What was supposed to be a month of relaxation in my hometown rapidly became overshadowed by terror that turned out to be my scariest time in France.
The recent terror that happened in my town, Paris, has made me realize two things: 1) we are never fully safe no matter what we think, 2) our French slogan Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité couldn’t have been truer than in these couple of days.
I always come home for the holidays. When school and midterms are over, I fly home and enjoy the break with my relatives and my friends in Paris.
This is exactly what happened; relaxing, fun times with my friends and family and a lot of happiness.
Everything was going great, almost too great and I was far from imagining that a terrorist attack was about to hit my country.
It happened on January 7th around 10:30 am.
I was on my way to the airport to pick up Nicole Sims, an American friend supposed to stay for a week. When I picked her up, we took the train back to my place. After more than 10 stops (the airport being away from the center of Paris), the train abruptly stopped at the station St Michel Notre Dame, and the driver started to talk.
“Somebody died a stop away, everybody needs to get off the train for now, unless you are willing to wait for five hours.”
I didn’t really understand why anyone would be willing to stay on the train for five hours, it didn’t make any sense to me. I explained the situation to my friend Nicole, who had no idea what was happening.
We both got off the train and walked to the exit of St Michel Notre Dame train station.
The streets were calm. It was the first day of sales in Paris and nobody seemed to be aware of it. People were walking to work or school, but nobody seemed to really know what occurred a stop away.
After calling a taxi, we both went home and took a little nap.
It was when I woke up that it all started and I quickly realized something was not right.
My phone was full of notifications coming from “Le Point, Le Monde, Express, ABC News, CNN…” It was terrifying.
I went downstairs to watch the news; all the French channels were talking about one thing: a terrorist attack that occurred at Charlie Hebdo in the 11th district of Paris. “12 people killed including 4 of the best illustrators of the magazine (Stéphane Charbonnier, Jean Cabut, Georges Wolinski, Bernard Verlhac often known as Tignous).”
Charb, Cabut, Wolinski and Tignous were the main leaders (Chab being the editor in chief) and cartoonists of the Charlie Hebdo magazine.
It is probably the only satirical newspaper in France that tends to make fun of religion, extreme-right wing, culture and politics. The newspaper came out in 1970, shortly after the cultural revolution of May 1968 in France, a turning point in the history of the country. For my parents, this terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo was more than a disaster, it was the end of an era, the end of something they had grew up with and something they had believed in for so long.
“It is awful for us because we grew up with Charb, Cabu… we read Charlie Hebdo since the beginning,” said my mom almost tearing. “Charlie Hebdo has been a bearer of fun, the only magazine that taught us how to combine sense of humor with a critical mind. Charb, Cabu, Wolinski were like schoolmates.”
My friend Nicole joined us a couple of minutes after. It didn’t take me long to explain her the situation because her grandmother had already emailed her.
“I see what’s happening over there, are you OK? Is everything OK?” asked Nicole’s grandmother.
It was not OK, but everybody was pretending that it was. My mom kept comforting Nicole and I by telling us that it would be fine as long as we avoid the tourist places, and I kept joking around with Nicole and telling her that she would still be able to enjoy her stay in France. Despite this, the entire French nation, if not Europe, was entering a period of mourning.
Later that evening, the government and the police officials made an announcement; the terrorists had ran away and it was impossible to find them.
On the first day, the hunt and the terror had officially started.
On the second day, my entire country was officially in mourning. While stores, bars and other public places were still open, police officers and military personnel were everywhere. Near the main monuments as well as the streets. Despite the fact that it was the second day of sales, almost no one went shopping. It was terrifying and it became scarier for me when I decided to go out for a couple of hours to check on one of my cousins working at Printemps, an upmarket store in the 9th district of Paris. I wanted to make sure she was fine, the Printemps being a main target for a terrorist attack. After telling Nicole I would be back in a couple of hours, I left.
As soon as I jumped off the bus at the stop Chatêlet les Halles, my phone was bombarded with phone calls, texts, and notifications from my mother, my friends…
“Don’t go outside, there is another terrorist named Coulibali who just shot a police officer,” said my mom.
“Lisa I hope you are OK, the shooting happened a stop away from your house,” said Skena Gomes, a friend from high school.
I didn’t know what to do at all and this is when I figured that instead of freaking out, I should just go to my dad’s office in the 1st district of Paris—not that far away from where I was. I called my cousin, made sure that she was fine and walked to my dad’s office.
At that time, I wasn’t scared, just lost. I couldn’t believe what was happening and how I would react if I happened to be in front of one of the terrorists.
While walking to my dad’s office, I remarked how “Je suis Charlie” was written everywhere. On the ground, on the walls, in stores, on social media…People had even created billboards under “Je suis Charlie’s” name. It was incredible. I also noticed how the only conversations people had were all focused on Charlie Hebdo, the terrorist named Coulibali and the Kouachi’s brothers. Every TV channel and radio station was only talking about the terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo. The 27 year-old police officer who was killed on the second day and the terrorists who ran away.
This is when I understood that the only way I could escape this disturbing atmosphere was by listening to some music.
At my dad’s office, everybody was watching the news or at least listening to what was occurring. The journalists on TV kept emphasizing the fact that it was important to be careful and to absolutely let the authorities know if we had seen them.
I stayed an hour before deciding to head back home. I took the train home, I only had 5 stops. The continuing tension made me even more nervous than I already was. I came back home, my mother was there and the TV was on. Nicole and I rapidly joined my mom downstairs. Obviously, most channels were talking about Charlie Hebdo. On one channel the president was talking; on another channel, the terrorists were shown on under the title: WANTED. On another channel, the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack was explained with further details…it was everywhere and social media started to fill in. Other countries started to show their support to France, a lot of European representatives such as Angela Merkel (chancellor of Germany and one of the main leaders of the European Union), David Cameron (England’s prime minister), even President Obama and John Kerry (America’s current secretary of state) showed their support to the French nation, the freedom of speech and liberty of expression.
It was touching, but depressing. That evening, I had a really hard time sleeping. How can you sleep when you know that the terrorists are still out there and nobody knows where they are?
It was frightening and I couldn’t sleep. Everytime I heard a noise, I had to stand up, turn on the lights and wait. For me, going to sleep was even harder than going outside during the day because it was just me, myself and I; whereas during the day, it was my compatriots, the tourists and I.
While joking around with Nicole, I could forget about the situation, but when I had to sleep, I thought about it and wondered what would happen if they found me. I was scared, if not terrified, by this thought.
On the third day, Nicole and I were invited to lunch at one of my best friend’s houses: Jessica Jules, on the Champs Elysées, in the 8th district.
As soon as we got there, the tension was recurrent. No French people seemed to be there, the only languages I could hear were English, Chinese, Spanish and Russian. Police officers and military were once again everywhere.
A couple of hours after lunch, Jessica, Nicole and I decided to go outside and walk around for a little while. We were sick of being stuck at home, sick of being scared for our lives when we didn’t even ask for it.
We decided to distract our minds by shopping. Looking at shoes and clothes was the perfect way to forget about the tumult happening around us.
After two hours of shopping, Nicole and I headed back home. When we got off the first train, I got a phone call from one of my cousins.
“Watch the news if you can! They already killed the Kouachi brothers and they are now trying to kill Coulibali, it’s on live!” said my cousin.
I couldn’t watch the news but we headed back home as soon as we could.
When we got off the second train, my cousin called me again. She was at home, watching the news with my mom.
“The police officers killed the three terrorists! It’s over,” said my cousin.
“What do you mean?!”
“They found the two brothers in a printing company Dammartin-en-Goele, a town an hour away from paris and Coulibali was in a Jewish supermarket in Vincennes,”said my cousin. They killed him and freed most of the people in the supermarket although four of them died.”
It’s when my heart stopped and I realized that it might be the end of three days of terror.
I told Nicole that they killed them and that we would finally be able to sleep at night.
We came back home and watched the news until late in the evening. All of us, my parents, my cousin, Nicole and I wanted to know the details on how they got them, how it happened: everything.
I am not going to lie: it was a sad and joyful day. Joyful, because we would finally be able to “live” again, but sad because while the police officers managed to kill the terrorists before they hurt other people, the third terrorist (Coulibali) had time to go inside a supermarket and shoot four Jewish people. Overall, the three terrorists killed 17 people in three days.
This doesn’t seem like a lot but for a country like mine, but it was a failure, a failure of our socialist system.
Later in the evening, our president, Francois Hollande announced that there would be a marche Republicaine, starting at “Place de la République, in the 11th district where the attack happened, in honor of all the dead people and to promote the values of the French nation: liberty, equality, and fraternity. In honor of all these people, we would all unite no matter which background we came from, what origin and what race.
On January 11, 2015, at 3 pm, Nicole, my mom, my cousin and I went to the march.
A usual lazy Sunday became a busy day with crowded subways and cramped streets. We got off at Strasbourg st Denis, a station away from Republique. People were coming from all different parts of the world. That’s the first thing that flabbergasted me. The amount of people, all here for the same purpose.
Some Muslims people were singing and yelling “Je suis Musulman et je suis Charlie” I am Muslim and I am Charlie, in the crowd, while others were singing the French anthem. No matter what people were doing, others were encouraging them.
It was an amazing atmosphere. An ambiance that made me realize how much I loved my country, no matter what people say, we are united and always here for each other.
During this march, I got to observe people; I observed the way people looked at each other and spread love and unity. People were smiling, hugging one another, singing…it was mind-blowing.
Despite our differences, more than 4 million people all around France gathering to promote the same values was astonishing to me.
I even saw a 75 year-old man who said to my mom that it was important for him to be here because he cared and that the only way to show it was to be part of the march.
Despite the amount of people and the fear of being walked over, he came along, and I truly loved it.
It was a moving and happy march. A walk I’ll always remember.
I’ve never been happier to be French than during that week. In one week, I came up to realize that we were probably stronger together than we thought we were. And this was really important to us. I am not saying that we needed such a terrible experience like what took place to realize that, but it certainly made the French nation and the countries surrounding us aware that we needed to all unite in order to fight against terrorism and our maintain our rights in general.
I also came up to realize that if “I am Charlie” embodied freedom of speech, freedom of religion, liberty equality fraternity between people, then the whole world is probably all Charlie. At least I am proud to admit that yes, “Je suis Charlie” and always will be.