As France commemorates its deadliest terror attack in recent history on Sunday, many remain traumatized. And there is widespread fear that more could be to come.
Emmanuel Domenach thought he was on the road to recovery. But on the eve of the Paris attacks anniversary, painful memories are flooding back.
“I feel the distress, the fatigue,” says Domenach, a survivor of last November’s rampage at the Bataclan concert hall that killed 90 people. “Psychologically, I’m reliving many things and it’s not easy to deal with.”
On Sunday, when France commemorates its deadliest terror attack in recent history, old wounds will reopen, even as more tangible traces remain of the string of shootings and bombings that killed 130 people and wounded more than 400.
Nearly two dozen victims are still hospitalized; hundreds are receiving psychological counselling. French tourism has plummeted and tens of thousands of soldiers, police and gendarmes are still deployed across the country. Rights groups warn of eroding civil liberties under the ongoing state of emergency and of an increasingly stigmatized Muslim community.
Equally troubling is the sense that last year’s “Islamic State” attacks were not a bookend to a bitter past, but opened a more fearful page in the nation’s history. There have been several others since, including the July truck rampage in Nice that killed 86 people. With authorities saying they are foiling terror plots daily, many here expect more to come.
“It’s a national trauma because we’ve had a number of terrorist attacks in different situations,” says Dominique Szepielak, a psychologist with the French Association of Terrorism Victims, who has treated a number of November 13 survivors. “When you get prepared for one sort of terrorism, it can then take another form. It’s very, very complicated.”
Getting on with life
On the surface, the city has returned to normal. On Saturday night the Bataclan reopened after a makeover and with a Sting concert that sold out in a matter of minutes. Other cafes and bars targeted by the jihadists are also back in business, blasted windows replaced and fresh coats of paint covering bullet-pocked walls.
“The past is always with us, but we all need to get on with life,” says Audrey Bily, manager of Cafe Bonne Biere, where gunmen shot dead five people.
The first establishment to reopen last December, the cafe is again packed with diners and drinkers, its refurbished interior cheerful and welcoming on a chilly evening. None of the staff were killed, but many are still traumatized.
“The team is really close and that’s important,” Bily says. “They help each other move forward and reconstruct their lives.”
Domenach stayed standing many minutes after the jihadists burst into the Bataclan, mistaking the gunfire ringing out for sound effects as the Eagles of Death Metal concert briefly continued. Then came the screams and shouts, and he saw gunmen pick off people standing next to the bar. When the attackers finally headed upstairs to the balcony, he escaped with dozens of others.
Worries of rising intolerance
Over the months, he has slowly pulled himself together, forcing himself to go out to concerts – although it is too early to return to the Bataclan. Now, the anniversary feels like a new blow.
“Just when you have the impression things are getting better, you’re back at the psychologist because the wounds are still there,” says Domenach, vice president of a survivor’s group called “November 13, Brotherhood and Truth.” “It feels like a kind of defeat.”
He’s worried, too, about the broader fallout of last year’s attack: the rising intolerance and hate speech on the streets, and what he considers as the government’s misguided, law-and-order response to terrorism. Far-right activists assailed him earlier this year, he says, after he dismissed rumors that the jihadists had tortured their Bataclan victims.
“As an association we’re fighting for solidarity and fraternity,” Domenach says, “and today we have the impression these values are being swept aside, and replaced by hate.”
He is not the only one worried.
A new report by the International Federation for Human Rights slams France’s state of emergency for rolling back civil liberties and cites police searches and other measures that unfairly single out the country’s Muslim community. FIDH lawyer Clemence Bectarte points to other measures adopted into law a few months ago that strengthen the hand of police and prosecutors and weaken that of the courts.
“It’s an alarming landscape,” Bectarte says. “These measures were inconceivable a few years ago.”
Trying to move on
Many hope to set aside these divisions on Sunday, as commemorations for the November 13 victims take place around the capital.
One of several plaques honouring the victims is already secured on a wall in northern Paris, waiting to be unwrapped. Stephane Dantier, who owns a restaurant nearby, doesn’t like it.
“It transforms this neighbourhood into a monument for the dead,” he says.
His bistro is still filled with diners on a recent afternoon, lingering over a late lunch. Across the way, a bar and restaurant where jihadists gunned down 15 people on a balmy November evening have reopened.
Last year’s attacks have tightened bonds in an already closely knit neighborhood, he says. But its hard for residents to move on.
“With the Nice attacks, it’s all come back,” Dantier says. “We’re all making a big effort, but we feel wounded.”