the city centre and I was surprised because there were a lot of people about and all the shops were open,” he explained. “When something like that happens, you expect that for about four or five days people will stay at home and the shops will close, but everybody was out and about as normal. That is the way it should be. I felt I had to go out for a bit simply because you have to continue to live. You cannot stop living your life for these people because that is what they want. The Belgian people have a very good mentality and they are very strong. They are thinking they have to continue to live as normal. They can’t be scared of these people and let them stop living their lives.
“It’s hard not to think about [the terror threat] though. Even though it was busy and people were trying to continue to live their lives, you could sense the mood was different. People looked sad and a bit scared. It’s hard.”
The fact Djoum’s family live in Berchem-Saint-Agathe, right next to the now infamous municipality of Molenbeek, made his trip all the more daunting. The Hearts player is staggered that an area which he used to visit regularly has now become renowned as “Europe’s jihadi central”. “My family live just five or ten minutes from Molenbeek, where the terrorists come from,” he said. “That’s what makes me even more scared for them.
“I grew up in Brussels and everybody knows Molenbeek. Sometimes you would go there to the shops or whatever. I have been there lots of times and I’ve always found the area okay. I have a friend who lives there and whenever I’ve visited him, I’ve never had any problems. I just don’t understand it. You would never think this kind of thing would happen there. Everybody in the area is shocked and surprised. It is horrible because I think to myself I might have been right next to these people [the terrorists] or passed them in the street when I visited my friend or went to the shops.”
Djoum is relieved that, with the security of a contract at Hearts until the end of next season, he has been able to bring his fiancée and young son to Edinburgh to live with him. However, he insists he won’t let terrorists put him off returning to the city in which he grew up.
“I feel a lot safer in Scotland,” he said. “It is a good country and it doesn’t seem like there is a problem here. I am glad to have my fiancée and my son here with me and I want them to stay here. I don’t want them to go to Brussels.
“The rest of my family have to stay there though because they work there, so I am scared for them. They are okay mentally about it all but they are obviously down. It is very difficult to deal with because nobody is prepared for this kind of thing happening.
“I will continue to go back to Brussels to visit my family. I have to continue to live. I can’t just go on vacation to other countries all the time to avoid it. I will go home to be next to my family, to support them and help them get over this.”
Djoum is not the only Hearts player who has seen terror strike close to home. Morgaro Gomis, now on loan at Motherwell, was in Paris on the night his home city was targeted in November, while recent attacks on Turkey have prompted poignant social media messages from captain Alim Ozturk, who is a proud Turk despite being born in the Netherlands. Djoum believes playing football is the best way to cope with such atrocities and insists he will never let the ongoing threat of terror affect the way he goes about his business.
“I trained on the day it happened,” he said. “I have to stay strong and continue what I do. When you go to training it can help you forget about what’s going on. If I stayed at home I would have just had more worry and frustration, so for me it was good to train and take my mind off what was happening in Brussels.
“I’ve thought about it a lot since the attacks happened. You can’t escape it because it’s all over the TV and I keep thinking my family could have been on the metro or at the airport. I don’t want this to happen again in Brussels or in any country. It’s happened in Alim’s country as well. It’s horrible. We have to try and stop these people because it’s really bad.”