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A Friday night I won’t forget
Inside Le Bouillon-Chartier restaurant in the 9th arrondissement, my phone rang just after 10.15pm local time. It was my sister in London. Seconds later, a call from Trinidad. We checked our messages and found friends had already left concerned texts. People halfway across the world knew that two kilometres away from us, at restaurants and bars in the 10th and 11th, masked gunmen had already killed at least a dozen people.
What had started off as a typically buoyant, exciting Friday night in Paris suddenly took on a surreal edge. Around us in the large, packed, constantly buzzing restaurant we began to notice more phones being checked. There was no panic amongst the mostly young crowd. If the waiting staff and restaurant manager knew of the attacks happening close by – and they must have done – they did a very good job of hiding it. Smiles kept flowing, along with the wine. Dessert was ordered. “These are the times we are living in,” we said, as though a war was going on. In some sense it is: a global war being fought out in small, localised, devastating and sickening attacks in the West, while in the Middle East utter chaos, violence and barbarism is uprooting lives and bringing death on an unimaginable scale.
In a city like Paris, already rocked by January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks but utterly defiant and bold, people simply aren’t psychologically prepared for such atrocities. In London, after decades of IRA terrorist attacks, and now the post 9/11 Islamic extremist threats, a full-on police state has emerged. In Paris, joie de vivre has persisted. But for how much longer?
In Paris, much smaller than London, everything feels closer. The number of attacks, however, overwhelmed the local and international media as reports emerged fuzzily and inaccurately at first.
As calls kept coming in from people watching international television news, my dinner guests began to feel nervous and expressed a desire to get home.
In the streets outside, people were clearly confused as to what to do. Take the Métro or a taxi? Queues began to form at taxi ranks, but all the lights on passing taxis were red. Cars whizzed past. Strangely, no sirens were heard until much later in the evening with 1,500 extra police called up.
At that stage we thought the attacks may have been minor and random: the reports were of shootings at a restaurant in the 11th and a bomb near the Stade de France.
Earlier in the evening we had been to see the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and strolled down the Champs-Elysée with its Christmas decorations, blissfully unaware of what was about to happen. The heavily armed soldiers we saw were reassuring but, as we know, nothing can stop terrorists determined to die for a cause that people in the West will simply never understand.
On the Métro, people chattered nervously. A few fans wearing the national colours of Les Bleus were the most distressed people we’d seen all evening. In our local neighbourhood, the 18th, there was an eerie silence except for a few people outside local bars, heads in hands. Public transport was officially shut down around midnight.
The state of emergency, the three days of mourning and the “pitiless war” against terror that prime minister Hollande announced on television are not really at the forefront of Parisian minds in the immediate aftermath. First, people will want to know the identities of those who died and those who murdered them. The most disturbing part of the attack, the carnage inside the Bataclan, will be hard to fully absorb. Then a way of honouring the dead must be found. As ever, the responses to such senseless and cowardly violence will include demands to know why innocent lives were taken – many of them young Parisians who have rallied to support refugees arriving from war-torn countries.
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