Our reporter Valérie Gauriat was in Paris to cover the attacks and their aftermath. Following is her eye witness report of the tragic events.
“Do you have a light?” I had just been eating out with my parents and lingered a little behind them to smoke a cigarette outside as they went home. The two youths I had met handed me a lighter with a smile. Then a phone rang. And another. A third. 18 dead at the Bataclan. Hostages. Shootout. Hell had broken loose on a quiet and unusually warm November evening. We stared at each other in disbelief. No, not again! Is it true? It was, alas, so true, and it was only the beginning. I rushed back to my parents’ house. They hadn’t heard the news yet. The night was short, yet desperately endless, as the gruesome news unraveled.
Like lead, the fumes of the nightmare hung over Paris the next morning. The emblems of the French capital shivering and lonely in the untouched neighbourhoods of the Rive Droite. Eiffel Tower: closed. Trocadero, Champs Elysées, Place de la Concorde: deserted. But for a few tourists who might not have heard the news yet, or didn’t want to have come for nothing. Or maybe they had heard, but not realised. I hadn’t either. Soldiers, standing guard, in full gear, in front of the National Assembly. The police. State of emergency. Gravity in everyone’s eyes.
And still, the city shivered, despite the persisting warmth of the air. The usually thriving weekend food markets had been closed by decree. Canopies perched on their high skinny wooden legs hang miserably over emptiness. Skeletons of the life we take so much for granted.
Life at a standstill. They killed our youths. They killed our joy. They fired their wild demented rage at all the values that they so loathe, and we so love. “We will not yield to fear, we will not yield to hatred”, went the words that swept through the crying city. We will not let them win. Soldiers, police, rifles. Oh how thick was the air, how sad is the look in our eyes. Together. Stand together, went the gentle song, mingling with the shrieks of sirens everywhere. Crowds queuing to donate blood. Blood for blood. Love for hate. Paris is an open wound. A message on my phone. A Lebanese friend. “After Lebanon, France, my second country is bleeding, and so is my heart”. It takes me time to understand. I am about to go on live. I know my hands are shaking, slightly. Yes, it is not just about us.
People queuing at hospitals and hastily set up crisis cells. They are seeking their loved ones. Not all victims have yet been identified. The uncertainty is unbearable for those who stagger wearily in front of the places where they know they might be told what they do not want to hear. Doctors and rescue teams work restlessly. Silent heroes of the tragedy, they have seen the unspeakable.
We are waiting for a taxi. Behind me, a woman is screaming over the phone. “She will never travel back if they don’t let her see the body! We go from one place to another, we can’t get any information, we don’t know if they’ll do an autopsy! It’s unbearable!”
The cameraman looks at me. Journalists everywhere, looking for witnesses to testify. My eyes meet the woman’s despair, ice hits my spine. “Let her be” I say to him.
“You are shaken”, says a rescue worker, in front of the 11th arrondissement municipality, gently looking into my eyes. A middle-age couple has just come out, a ghostly look freezes their faces. They have just learned. Their daughter is dead.
The rescuers are exhausted. Their voices soft. My eyes are damp.
Bataclan, Petit Cambodge, Carillon: flowers and candles piling up behind the police cordons. Despite recommendations for people not to gather, Place de la République attracts Parisians like a magnet. Marianne wears a gown of flowers, hundreds of small flames light as many words of tribute and sorrow, haikus from the world laid at her feet.
The world sends its compassion, lighting its monuments in Blue, White and Red. Another world spews out hate and rejection on social media. The soft hum answers back.
Monday. School has resumed. We go to the Lycée Voltaire, a few blocks away from the scenes of the attacks. A lively, mixed, bustling neighbourhood. They cried a lot they said, after the minute of silence. They are eighteen. Some of their friends and teachers lost loved ones during that night of horror.
“We inherit a world of chaos, war and destruction”, they tell us. “If we get over it, is it worth having children?” says Clara. “There is no place left in the world that is safe anymore,” answers Sacha. “We have to go on and live our lives; we will go to concerts again. And again”.
As night is falling, frail silhouettes defy the ghosts of menace hanging over the streets. But fear has spread its poison. A slamming door, a firecracker, a fallen table; groups of shrieking, crying people spill in the streets in panic. False alerts. Special forces reassure them. They look so strong. I feel so tiny. “We are like you,” they tell me. Vulnerable. They worry: “There are too many people outside, will we be able to cope if things go wrong?”
The manhunt. The long wait. Barbès, a mixed neighbourhood north of Paris. Rachid is tired and wary. “Our life got more complicated after what those bastards did in January. Now it will just get worse”. The fear of stigma. “Muslims must speak out! We cannot let them kill in our name!” Already the vultures are preying: “Close the borders! Too many migrants! The Syrian passport!”
The soft hum is still there. A young man, blindfolded with a keffieh, stands on Place de la République, bearing a sign: “I am a Muslim, some say I’m a terrorist. I trust you: do you trust me? So give me a hug.” One after the other, they do. Tears over the blindfold. They shot at our youth, they shot at our future, they shot at our diversity, they shot at all races, creeds and religions. The fabric of our society. The horror it took to remember that. “This is about us all. They want to divide us. They want to sow the seeds of hatred in the minds of our youths, enroll them in their lethal endeavour. We will not allow it”. Says Stéphane. Says Djamila. Says Anne. Says Nick. Says Asta. Says Precilia. Says Ciprian. Say 129 voices that roar in the heart of Paris.
Their faces unfold on TV screens and social media; I feel so dizzy.
Wednesday, 3 am. I am at Place de la République for an interview with an American TV network. Still, the silhouettes of youths rekindling the fragile flames of the candles. Couples huddled together, staring at their broken dreams. A taxi ride back home through the city. The shriek of sirens slowly fades into the night. The phone rings. “It has started again! Explosions and gunshots at Saint Denis!” Quick, get up, get dressed, find a cameraman. Soon the world is pointing its lenses again at the police cordons. Behind the fence of tripods and microphones residents are stunned. “We thought it was another attack; the police reassured us”.
The raid is over. Questions. “How could these people get here? How were they let in? Are others still running? Why don’t they stop them?”
What is Europe doing? Why is it letting children die on its shores, so many souls die in its seas? What is the world doing? In Syria, in Iraq, in Libya, in Afghanistan?
Oh, did you hear? A market just blew up in Nigeria.
The world’s tears have converged in Paris.
The ring leader is dead. My heart beats slower. Hamdulillah. Mazeltov. Thank God. Dieu merci. Whoever that is. Wherever it is.
This article was written a few hours before the attack in Mali