Paris Survivors Healing the Scars of Bataclan
Three months ago, a trio of Islamist terrorists stormed the Bataclan theater in Paris and slaughtered 90 people. Those who survived are still struggling to come to terms with what happened that night.
A colorful cup emblazoned with the children's book character Barbapapa stands in the sink and a bib belonging to his youngest daughter, who is two, hangs from the window handle. It has three smiling Dalmatians on it.
Arnaud, a 41-year-old graphic artist who asked us not to use his last name, is sitting at the kitchen table in front of a brightly tiled wall. He draws a circle on a piece of paper using a black ballpoint pen.
"The pile of bodies," he says.
In Arnaud's kitchen, the horror of that night is illustrated with pen marks, cross-hatches and arrows. They indicate stairs, emergency exits and the stage, with the security barrier in front of it. The circle marks the spot where the dead bodies piled up on top of each other. Right in the middle of the concert hall. He had to pass the spot on two separate occasions that night.
On another sheet of paper, he draws the narrow, L-shaped corridor where the terrorists held him, his wife Marie and 10 other concertgoers hostage. They were kept there for more than two hours -- a small eternity when you know you could die at any moment.
Arnaud was the last one to leave the Bataclan alive on the night of the attack. He was the last to be freed. It was at 12:23 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 14 and he was lying on the floor in that narrow hallway. His right eardrum was ruptured and metal shrapnel from Foued Mohamed-Aggad's suicide belt was embedded in his back.
Crying, Arnaud recalls: "I opened my eyes and I was lying in a lake of blood and entrails. Damn, I thought, I'm breathing."
Three months later, he still has myriad questions about what happened that night. Did the stairs at the end of the hallway save his life? Why didn't Foued Mohamed-Aggad and Ismaël Omar Mostefaï simply kill their hostages before the crack commando from the Brigade de recherche et d'intervention (BRI) arrived and pulled one hostage after the other behind their bullet-proof Ramses shield? Before the police pushed their wheeled, 80 kilogram protective shield centimeter by centimeter into the corridor? Before Mostefaï was shot and Mohamed-Aggad exploded?
The Collective Conscience
Arnaud draws a small circle inside of a rectangle: After it was all over, the head of one of the terrorists was lying on the staircase landing.
The horror of Nov. 13, 2015 has burned itself into the collective conscience of the French populace. On that night, the brightly painted Bataclan, one of the oldest concert houses in Paris, was the target of an attack and was transformed into a mass grave. Ninety people were killed, slaughtered by three young men armed with Kalashnikovs and suicide belts.
An additional 40 people died in other attacks on bars and restaurants in eastern Paris, where the Bataclan is also located. A total of 130 people lost their lives in a massacre of the likes not seen in Paris since World War II. Three months later, Arnaud and all those who experienced, and survived, that night are still reliving the terror every day.
The country at large -- along with its political leaders -- is likewise still coming to terms with what happened. French mourning has ceded to a kind of apathy with people stoically following the political debates, knowing full well that neither an extension of the emergency laws nor the draconian measures that are now to be pushed through will be able to prevent terror and radicalism. Instead, they are just dividing the country even further.
At a café on the Seine, we meet with a member of the BRI who was part of the unit that stormed the Bataclan. Wearing a forest green quilted jacket, he declines to be identified. His recollections of that night are like memories of a war. He describes the concert hall as a mass grave and speaks of a carpet of death.
"We were swimming in blood. What can I say? That's my job. But I had never experienced anything like that before. You can't really prepare for something like it."
Like Arnaud, he was there until the very end, standing behind the Ramses shield as they pushed their way forward in the corridor to kill the terrorists. Only several days after the attack did he gather the courage to pull his shoes out of a plastic bag and clean them. They were full of blood.
A Kalashnikov and a Backpack
He swipes at his smartphone to find the details of the attack. By 10 p.m. that night, some 5,000 calls had been made to the emergency hotline. His unit reached the Bataclan at 10:15 p.m.
A half hour earlier, at 9:40 p.m., a black Polo parked in front of the building on Boulevard Voltaire. At 9:42, a text message from a Samsung mobile phone was sent to a recipient in Belgium who has not yet been identified. "We're there. It's starting," the text read. The mobile phone was found later in a trashcan next to the Bataclan. Between 9:48 p.m., when the three men armed with Kalashnikovs stormed the Bataclan, and 10:15 p.m., when the BRI vehicle pulled up in front of the theater, 89 people lost their lives.
"It takes a while of course before you comprehend what's happening. What you are seeing doesn't correspond to your reality. You're at a concert in Paris, you bought the tickets months ago. You're listening to music, dancing a bit, and suddenly a man with a machine gun rushes in and starts shooting."
The music stopped abruptly; Jofre and those next to him intuitively threw themselves onto the floor. Because he didn't know where the emergency exit was, Alex Jofre would spend the two hours, from 10 p.m. until shortly before midnight, in a box near the stage. He had to cram himself inside in the fetal position. The box measured just 1 x 1.5 meters and was 40 centimeters high. He covered his head and shoulders with a black cloth he found in the box.
First his legs began to hurt and then they lost all feeling. He could hear the terrorists playing with people and making fun of them. "If you stand up now, you can go," they called. Then shots would immediately follow.
Don't Look Down
Only after the hall had been cleared -- except for the dead -- and the hostage situation on the upper floor was underway did the police find the motionless man in the box. Keep your eyes on the ceiling, he was told by the policeman who led him out. Don't look ahead and whatever you do, don't look down at the floor.
"I am the victim of an attack." It is a sentence that Alex Jofre repeats so often that he seems like he is still trying to get used to this new reality. Jofre, 38, is from Argentina but has lived the last 12 years in Paris. He is a musician himself, but also works in a Nespresso shop.
"I don't know how to deal with my fear. Hardly a second goes by in which I don't think back to that night in the Bataclan. Actually, I'm only calm when I'm sleeping. I don't have nightmares. But when I look out of my window, I can feel that somebody is aiming at me from across the street. That they want to shoot me. I am the victim of an attack."
In contrast to Alex Jofre, Louise Jardin, 28, didn't notice anything at all at first. Beer in hand, she was standing directly in front of the stage on the side where the bassist was playing. When she heard the first shots, she thought they were firecrackers, part of the performance. Wow, she thought to herself.
That Friday marked the fourth time that she had seen Eagles of Death Metal live and the Bataclan was her favorite venue. But then, the music stopped. When she turned around, she saw how the people behind her were ducking for cover or were already lying on the floor. A man standing about an arm's length from her fell over, staring at her intently the entire time. She recalls:
"I saw in his eyes that he was no longer alive. Then came the smell of warm blood, sweet, pungent. I cowered down in front of the barrier and held my purse in front of my head. A girl was lying next to me and she whispered to me, she really wanted to know my name. Louise, I told her and I remember wondering why she wanted to know my name at a time like that. Strange things go through your head in such moments. I completely lost track of time, I could hear my phone vibrating in my purse. I tried not to look up. There were dead bodies, blood, body parts everywhere. I don't know any more when I was hit, when they shot at me. The back of my head and my neck became really warm. And then it hurt pretty badly. My head throbbed and my ears hissed. It was like somebody had thrown a handball as hard as they could into the back of my head. Only, it was bleeding. Now they've got me, I thought. This is what dying feels like. The girl next to me kept mumbling the whole time: This can't be, this can't be. And it really was kind of like being in a movie."
Calmly but Quickly
Something exploded nearby. To distract herself, Louise began counting the vibrations of her phone in her handbag.
The detonation she heard was the attacker Samy Amimour. He was hit by a police bullet at 10:07 p.m. and his suicide belt exploded. At the time, he was the only one of the attackers still downstairs in the concert hall. The others had likely already made their way up to the balcony.
The hall was emptied a short time later. A male voice called out: "Stand up and leave the building, calmly but quickly." Louise remembers that she almost laughed at his choice of words. How is that supposed to work? "Calmly but quickly?" In such a situation?
She doesn't want to be seen as "the victim of an attack." Sitting on a white leather sofa three months after the violence, the young woman pushes her horn-rimmed glasses into her blonde hair and says: "I was there. That's all there is." Now when Louise goes to a concert, she checks on the Internet first to see where the emergency exits are.
In the beginning, Louise says, she thought she had managed bury her emotions and put events behind her. She went straight back to work. Then Christmas came and she suddenly found she was afraid of Christmas trees. She had fears a terrorist might be hiding in the tree and that the branches could shoot at her. "It's extremely absurd, I know," she says. But the fear didn't go away.
"It's the feeling that I could die at any time. Someone comes, kills me and that's it." Her 28th birthday in mid-January was the first in many years when she didn't throw a big party. She has asked her friends not to talk about that night anymore, and she no longer wants to read anything about it. Nor does she want to meet any other survivors. It's too sad, she says.
"I tell myself, It's great that you survived. Really cool even. And now I also have to do something great with my life." That stress is a burden she has to carry, and it's not one she likes.
Psychologists say it is often difficult for survivors of mass shootings to accept that there is a before and an after. That the horror of what they have experienced is so great they will be unable to suppress it. It may be possible to put it on the back burner for a while, but at some point it pushes its way back to the front with a vengeance.
'This Way, This Way!'
Aka Hermann, 39, was one of the few that night who knew where the Bataclan emergency exits were located. Hermann had worked there as a security guard for six years and it was a job he enjoyed. When the concert began, he was standing behind the barrier in front of the left side of the stage. He remembers the audience's exuberant mood and how all the visitors in the front had been enjoying themselves until the attack began. Cool, firecrackers! he recalls one young man calling out.
When the people in the back collapsed forward and the crowd in the hall began swaying to and fro to the horrific rhythm of the Kalashnikov salvos, Hermann opened the doors to the backstage area and the emergency exit behind the stage. "This way," he screamed, "this way." He was almost stampeded by the crowd.
Herman also didn't think he would need any psychological care -- at least not until he could no longer manage to walk down the street out of fear that passing cars might be trying to run him down. One day, during a panic attack on a commuter train, he began shaking so badly that he had to get off.
On a Tuesday in mid-January, he went back to his former workplace on the Boulevard Voltaire. Candles and flowers lined the sidewalk across from it. It was the first time he had stepped back inside the Bataclan since the attacks, and he seemed pleased to have gone. He showed us pictures on his mobile phone. There are images of the concert hall, the stage, the bar, with countless white crosses taped all over the place marking the bullet holes.
Arnaud, the graphic artist who was the last hostage held by Ismaël Omar Mostefaï and Foued Mohamed-Aggad, also wants to return to the Bataclan. He wants to see if, at the end of the L-shaped corridors there actually is a small protrusion as he remembers it and he wants to know how many steps there are to the spot where Mohamed-Aggad died and whether there is an explanation for the fact that the terrorist, who had been standing next to him seconds earlier, didn't at that moment detonate his explosive belt, which would have killed both of them.
Bringing Murder to a Land of Peace
He says he has often had sudden outbursts of anger since the attacks. It just happens. Then he has moments where he thinks about taking revenge on one of these radicals, as he puts it. "I wouldn't kill him, but I would torture him," he says. He remembers his defenselessness and subjection. He remembers how the terrorists pointed their weapons at them and said, "Take a good listen, listen to the screams -- that's how our women and children scream, the ones France is bombing."
In such moments, Arnaud has to pause for a moment and breathe deeply, which helps him to regain his calm. "I was born in 1974, my generation knows nothing of wars or suffering. We wanted to go to a concert and we wound up in a war. We were no match," he says in his kitchen, standing in front of the colorful tiles.
Killing was also something the perpetrators had to learn. They brought violence to a country that had allowed them to grow up in peace.
Arnaud's wife Marie doesn't want to accompany him when he takes a look around Bataclan. She says she will never enter the corridor again. She also doesn't want to be present in the kitchen when Arnaud explains how the two survived the night.
Arnaud speaks quickly, in a monotone voice. He constantly draws over his markings with new ones. Gray becomes black. There's the balcony with its red railing, the four seats behind the sound engineers' booth underneath which Arnaud and Marie crawled after they realized what was actually happening -- that guns were being fired on the floor downstairs at the concert they were attending.
Arnaud could smell the gun powder and he could hear the shots being fired, but he only registered what was happening when he saw two people fall from the balcony. From under the seats, the pair could hear the Kalashnikovs, and every time Arnaud tried to look and see what was happening, Marie would push his head back to the ground.
People crawled past them. When the shooting stopped after about 20 minutes, the pair ran to the staircase. The stairs were covered in blood and slippery. They could hear screams below. Arnaud pulled Marie back to the seats.
"If you don't do anything stupid, you will live," a person standing next to them said.
The voice belonged to Foued Mohamed-Aggad.
"He somehow looked almost nice," Arnaud says.
A Scene from Schindler's List
Ismaël Omar Mostefaï emerged from behind Mohamed-Aggad, with "a bizarre hairstyle, bangs that looked as though they had been pasted to his forehead," Arnaud recalls. He says Mostefaï reminded him of a Playmobil action figure. Both pushed Arnaud and Marie and a few others in front of them across the balcony and into a narrow corridor. From above, Arnaud could see a pile of bodies downstairs on the dance floor. He says it was an image that reminded him of Spielberg's "Schindler's List."
From the corridor, two large windows face out onto the Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot, one of the narrow alleys that flank the side of the Bataclan. Arnaut, the tallest person in the group, was ordered to stand watch. Marie was then placed in front of a closed door in the hallway.
"At first, I was happy we were separated. This, I thought, would increase the chances that at least one of us would survive and that our daughters wouldn't be left entirely alone after this night. But I didn't really believe we were going to survive. Mostefaï was simply crazy. He repeatedly jammed his weapon into our ribs. It seemed like he was on drugs. Both kept on talking about their caliphate. When they didn't want us to understand what they were saying, they would use a few scraps of Arabic, but it sounded pretty rudimentary."
Mostefaï , 29, was from a Parisian suburb. What little that is known about him suggests that his family environment had been radicalized, in contrast to most of the other perpetrators. He fired down at the street through the window, telling Mohamed-Aggad repeatedly that it was time for them to blow themselves up.
But Mohamed-Aggad, who the hostages understood to be the leader, shook his head. He originated from France's Alsace region and had never stood out. Former teachers described him as a polite young man. It is reported that he wanted to become a police officer, but was rejected by the police academy as well as the army.
Mohamed-Aggad wanted to know if there was a married couple among the hostages. Marie and Arnaud remained silent.
He was looking for someone he could dispatch to negotiate with the security forces deployed to the Bataclan, a person he could be certain would return. By that point, no one doubted any longer that it was only a matter of time before a BRI unit would storm the corridor.
At regular intervals, a hostage was forced to shout "get lost or else we'll all be blown up" through the door. In the end, two cousins spoke up and one was sent outside. Mostefaï and Mohamed-Aggad began collecting the mobile phones of their hostages before setting them on the floor. The phones were almost permanently vibrating, with the word "mom" flashing on some displays.
Terrorists 'Not Particularly Bright'
"The two weren't particularly bright. They also weren't well organized. After they thought aloud for a while about how they could secure a pair of Walkie-Talkies, one of us proposed that they use one of the mobile phones to negotiate. That was dangerous, though, because you weren't supposed to address them. Eye contact, particularly with Mostefaï, was to be avoided because it would make him aggressive. He could no longer hear correctly out of one ear --probably because of the ear-shattering noise of his weapon. At one point, one of us began laughing hysterically because things just kept getting more absurd. Mohamed-Aggad kept trying to tell Mostefaï something, but he was unable to understand him. That got Mohamed-Aggad worked up. When he heard the laughter, Mostefaï made the hostages stand up and fired shots close to their heads. If that happens again, you're dead, he screamed. Both were getting increasingly nervous. I don't think the hostage-taking had been planned."
A BRI source confirms Arnaud's statements and says he shares his assessment. He says that the same police officer who negotiated with Amedy Coulibaly in January 2015 also spoke with the two terrorists inside the Bataclan. "Coulibaly was very calm, but these two were extremely nervous," says the BRI source, who is also familiar with the contents of the phone calls.
Mostefaï and Mohamed-Aggad took Marie's mobile phone to conduct the negotiations. There are recordings of the telephone calls. In them, the men come across as being erratic. "We can see the red laser points of your sharpshooters. We can hear you behind the door. I want to know who I am talking to. I want you to leave the country and for your armies to withdraw. I want a signed paper. It's 11:32 p.m. right now and if I don't have anything within five minutes, I will kill a hostage and throw that person out the window."
Or: "I don't care. We aren't afraid. We want to negotiate. We will let these people go and everything will go well." Five calls were made between 11:27 p.m. and 12:18 a.m. During the final call, they said, "Clear the door, we have explosives belts and we will blow ourselves up if you get any closer. We have hostages."
Arnaud continued to stand at the window, his body in pain from the tension. He found himself dreaming of the apartment on the other side of the street, where a television could be seen playing behind the curtains.
At 12:18 a.m., the BRI's 80-kilogram Ramses shield pushed open the door separating the balcony from the corridor. The lights went out. Stun grenades were volleyed through the air. Arnaud turned around and could see a panicked expression in Mostefaï's face.
"Come here," he shouted at the hostage at the window as he fired toward the door. Arnaud is the only one who followed him.
According to the findings of the investigation, the explosives Mohamed-Aggad had been wearing were triggered, but only the front part. It is unknown whether he detonated it himself or if it exploded when struck by a bullet. Mostefaï's explosive belt reportedly remained intact.
When Arnaud opened his eyes again, he saw a severed foot. His back was hot and wet and he could feel himself bleeding. It was Saturday, at 12:23 a.m. Half an hour later, he was standing in the courtyard of a neighboring building hugging his wife. All the hostages survived.
Most plan to attend a concert on Tuesday, Feb. 16, in the legendary Olympia concert hall in central Paris. The Eagles of Death Metal have come here to finish the concert that got interrupted that Friday night.
Marie plans to go. Louise Jardin will be there, and Alex Jofre will also attend.
Arnaud is going to stay home with his two daughters.