When I think of Paris I think of Valerie Gauriat, now the International
Affairs reporter for Euronews. Decades back she was my classmate at
university in London, who sang Summertime like I imaged Edith Piaf
would. It was Valerie who lent me her apartment near a train line in
London one Christmas when I was a broke student.
It was at Valerie’s parents’ home in Paris that I went to the best party
ever—wine, exuberance, existentialism, endless possibility. Imagine my
joy, then, last week, when she rang to say she was shooting for Euronews,
that she could meet another friend and myself. After a late dinner at a
Turkish restaurant, a cigarette, we waved goodbye somewhat misty eyed.
Days later, on November 13, Paris terror: mass shootings, suicide
bombings, hostage taking in Paris, which killed 120 people and injured
352. The following is Valerie’s eyewitness report of that night in
“Do you have a light? I had just been dining out with my parents, and
lingered behind them as they went home, to smoke a cigarette. 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. Is
it true? It was, alas, so true, and only the beginning. I rushed to my
parents’ house. The night was short, yet desperately endless, as the
gruesome news unravelled.
“The fumes of the hours of nightmare hang over Paris the next morning
like lead. The emblems of the French capital lonely in the
neighbourhoods of the Rive Droite. Eiffel tower: closed. Trocadero,
Champs Elysées, Place de la Concorde: deserted. Soldiers, standing
guard, in full gear, in front of the National Assembly. The police.
State of emergency.
Gravity in everyone’s eyes. “The city shivered, despite warmth in the
air. The usually thriving weekend food markets was closed down.
Canopies, perched on their high, skinny wooden legs hang miserably over
emptiness. Skeletons of the life we so much take 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, gently
swept through the crying city. We will not let them win. Soldiers,
“‘Stand together’, went the quiet 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.’ Yes, it is not just about us.
“People queuing at hospitals and hastily set up crisis cells. They are
seeking loved ones. All victims have not been yet 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 relentlessly. Silent heroes of the
tragedy, they have seen the unspeakable.
“Bataclan, Petit Cambodge, Carillon: flowers and candles piling up
behind the police cordons. Despite recommendations for people not to
gather, place de la Republique attracts Parisians like a magnet.
Marianne wears a gown of flowers; hundreds of small flames alight, words
of tribute and sorrow, at her feet. The world sends its compassion,
lighting its monuments in Blue, White and Red. Another spews hate on
social media. Monday. School has resumed.
We go to the Lycée Voltaire, a few blocks away from the scenes of the
attacks. A mixed, bustling neighbourhood. They cried after the minute of
silence for their friends who died. They are eighteen.
“We inherit from your generation, a world of chaos, war and destruction,
they tell us. ‘Is it worth having children?’ asks 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 the concert
again. And again.’ But fear has spread its poison. A slamming door, a
firecracker, a fallen table; groups of shrieking, crying people spill
onto the streets in panic. False alerts. Special forces reassure them.
They worry there are too many people outside, will we be able to cope if
things go wrong?
“The manhunt. The long wait. Barbes, a mixed neighbourhood north of
Paris. Rachid is tired and wary. The fear of stigma. “Muslims must speak
out! We cannot let them kill in our name! Then: Close the borders! Too
many migrants! The Syrian passport!
A young man, blindfold with a keffieh, stands at Place de la Republique,
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 on the blindfold. “They shot at our youth, they shot at our
future, they shot at our diversity, and they shot at all races, creeds
and religions. They want to divide us. They want to sow the seeds of
hatred in the minds of our youths, enroll them.
‘We will not allow it,’ say Stéphane, Djamila Anne, Nick, Asta, Precilia,
Ciprian. Say 129 voices that roar in the heart of Paris.
“Wednesday 3 am: I am at place de la République, for an interview with
an American TV network amidst silhouettes of youths, rekindling the
fragile flames of the candles. Couples huddled together, staring at
broken dreams. A taxi ride back home through the city. The shriek of
sirens fades into the night. The phone rings. It has started again!
Explosions and gunshots at Saint Denis! Quick. I get up, get dressed,
and find a cameraman. Soon the world is pointing its lenses at the
police cordons. Behind the fence of tripods and microphones, residents
are stunned. The police reassure us. The raid is over. Questions. How
did these people get here? What is Europe doing? What is the world
doing? In Syria, in Iraq, in Libya, in Afghanistan? Oh, did you hear? A
market blew up in Nigeria.
The world’s tears have converged in
Paris. Identified. The ringleader is dead. My heart beats slower. For
the believers, Alhumdoulilah. Mazeltov. Thank God. Dieu merci, whoever
that is. Who’s next?”