Testimonies give fuller picture of Paris attacks
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A year ago today, 130 people were killed in a series of coordinated jihadist attacks in Paris and in St Denis north of the capital. Far from the media spotlight a team of historians and researchers at the state-funded Institut d'histoire du temps présent (Institute of contemporary history) have begun filming the testimonies of the women and men who lived through that night, giving a fuller picture of what happened and how it might be remembered.
Nick, Nohemi, Kheireddine, Manuel, Yannick, Halima, Gilles, Salah, Matthieu, Sven, Luis… were among the 130 people targetted because they were, for the most part, 30-somethings having fun in cafés and restaurants, watching a football match or listening to a rock music. That typical Friday night ended in bloodshed and trauma.
France is gradually hearing other names: Véronique, Thibault, Julien, Aristide, Tommy, Vincent, David, Denis, Camellia… Their stories are being collected by the Institut d’histoire du temps présent (IHTP) as part of a research programme Attentats du 13 novembre 2015: des vies plus jamais ordinaires (13 November attacks : lives that will never be ordinary again). It’s led by filmmaker and historian Christian Delage. Like other Parisiens he followed that night’s events and was shaken by the “unimaginable violence and level of coordination” involved.
“Very quickly the issue of the memory was present,” he says “because the people living around were not so happy with all these memorials. They wanted to live an ordinary life but couldn’t, personally, because they were the witnesses of what happened.”
And yet in the immediate aftermath, Delage wasn’t sure the IHTP should get involved. French media, particularly 24/7 news had provided extensive, sometimes sensational, coverage. And while the institute specialises in contemporary social history, it seemed too soon to start work.
But a friend, Antoine Lefevbure, who’d begun filming interviews in the neighbourhood where the attacks took place, convinced him the IHTP had a role to play.
What’s more, Delage’s 20 years of experience in working on genocide, including a documentary on the Nuremberg trials, gave him an interesting perspective.
“I’ve made interviews of survivors of the Holocaust,” he explains. “They were at least 80, 85 years old, very far from the events they were narrating. Sometimes I knew better than them the history of the situation. The people who died at the Bataclan, their average age is 34 years old . So suddenly I said to myself it could be interesting to reverse the situation. I would be older than these people. We were also very close to the event.”
Quality over quantity
With a team of doctoral students, backed up by psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists, he began looking for interesting witnesses to film.
“The idea is to have a broad picture of the memory of what happened,” says Delage. That meant not just survivors of the attacks but the whole chain of people involved: police officers, fire-fighters, doctors, as well as restaurant and bar owners.
What’s more on the very morning of November 13, there’d been a simulation of a terrorist attack in a fire station and hospital in Paris, with similar numbers of victims Delage explains.
“So we were interested in what the French State had learned in dealing with a terrorist attack, and also to hear how people had dealt with the injured, and how they’d dealt with their own stress.”
They began with Camellia, a student who was working in the cloakroom at Stade de France; Denis, chief doctor with the BRI (anti-terrorism security forces) and Véronique, owner of Le Baromètre, a restaurant near Le Bataclan which had given refuge to many young people fleeing the concert. They were physically unharmed but psychologically in pieces.
In March, Véronique and her son Julien were filmed at their restaurant, which had also been used as HQ for the BRI security forces as they prepared to storm the concert hall.
Veronique and Julien
“We saw 200 or 300 people in rue Oberkampf, hands above their head, I suppose because police had had to search them to make sure none of them were terrorists. I just naturally opened the door,” said Julien.
“I suggested to the police that people could take refuge in the bar. We put the heating on the terrace, got out all the lost and found objects – dozens of scarves and pullovers – and gave them to people to warm them up. They needed a drink to take their minds off things. It wasn’t easy but we gave them a glass of rum, a beer, coffee or whatever they needed.”
“All the clients – and even people that came in from outside to take refuge – came in here, they were safer here than in the street,” Veronique told Delage, showing him the staircase leading up to the first floor.
“Some of them were very young, they were scared. I put them in the back room that looks onto the back of the street. I put the others in the living room and closed the curtains to protect them. There were shots being fired all around, it went on for three or four hours and as there was total silence in the neighbourhood, you could even hear the difference between grenades and Kalashnikovs. It seemed to go on forever.”
While Véronique took care of many young women, her son Julien welcomed the BRI.
“They stayed at Le Baromètre for an hour or two. I think they arrived at about 22h and stayed until they stormed the Bataclan at about 23h30/24H. I remember they seemed very relaxed, I guess they’re used to doing this kind of thing, but I was a bit surprised by how they calm they were. We were in a state of panic.”
“The BRI were incredible,” says Véronique. As soon as they came in, they got their gear on so fast and left like a shot. They said every minute wasted is a life lost. Without them, it wouldn’t have been 90 dead, it would have been 400 or 500.”
“There were a lot of rescue workers, ambulances, firemen, psychologists here,” she continued. “Because the people we took care of weren’t seriously injured, they were traumatised. They’d lost friends or family, some of them couldn’t speak. One couple was covered in blood. I said (to the man) ‘you’re bleeding you need help’ but he said it was because they’d hidden under dead bodies. The ones that were badly injured were taken care of in the street, we just tried to comfort the traumatised ones as well as we could. It went on until 5h30 in the morning.”
Véronique later showed Delage a photo on the living room wall, adding a further, fascinating, layer to her story.
“Here’s my dad, my grandparents, two uncles and Dr Derian. My father and grandfather were part of Dr Derian’s network, a big resistance network. So that night I wanted to be worthy of them. I did absolutely everything I could, I was really with them. I spent the night thinking of my father.”
Veronique’s family involvement in the resistance in occupied Paris and the fact she’d moved out of the chic St Germain Left Bank to open Le Baromètre in the more working-class racially mixed area near the Bataclan came as a surprise to Delage.
“We didn’t know that before meeting her,” he says, “and this is what we like to discover. All these people have stories, which are ordinary stories but suddenly they become extraordinary because of events. We are all ordinary people and why something is becoming historical and to be kept as a kind of memory or archive is of interest to us.”
In April this year, Delage and his team shared a handful of testimonies with France Inter public radio as part of a day devoted to the memory of 13 November. As a result some 30 people contacted the IHTP saying they wanted to share their stories specifically with historians. One of them was Thibault, a young man who’d gone to savour the Bataclan concert with his wife. They both survived, just. He gave an hour-long, virtually uninterrupted narration. For its first public broadcast, he chose RFI. Here is a short extract.
“There was this stampede at the back of the room. A man appeared, and it looked like there was a spotlight on him, he was lit up, and all the people around him fell to the ground. I grabbed my wife and flung her to the floor. I tried to lie on top of her. And I put her on floor – covered her with something – a coat, jumper - I don’t know what. She says that as I pushed her to the ground I’d said ‘these people aren’t here for the fun of it’. I can’t remember having said that but she says I did. With hindsight I realise the man seemed to be lit up because of the sparks from his machine gun.
The firing stopped and it’s stupid but I lifted up my head – I only recently realised I’d done that. It was a stupid reflex because perhaps he’d stopped because he couldn’t see anyone else left to shoot. Then the lights came back on. The band had left the stage very quickly, good for them! It’s something you never want to hear. The music stops and there’s no applause afterwards. I’ve never heard that in a concert before. I’ve seen some crap concerts in my time but there’s always some applause. This time there was silence.
So the stage was empty. I could see out of the corner of my eye that the drum set had moved, instruments had fallen over, things like that. Everyone was lying on the floor. Well everyone except for one young woman. She was still standing up. She seemed embarrassed to sit down. People were laid out on top of each another regardless of whether they might be hurting someone, but she seemed to be thinking ‘no I can’t sit there because I might hurt someone, I might tread on someone’s hand’. That’s the effect she had on me. She understood what had happened but didn’t want to hurt anyone. They shot her.”
Delage was bowled over by the clarity and detail of Thibault’s one-hour narration.
“It was incredible how he prepared himself, not specifically for us but because he made a huge work on himself to try to get this story out. And not only to think of himself but of all the people who watched during that night, the people he met, other people coming to Bataclan. It was a certain completion of the narrative he wanted to give.”
A whole generation under fire
The attacks targeted “a generation – the 30 to 40s” says anthropologist Elisabeth Claverie, who conducted the interview with Thibault. “A generation of people who’d moved from the Left bank to the reasonably-priced Right bank, a generation with shared tastes, who met friends in cafés in the evenings. And in relation to the Bataclan, these were people with explicit musical tastes, fans of rock who meet up at concerts. It’s a very specific community.Thibault told me that they all knew one another, at least by sight. They met three or four times a month at concerts.”
“You have a sense that some kind of sociability has been destroyed by what happened,” says Delage. “We have examples of people who said ‘I want to give my interview because you are historians, because it’s not media’ and then we called one of them back and he said ‘I’m sorry I can’t because of what happened in Nice (Bastille Day truck attack) was absolutely horrible for me’ because it’s reactivated the trauma.”
The IHTP research project will take the time it needs to film perhaps 30 testimonies, perhaps fewer.
What’s important is not the number but the quality of the exchanges. He believes they’ve won over people’s trust, trust that had been broken between survivors and French media.
“I think if I was working by myself as a documentary film maker they wouldn’t have come to me,” he admits. “When they ask us to be interviewed they very precisely said they hate the way the TVs, mostly the 24/7 newsreel TVs, dealt with that.”
“Thanks to the institution I’m happy to be heading and thanks to the history and reputation of this institution they believe that we are serious guys,” he says.
But the IHTP needs the media to bring these testimonies to the public. “We don’t make archives to be kept in a place where nobody will come,” he says. “We don’t want to be on the headlines of big media but we want to make a mediation that will allow the witness to be listened and watched by some people.” And for the moment that’s radio.
A recent article in Le Monde reported on a so-called “Groupie 2.0” movement which has developed around the November attacks. In a morbid trend, some of the survivors who went public in the immediate aftermath are still being harassed on social media: mainly young women desperate to have a link with a Bataclan survivor. Some of the survivors told Le Monde they’re now shying away from all contact with the media.
Against such a background, the IHTP research programme is doing important work in linking those on the frontline of November 13 and those that watched, helplessly, the horror unfold on TV. Helping witnesses to move forward, and the rest of us to better understand.
For a fuller appreciation of Thibault’s powerful testimony, listen to RFI’s history programme Marche du Monde here. In French.