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These Are the Scars From the Paris Attacks That You Can't See

“France is afraid," said one woman who lives in the Saint-Denis neighborhood that was the scene of a violent stand-off Wednesday. "People are not used to terrorism in France. Now, it’s a nightmare.”

by Rachel Browne
Nov 19 2015, 12:10am

Francois Mori/AP

Residents of Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris, woke up before dawn on Wednesday to the sound of rapid gunfire, explosions, and sirens as scores of police officers in balaclavas and riot gear raided an apartment complex to hunt down the "mastermind" behind last week's massacres in Paris.

Seven hours later, it was over. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian man believed to have carried out the attacks, and another man were reportedly killed. A woman, reportedly Abaaoud's cousin, is said to have blown herself up. And seven more people were arrested.

Those inside the apartment complex were evacuated, and everyone else was urged to stay inside. Carole Massée could see it all from her balcony. She was terrified, but had to put on a brave face for her young daughter. They kept low to the ground for hours.

"We just heard all the noise and I didn't know what was happening. I didn't know if the shots would reach us or if there would be explosions. It was like being in Baghdad," she said later in the day while holding her daughter's hand in front of their building. Her eyes were still bloodshot from crying and lack of sleep. "I tried to tell my daughter to sleep, to stay in bed. I don't know if I was able to calm her down."

But even as things started to get back to normal, she couldn't shake the fear that violence could strike again near her home at any time. "France is afraid. People are not used to terrorism in France. Now, it's a nightmare."

Ahmed Keita and his roommates also heard gunshots that morning. They stuck their heads out their window and saw bullets flying. The recent Cote D'Ivoire immigrant hid in the apartment and eventually police came and told them to put their hands on their heads and wait at a nearby grocery store.

"We left our homes, Cote d'Ivoire, [thinking we] would have some peace in Europe," said Keita, pulling his hood over his head as he sat hunched over on the steps of a building near the city center. "And we come here ... it's really discouraging,"

They are the invisible casualties of terrorism — people who were not necessarily at the site of the bloody attacks, but who have had a front row seat to the state's ruthless purging of extremism. As France buries the 129 who have died since last week, and survivors begin to heal, the layers of trauma cannot be ignored.

"The attackers could be anyone," said Carole Massée. "My neighbor. It could be you."

Guillaume Denoix de Saint Marc, executive director of the French Association for Victims of Terrorism, said his group's phones have been ringing off the hook since Friday's attacks. Survivors of the attack, as well as the friends and family of those who were killed, are looking to get counseling and other mental health supports. Over the last four days, his group has met with more than 100 people. They will be tripling their staff and moving into a bigger space to accommodate everyone.

"It's a wave of people who are traumatized, who need help as soon as possible," he said in a café in the 17th arrondissement near his office. He expects thousands more will be asking for the same sort of help over the coming weeks.

"All of Paris is clearly affected. Yes, people are going back to live their lives, but even here you see the impact. This café would normally be filled with people this time, but now it's nearly empty. Something is not right."

Denoix de Saint Marc's group provides access to counselling, legal advice, and healthcare services for victims of terrorism around the world over a number of attacks in France and beyond.

But what makes this most recent string of attacks unique from the others is the targeting of young people, he said. One young man, in particular, sticks out to him. He lost eight friends in the killings at the Bataclan concert venue. Many other young people he has spoken with from the attacks have been seriously injured physically, and could have disabilities for the rest of their lives.

Related: In Photos: On the Scene of Deadly Police Raid in Saint-Denis

"It's these people who should not be alone," he said, "They should be with a group, they should share, and not keep things to themselves, otherwise they will feel disassociated from their community. That is the best way to heal," he said. "In the worst case, they may strengthen the trauma, or become prone to violence themselves."

He says he has seen this happen in his other work. "The problem comes from the fact that the targets of terrorism are usually not each individual person, but the broader society," Denoix de Saint Marc explained.

"I want their lives to go on. I don't want to destroy their lives at the beginning of it by being too much affected by what happened. What is a good thing is that at a young age, your mind is flexible, so they have to not push their trauma away, but do something with it, and they can do fantastic things from the trauma," he said. "It won't happen immediately, but I know it can with time."

What's at stake for witnesses and victims whose pain is left to fester, however, is the possibility they will resent the society around them. "And this is very specific to people affected by terrorism," he said.

Back in Saint-Denis, Massée looks around with worry. She is still gripping her daughter's hand. 

"The attackers could be anyone," she said. "My neighbor. It could be you."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne