Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Some Families Of Brussels Terror Victims Still Waiting For Identification

The Belgian flag flies at half-mast at the Koningin Astrid-Reine Astrid military hospital in Brussels on March 24, 2016. Some of the people wounded in the Brussels attacks are being treated there.
Patrik Stollarz
AFP/Getty Images
The Belgian flag flies at half-mast at the Koningin Astrid-Reine Astrid military hospital in Brussels on March 24, 2016. Some of the people wounded in the Brussels attacks are being treated there.

Some of the families whose relatives went missing last Tuesday after the suicide bombings in Brussels still don't know the fate of their loved ones.

Belgian volunteers assigned to help those families say with each day that passes, it becomes more difficult for them. They teeter between hope and despair and can't grieve or find closure, says Red Cross psychosocial worker Anne-Claire Henry. "They need answers, but at the moment all they have are questions — 'where is my husband, my wife, my sister?'"

Henry is one of the volunteers helping the families at the Brussels-area military hospital where they wait, many with photos and other mementos they hope will speed up the identification process.

Members of the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) team say they have gone to the hospital once a day to update relatives on their progress. But even with 30 team members working 15 hours a day, it is slow going, says Dr. Jean Crevecoeur, a forensic dentist tasked with identifying the metro bombing victims.

He says the DVI team is working over the four-day Easter holiday weekend in hopes of wrapping up identifications by Sunday.

Crevecoeur says the work has been incredibly difficult. The powerful bombs left the team trying to identify many victims through body parts and charred remains, he says.

The injured, dead and missing also hail from 40 different countries, which is not surprising given the blasts occurred at an international airport departure hall and beneath the European Union office district, where citizens from 28 countries work.

It took until Thursday just to identify all of the injured, Henry says.

As for those killed, most were in the subway or hadn't checked in yet at the airport, which means Belgian authorities have had to wait for relatives to come forward to figure out who was missing. And even when they did, it's taken days for DVI requests for photos, dental X-rays, and other records to be answered, given the need for translators and intervention by foreign embassies.

Crevecoeur says Belgian forensic experts prefer using scientific evidence over visual identification to verify identities. Such biometric data includes dental records, fingerprints, DNA and whatever else is necessary to ensure 100 percent match, he says.

He says he sympathizes with families and how hard it is for them to wait, but shrugs off questions of what the team could have done differently to speed up identifications.

"It's not relevant, because we believe accuracy in our findings is more important than being quick," he explains.

Rabbi Yehuda Meshi Zahav, who heads ZAKA, Israel's main emergency response and recovery organization, rejects that explanation.

"I think it's absurd, the time it's taking," he says. "It's not only dishonoring the dead, but dishonoring those who are still alive. Because as long as the [victims] are not brought to rest and buried, families can't start the psychological process of accepting the loss."

For religious reasons — Jewish and Muslim laws mandate speedy burials — and given Israel's vast experience with suicide bombings, Zahav says his recovery teams rely heavily on family and witness help. He says they often identify terror victims in a matter of hours.

"There is a great importance in identifying and determining things at the beginning, because later on it's difficult to do," he says. "And then you have to do CTs, blood tests, MRIs" and time-consuming DNA analysis. He adds that autopsies in bombing cases are unnecessary, "because we know the cause of death."

Zahav says his teams flew to Turkey after the suicide attack in downtown Istanbul last Saturday. "Within 24 hours, we were able to bring our casualties to burial because the Turks were willing to accept our help," Zahav says. Three Israelis were killed in that blast.

Back in Belgium, Dr. Philippe Boxho, who heads the Forensic Center of Liege, defends his DVI colleagues' efforts in Brussels. He points out they aren't exactly novices, having helped identify victims of the tsunami that devastated the Thailand coast in 2004, as well as the Malaysia Airlines jet shot down over Ukraine in July 2014.

"They want to work in optimal conditions," he says of the reason why bodies in the Brussels blast were moved from the attack sites to a military hospital and university. "We don't want the public around, because we have to gather bodies destroyed by the explosion and genetically identify those parts so we can give the remains back to the families."

The lack of information this week drove dozens of relatives and friends to post on social media seeking news of those who were missing.

The requests moved web designer David Geilfus, 35, to collect those posts, weed out inaccurate or outdated ones and place them on a page he created on Trello, a platform that's often used for work projects or wedding planning.

He says more than 20 people — mostly friends and colleagues of the missing — posted queries on the Web page as word of it spread.

"I guess it's very difficult to identify them," Geilfus says. But "having still so many people missing is incredible. I don't know what to say."

Brussels prosecutor Ine Van Wymersch told the Associated Press Saturday that seven victims of the 31 have yet to be identified, while the Trello page as of Sunday listed 8 as missing.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Stories From This Author