Sunday 15 September 2019

Paris Terror Attacks: 'We expected more terror ... but this was an act of war'

Shops are shut, the Eiffel Tower is closed and we are told to stay inside ... Paris is under siege, writes Aoife Drew

A woman weeps at a vigil held by the local French community in Sydney, as Australians express their solidarity with France
A woman weeps at a vigil held by the local French community in Sydney, as Australians express their solidarity with France

Aoife Drew

Let's not put too fine a point on it. We are simply and utterly traumatised.

There are few words to describe what has just happened. Parisians running for their lives. Hanging from windows. Dragging almost-dead bodies along the streets. Police and ambulance sirens ringing through the town. Survivors wrapped in emergency blankets and looking for their loved ones.

After Charlie Hebdo, we all expected more terror. How could you not, police with machine guns on every corner? Security restrictions in schools that stretched from January until the end of the school year served as a reminder that all was not well in the city.

But we didn't expect war. Newspapers are often accused of going too far with their headlines, but the Saturday titles of Le Parisien which read "This time it's war" and Le Figaro's "War in central Paris" feel appropriate given the circumstances. To eliminate all doubt, President Hollande declared the attacks "an act of war".

We didn't see it coming. The summer came and went and life re-began as normal in the capital. People got on with their lives and the rentrée, or return to school, ushered in a new year and Charlie Hebdo became a bitter memory, until Friday night. We were having a drink with a friend who got an alert on her phone. Before long, all our phones were buzzing and beeping with messages from concerned friends all over the world following the horror as it broke out.

Gun shots ringing out at the Stade de France. Machine gunfire at a café terrace. Shootings in a Cambodian restaurant. The tolls of the injured, dead and missing rising like the mercury in a thermometer. Seven attacks in total, with 129 dead. It's beyond the comprehension of anyone living in Paris. The venues the terrorists chose are baffling. As my sister-in-law posted on Twitter, the Bataclan? The Bataclan?! It's a place that Parisians are immensely fond of. It was a cafe-theatre in the 19th century, then an Opera, then a cinema in the 1930s. It closed for many years and reopened in the 1980s, a venue for rock and pop and welcomed stars like Prince or the Velvet Underground.

To target the Bataclan is like shooting out the Olympia in Dublin. It's a place of music and culture, not terror. Why would you shoot ordinary people trying to enjoy themselves on a Friday night?

As for the rue de Charonne in the Bastille area, it's got the light-hearted atmosphere of Temple Bar. It's where all the students go to hang out and have a good time and where 30 and 40 somethings relive their halcyon days. It's a place to have fun, but now it's a place where people are laying flowers for the dead.

Of course, there are no explanations and to attempt analysis at this point just seems glib. It's not yet the time to figure out the answers, although that will come. We still need to count the dead and find the missing and take solace in one another. Nobody has the answers to why this happened.

Now, people are advised not to leave their homes. Like in war-times, Hollande announced there may be curfews and traffic restrictions and security is higher than ever before. People are trying to track down relatives and friends on Facebook. There are dead bodies that are difficult to identify at the Bataclan.

Despite people's efforts to maintain "bon courage", to continue going about their business and to affirm that life continues, Paris is, right now, a dead town. The department stores, lit up for Christmas, are shut down. The Eiffel Tower, the very symbol of the city of light, is closed to the public.

Long-awaited concerts are cancelled. Our French friends who were due to come to our apartment for dinner on Saturday night can't make it, because they are too traumatised to go out. Three days of mourning for the dead have been declared.

And of course the question arises - what to tell the children? Psychiatrists on French television recommend we talk to them. Like us, they are submerged with information, but we are told to try and make it simple for them. I still don't understand how to do that. Do we say that the bad people killed the good people but don't worry, it won't happen again?

My husband told my daughter "baddies are trying to make the people afraid" but to reassure her, he promised that it's finished now, it won't happen again. She seemed happy with that, but I'm now not so sure.

That's what we hoped last time.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News