‘This is a nation at war’: MM speak to eyewitness in wake of tragic Paris terror attacks

In the wake of yesterday’s devastating terrorist attacks in Paris, MM spoke to two people who witnessed the events first hand.

‘It is raining in Paris’; or so Philippe tells me.

‘The weather is nearly warm’, he says as he sits in the kitchen of his apartment on Place de la Nation – just a matter of meters away from the Bataclan Theatre. He has a glass of wine in one hand and his phone in the other as he looks out across the city as darkness begins to fall.

“On Friday night I was at home with my two girls watching the football on the telly. It is cliché but it was just a normal Friday evening.

“I heard the bang go off during the match. ‘Idiots’, I thought. I thought it was a firework or a firecracker or something, you know, that sort of thing happens a lot at matches here.

“But then a short while later I heard another explosion go off; this time, right outside my house. It sounds stupid but only then did I realise what was going on.

“I still can’t quite comprehend that I heard that terrorist blowing himself up.

“I just can’t understand it. Then there was the constant banging of gunfire, and screaming. It was terrible. Horrible. It was so very strange.”

Philippe Alkemade is an established playwright in Paris whose works have been translated and performed all over the world.

In 1992 he founded the Theatre Ballybeg – named after a small fictional town in Donegal, Ireland where Brian Friel situated such works as Dancing at Lughnasa and Philadelphia Here I Come.

As we converse over the phone, our slight and occasional silences are filled by a cacophony of sirens in the background.

“Can you hear the sirens?” He asks me. “It is like this all day and all night. There is no end to it. Constant sirens.

“But you know – this is a nation at war and that is evident everywhere in the city. There are army everywhere and police too.

“On Saturday morning one of my daughters asked could she go to the supermarket. She is only twelve but in Paris it is normal for a twelve year old to run along to the supermarket on her own, so I said yes.

“But as she was gone I looked out across the park and noticed maybe twenty policemen all armed with huge machine guns. Then I began to get very nervous.

“Paris was never like this before.”

As we speak I tell Philippe that when I heard I was immediately reminded of Mathieu Kassovitz 1995 work of genius La Haine, or translated into English, Hate.

La Haine was the film which depicted a Paris that had been shocked by a tirade of peculiar shootings and bombings across the 80s and 90s, which may or may not have been linked to the civil war then raging in Algeria.

The worst of these was on July 25, when a bomb exploded at the Saint-Michel métro station in the heart of the Latin Quarter of Paris. The bomb went off at the height of the rush hour and killed eight people.

The bombing at Saint-Michel was followed three weeks later by a bomb at the Arc de Triomphe, injuring 17 people. There were then bomb threats throughout that long and tense autumn.

“This risk is a part of life. This fear is a part of life. I guess it is just a question of feeling.

“But right now. Paris feels cold. Very cold.

“But I feel safe here. I have never suffered in Paris. It has been over 30 years since I moved here from Belgium and I have never been robbed.

“I guess I have been lucky but I have never been mugged or attacked. Nothing. Not once. Of course you have to take care but Paris is safe. You just have to be unlucky.”

What I am also reminded of is Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Submission. The novel depicts a future in which a Muslim party upholding traditionalist and patriarchal values leads the 2022 vote in France and is able to form a government and out of a macabre coincidence.

It was released on the same day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

“You just have to accept it. What more can you do? There will always be a risk but, you know, this is Paris, what else can you do? You can move away to the countryside. But I will not.

“I will be defiant. I will keep laughing, writing, drinking. I am going to watch a movie on Saturday. You just have to carry on with your way of life, our way of life, otherwise they will win, the Daesh will win.

“People have not used the metro recently. The metros are dead – almost empty. It’s sad. But it will probably take a month before people forget the fear and move on. Until next time. And there will be a next time – they have promised it and we are in a state at war.

“But for now we just need to move on and remember the motto of the people: liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

When asked about Wednesday’s siege in Saint-Denis, Philippe told me that although it is only a matter of miles away it feels ‘like another planet’.

However Saint-Denis is not ‘another planet’ for another friend of mine – who has chosen to remain anonymous out of fear. He is 21 years-old, the son of Iranian parents, and is studying International Business at Saint-Denis University (Unversité Paris 8).

“I woke up at 7 AM (on the day of the siege) by a text from my dad telling me to be careful and that something was going on in Saint Denis near my college. Then I had a call from my granddad who also told me about it so I just woke up and followed the news on the internet about a police intervention in the middle of the city.

“It was really a scary scene with the military in the middle of a suburban city – explosions and shootings.

“It’s just weird to see military convoys driving in Paris; it’s like a war scene. Like something from Iraq or Palestine. But you don’t expect that sort of thing here. The city of light.  

“After Friday, I wasn’t been able to get to Saint-Denis until Monday when the cops were already starting to find who the terrorists were. So we were already more in a ‘reaction’ period about the attacks.

“For example the 13th line of the Subway was half-full of people. Almost everybody took their car to work or school this day.

“At the college, the administration had employed several “guards” to check every student’s bag and student card before getting into the building. It was very intense – like airport security just to get in and out of school to prevent future attacks.

“On the Monday I had two lessons but with the same teacher, who was late because of an urgent administrative meeting.  Fortunately none of us were hurt in the attacks but everyone in the classroom everyone was talking about it.

“So many of my friends where planning on going to the Bataclan that night. Thank God they didn’t.

“We all felt and feel obviously horrified.”

I asked my friend if he felt threatened as a student of Iranian descent but he said he did not as he was born in Paris and was an atheist.

However he voiced his opinion strongly against the discriminatory and ill-informed belief that such terrorists attacks genuinely stem from the Islamic community.

“I feel very ashamed about the citizens who are creating dumb and unbelievable amalgams between the terrorists and the Muslim community because they are not in any way responsible for any of this, yet they are the victims of them just as every French citizen is.”

When our interview was over I packed my bag and headed to the train station to find that it had been evacuated moments before.

I searched the internet for ‘Manchester Piccadilly’ to find an article that said trespassers had been seen on the tracks.

 Hours later I found another article about a suspect device in the station. It turned out to be nothing but it quite simply sums up the utter chaos our western world has plummeted into.

We may not like to admit it. We may try to carry on with normality. But right now Europe is in a state of emergency. The panicked look on commuter’s faces as they sprinted out of the station.

The panicked look of fathers looking for their children amongst the worried crowds. We are a continent of fear.

I told Philippe what had happened. ‘Welcome to our world’, he replied.  

Image courtesy of Takver, via Flickr, with thanks

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