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Parisians remember a night of terror as criminal trial opens (Part 1 of 2)

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Most Parisians remember where they were on the evening of November 13, 2015, when Islamist terrorists launched attacks in Saint-Denis and central Paris, killing 130 people and leaving 350 wounded. Noam, a police officer, and Célia, a surgeon, told France 24 how that evening changed their lives – and how they managed to move forward.

France suffered its deadliest ever terror attack in November 2015 when three teams of jihadists launched nearly simultaneous attacks on the Stade de France national stadium and the Bataclan music hall, as well as restaurants and bars (Le Carillon, La Belle Equipe, La Bonne Bière, Le Petit Cambodge, Le Comptoir Voltaire) across central Paris. France’s largest-ever criminal trial opens Wednesday in Paris, with 20 people facing justice for suspected involvement in the attacks, the deadliest on French soil since World War II. The trial is expected to last for nine months.   

FRANCE 24 spoke to several Parisians whose lives were upended by the attacks.

• Noam, a police officer near Paris: These tragic events made me realise how precious and fragile life is. […] I no longer want to work for the police.

Noam was not supposed to work on the evening of November 13, 2015. Relaxing on his sofa at home, the 45-year-old police officer from the DRPP, an intelligence unit at the Paris police prefecture, was watching the friendly match between France and Germany on television. As usual, he was also keeping an eye on social media; that is how he realised something unusual was under way. A phone call from his police colleagues quickly confirmed his concerns.

“A colleague called me to to tell me that a bomb had exploded near the Stade de France, without knowing whether or not it was terrorism. Since I work on anti-terrorism matters, my colleagues asked me if I could come help.” Noam jumped on his scooter to head towards the stadium, which is located in Saint-Denis, a suburb just north of Paris. A second bomb exploded while he was on his way. As soon as he arrived at the scene, he heard a third explosion in front of a McDonald’s restaurant.

He entered the Events café with the Paris prefect, the top police official in the French capital. “I was stunned, I had never seen a scene like this before,” Noam told FRANCE 24. He noticed several bits of bloodied flesh, which, at first sight, he believed to be meat from the restaurant’s kitchen. He then realised that he was looking at the remains of the suicide bomber’s body. Despite his shock, he managed to remain cool-headed – as was the Paris prefect next to him.

“I told myself that I could not get carried away by my emotions. I had to get on with my job.” He found the terrorist’s Syrian passport near the restaurant but it later turned out to be a fake document.

Noam stayed with the prefect to ensure his security. He was already thinking of the investigation and ordered police to take the license plate numbers of all vehicles in the area.

That’s when he began to receive phone calls from people who were worried about their relatives at the Bataclan concert hall in central Paris. “I felt really distraught (…) I didn’t want to take on the responsability of announcing terrible news,” said Noam, who eventually stopped answering phone calls from numbers he didn’t know.

A few weeks after the attacks, Noam still felt resentment and anger over the police’s failure to prevent the carnage. “I tell myself that we screwed up, that we could have avoided this with more material and financial resources.”

Noam, a former police for the DRPP, an intelligence unit at the Paris police.
Noam, a former police for the DRPP, an intelligence unit at the Paris police. © DR / Noam

He grew even more bitter when he realised that he had written the intelligence report on Samy Amimour, one of the Bataclan terrorists. “He should have been in jail, but he was out under ‘judicial supervision’.”

The police officer has since moved to pursue a new career. “These tragic events made me realise how precious and fragile life is. I no longer wanted to work for the police. Unfortunately, being a civil servant for the DGSI (France’s internal intelligence agency) just turns you into a target,” said Noam.

He also felt that some of his colleagues looked at him differently because of his faith. “Some of them said they no longer trusted me because I was a Muslim. I have always been loyal, a patriot, but I had enough of having to justify myself, so I left the police.”

Noam has since decided to start teaching to share his expertise on terrorism. He recently worked with the CLSPD (Local Security and Crime Prevention Councils), an institution aimed at preventing crime at the municipal level. He is also working on a new book on security issues. “Now I just want to live a peaceful life,” he said.

• Célia, surgeon: ‘It’s something that will always be a part of my life. I know I can be useful in such situations’

It all started as a quiet evening for Célia, who was then a few months pregnant. Dressed in her pyjamas, the 33-year-old vascular surgeon was enjoying a movie with her boyfriend. But a series of text messages from family members made her realise that something terrible was happening. Célia quickly called her colleagues and decided to report for work. Since she feared the attacks were still under way, she requested security before jumping in a taxi. “A police car came to escort me, like we usually do when we transport lungs for a transplant.”

She headed directly for Saint-Louis Hospital, which is located not far from the Carillon bar and the Petit Cambodge restaurant, both of which were targeted by gunmen that night. Several badly injured victims had already been brought in.

“It was a real war scene,” recalls Célia. As a surgeon specialised in repairing blood vessels, she was already familiar with gunshot wounds. But she was surprised by the silence in the intensive care unit, and the victims’ “blank stare”.

“They were not saying anything, they were in shock. They had just been attacked with incredible violence, when they least expected it – while they were having drinks with friends at a terrace bar. I remember a young woman with severe wounds who seemed completely detached from her body, as if she had nothing more to lose.”

Célia left the hospital after an exhausting night-long shift. Stunned and dazed, she watched the sunrise in the early hours of November 14th.

Célia, a vascular surgeon who worked at the Saint-Louis Hospital, which is located not far from the Carillon bar and the Petit Cambodge restaurant, on the night of the attacks.
Célia, a vascular surgeon who worked at the Saint-Louis Hospital, which is located not far from the Carillon bar and the Petit Cambodge restaurant, on the night of the attacks. © DR / Célia

The horrific scenes she witnessed caught up with her six months later, during her maternity leave. “I’ve had a lot of nightmares. I went through a lot of things and I think I had a post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.

Célia began writing as a form of therapy. She remembers an athlete whose lung was perforated by a bullet; he will never be able to pursue the high-level athletic career he envisioned. “He wrote a book, I bought it, and that allowed me to hear from him again.”

She recalled how she managed to remain cool-headed while she treated the victims that night. “It’s something that will always be part of my life. (…) I know that I can be useful in such situations.”

Today, she works in Savoie, a department in the French Alps that is far from Paris. She gave up on her initial idea of doing humanitarian work in warzones after coming face to face with the horror of the Paris attacks.

“But if I had to do it again,” she said, referring to her night caring for victims at Saint-Louis hospital, “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

>> Read Part 2: How the Paris attacks affected the lives of Bart, manager at La Belle Equipe restaurant; Nicolas, a real-estate agent who lived near the Bataclan concert hall; and Jean-Baptiste, a history teacher.

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