How One Survivor's Life Has Changed Since the Paris Terrorist Attacks
This article originally appeared on VICE France.
One year ago, two terrorists burst into the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people in cold blood. Two days later, another man attacked the mini-market Hyper Cacher in the 12th arrondissement, killing three customers and a clerk. On November 13, 2015, Paris came under attack yet again, the killers taking 130 lives and injuring 352 more.
Twenty-one-year-old Julia*, a student who lives in Paris, was at the Bataclan that evening, where 90 Eagles of Death Metal fans died. After hiding for half an hour among dead bodies and almost taking a bullet in her hand, she managed to flee the venue along with a friend. We met with Julia to talk about what life has been like since that horrible evening. The following is her account, edited for length and clarity.
If I think about it properly, my behavior—or my daily life—hasn't exactly changed, but perhaps it's too early to say that for sure. Yet, ever since the Bataclan attacks, everything feels a bit absurd—as though I live in a movie or a dream. Everything I do—mundane chores, like cooking or shopping—now seems strange and almost inappropriate. I keep wondering how it's possible for me to be going about my routine when so many died. I almost feel guilty. That said, I don't suffer from shock, despite the things I saw that evening. I can't explain why.
I also feel like, after enduring that, I can get through anything. For about half an hour, I was convinced that I was going to die. The result is that nothing really scares me today. Of course, I jump out of my shoes when I hear a bang or something like that, but I'm not sure this is out of fear. I gather that it's an automatic response: My brain and my body are still on alert. They were guided by my survival instinct for 30 minutes and have been ever since. In fact, I feel much more alive now; my senses—my hearing and my vision, in particular—have improved.
Watch our interview with the Eagles of Death Metal:
I find myself being less cautious without wanting to—for instance, I sometimes cross the road without looking to see if a car is coming. In that regard, my relationship with death has evolved. People are scared of the unknown. After going through that psychological experience, I have no reason to be scared of death.
During the attack I was surprised at how my body reacted. When everyone lay down on the floor after hearing the first shots, I thought it was weird that my heart didn't start racing or that my body didn't start shaking. I was so calm and didn't try to escape or find a solution; I simply let events guide me, which kept me from analyzing anything too much and therefore feeling afraid. The fact that my friend Florian* stayed close by probably helped, too.
However, I did get stressed when Florian and I took advantage of the fact that a lot of people got up to run and flee. We were doing something about our situation; we stopped being victims. But right in the moment, I wasn't sure if running away was a smart move, because the terrorists had already shot some of the people who had tried to escape. That decision was extremely hard to take.
"I keep wondering how it's possible for me to be going about my routine when so many died. I almost feel guilty."
Shots started being fired in our direction, so we had to lie down again. I wondered again if I should give up and become passive, or try to escape again. It was hard to make a choice. Florian thought the same thing.
It took me a few days before I could remember the 30 seconds of escaping—my brain had kind of erased that moment, and even now only a few images come to mind when I try to recall it.
I only began to understand how serious the situation was when I saw injured people on the pavement outside the venue. It affected me more than the dead bodies I had seen inside. A little later we went to a flat nearby with some other survivors. The atmosphere was unreal. Nobody could comprehend what we had just experienced. We were listening to the radio and everybody cried when they heard a man describing what he'd just seen. It was not until I saw the videos and heard others talk about it that I fully realized the extent of the horror.
Throughout that weekend I couldn't do anything but read or watch anything related to the attacks. I watched all the videos and looked at all the most gruesome photos because I didn't know what else I could do. I needed to convince myself that it had all actually happened. I remember watching footage taken by a journalist from his window near the Bataclan, hearing the screams and the shots and feeling removed from it.
The video Julia watched after the attacks
I stopped doing that about a week after the attacks. I didn't feel like I needed to take part in the mass commemoration because I had experienced what was being commemorated myself. I guess I was "touched" by the "Je suis en terrasse" ["I am on the terrace," a reference to the outdoor seating outside many French cafes] movement, but at the same time I can't help but detect a certain hypocrisy in it.
I saw Florian that Sunday—two days after the event. We went to the 11th arrondissement to find out what we needed to do in order to get our belongings that had been left at the Bataclan. That felt extremely absurd, considering what had happened.
Eventually we got called into the venue. When I was asked to hand in the ticket I'd been given in the cloakroom, I became acutely aware of the importance I had implanted in physical things that reminded me of the attack. I wanted to keep my ticket, even though it was bloodstained. I've also kept the entrance ticket. There's nothing in the world I would exchange it for. Same goes for the clothes I wore that evening. They were also bloodstained, so my mom washed them. If it had been up to me I'd have kept them in a box, unwashed, so I could look at them from time to time. I'm not sure what makes me want to do that—perhaps I'm afraid that time will take certain memories away. I know other survivors have done the same. I also placed my shoes—also covered in blood—in a corner in my flat and haven't touched them since. They're disgusting, clearly, but I need to keep them.
That same Sunday, Florian told me he was "happy to be alive." I can't say I share that feeling. I'm obviously glad I'm still breathing, but never told myself so. Florian also said he didn't feel comfortable taking the Metro or staying in an enclosed place. For me, it's more complicated; I remember being in the university library one day, looking at everyone around me and thinking, "They are oblivious." They didn't have any reason to fear anything. Thinking they were as unsuspecting as the people who were with me at the Eagles of Death Metal concert made me feel deeply uneasy.
"I feel connected to the people who almost died with me, even though I don't know them and probably won't ever see them again."
Since November 13, I'm a lot more indecisive and prone to mood changes than I was before. I plan to do something, and then I change my mind. I never used to be that way. I lost interest for certain things and activities as well. Although I started studies that are going to last for a long time, I ask myself why I did that. What purpose could that serve when everything could disappear in a second?
For a while I saw a counsellor. I talked and cried and it did me a lot of good. I did speak to my family about what had happened in detail, but I couldn't tell them how I felt because I didn't want to worry them. I also want to keep a few things for myself.
Talking about what I went through that evening with others makes me uncomfortable at times. I don't like it when my relatives talk about it because they don't necessarily know how to approach the subject correctly—I don't even know how they should—and I don't think they can understand what I went through, even if I tell them the full story. Paradoxically, for the weeks after it happened I couldn't talk about anything else. That's why I wanted to stay with Florian, who wasn't a very close friend then but who has become since November 13; only he could understand me.
The fact that my friends didn't go through it with me kind of put a distance between us. A few told me that everything was OK because I was alive. When they were told I was alive, they didn't care about how many people had died. It's hard to accept that when I identify as part of the group we formed that evening—us, the victims and survivors of the Bataclan. I feel connected to the people who almost died with me, even though I don't know them and probably won't ever see them again. I may not have lost anyone I knew that evening, but it's hard to face the fact that while we survived, 90 others lost their lives. That feeling of having failed them is horrendous. Since then, I feel like nothing shouldn't be taken for granted, because it's all hanging by a thread.
*Names have been changed.