The football match was on, the bars were full, young Parisians were out on dates, dancing. It was those exact spots that became focal points of carnage and violence, people fleeing to safety in bloodied clothes, shaking uncontrollably, frantically calling their parents, siblings, loved ones, to tell them they were okay, but they don’t know where their friends are, or if they made it.
At the start, there was a chaotic flood of news on Twitter, on the streets, on French television. Was it explosions? Gunfire? Suicide bombers? Was it at the stadium where French President François Hollande was watching France play Germany?
Layers of memory
That little Cambodian restaurant I loved couldn’t have been attacked, I remember thinking. It was so innocuous, on that street corner. I had stumbled into that restaurant on a walk home the first time I ate there, figuring it looked authentic, and had trouble finding it on later occasions. I tried not to think of its glass front being shattered, of the terrified patrons inside.
Instead, I stood on the corner of Rue Commines and Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire, near the concert hall Bataclan, in an area that was being cordoned off as police in riot gear gathered. I saw law enforcement snipers discreetly eyeing the street from apartment windows, checking for any movement, looking for the killers.
At 11.21 pm, a sudden burst of young Parisians ran down Rue Commines in panic, faces clenched in terror as they sought safety. Many had just escaped the concert hall, where we would later learn that up to a 100 people could had been killed in an orgy of violence.
One man in a crumpled white shirt stained in blood tried to console the woman he was with, who, after running free, had collapsed in shock and grief on the pavement. The blood wasn’t his, he told me, visibly shaken. Others had been hit near him.
Blood and screams
Soon after, the ambulances and medical vans started to line up in a staging area fenced off with striped tape. The injured who could walk, walked, helped by bystanders who offered a hand, a coat, a shoulder to lean on. Others, bloody, screaming, were wheeled on stretchers into a cafe next to me that temporarily housed the wounded. Rescue workers wrapped them in gold space blankets that had the crackly shine of tinfoil to keep them warm. The blankets were pulled closer, higher, to cover the faces of the dead.
As happens in the cases of blinding, surreal terror, people huddled a bit closer, showed more kindness. On Friday night, bystanders helped strangers, cafe owners offered what they could – a hot drink to keep you warm, an electric outlet to charge your phone to call your family. Even Paris’s notorious taxi drivers offered free rides to get people home safe from the stadium.
But this historic city that has seen so much in its lifetime is also at a unique moment as it grapples with a different kind of terror, the kind of terror, where, on a Friday night, multiple attackers tear into multiple locations in the heart of the city to watch it bleed. And Paris, shaken, is searching for a voice to confront it.
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