A year after Paris attacks, former neighbours of terrorists feel forgotten

Saint Denis

Saint Denis

A year after the deadly November 13 Paris attacks, people who lived near the terrorists say they lost everything in the ensuing police operation and have been forgotten by the authorities.

Five days after the coordinated attacks – which included a mass shooting at the Bataclan concert hall and left 130 people dead across the French capital – police tracked down the ringleader Abdelhamid Abaoud and two accomplices to an apartment in the deprived suburb of Saint-Denis. Specialist terrorism officers from an elite unit eventually killed Abaoud and his cohorts in an overnight raid, but only after a dramatic six-hour standoff.

As the first anniversary of the tragedy approaches, Abaoud’s former neighbour Zaklina Kojic feels anxious as evening approaches. She and her husband Goran now need to take pills to sleep.

On that fateful night, she was woken up by an explosion. A burst of gunfire followed and the couple hid with their six-year-old son under the bed. There they remained, too frightened to move.

At the time, Kojic had no idea what was happening. Only after the police assault ended, did she find out that some 100 officers had surrounded France’s most wanted fugitive, holed up just yards from her family’s home.

‘We told our child it was a war movie’

“My husband fell asleep in front of the TV in the living room. He woke up around 3am and went to bed about an hour before it all started,” she told FRANCE 24 in a recent interview, still visibly distressed. “We were very lucky to survive, eight bullets struck our living room. Five stray bullets hit my Egyptian neighbour [he survived], my other Tunisian neighbour was hit by two.”

Security forces used around 5,000 rounds of ammunition during the operation that lasted until 11am, as well as dozens of deafening stun grenades against assailants who reportedly fired back with Kalashnikov rifles.

Speaking to FRANCE 24, Kojic points up at her old kitchen window, shattered glass still clinging precariously to the frame. “Most of the time, I avoid coming here, especially when I’m with my son. I remember him asking, ‘What’s that, mum?’ We told him someone was watching a war movie. He could feel the blasts, smell the gunpowder, but we kept telling him to go to sleep. We didn’t want him to remember,” she explains while crying.

Residents relocated

After the operation, police ordered all of the buildings’ residents to leave their homes. The structure had been partially destroyed in the fierce gun battle and was immediately declared off limits and has remained so since.

“The floor of several flats gave way following the police raid, and the staircase is partially destroyed and unusable,” explained Stéphane Peu, deputy mayor of Saint-Denis, whose office it was that requested the building be declared off limits.

After surviving the nightmare, residents like Kojic then found themselves homeless. In the immediate aftermath, they were relocated to one of the city’s gymnasiums.

Abdel, one of the Kojics’ neighbours, still remembers being kicked out of his home. A year later, he feels forgotten.

“No one from the government came to see us, only the mayor and his deputy. It was humiliating. The residents of our building lived through a war,” he states. Abdel was luckily out on the night of the police assault, but he has never been able to return to the apartment he called home with his wife and son.

Of the 45 families that lived in the building, about 20 were moved by authorities to apartments in nearby housing estates. But nearly half of them – those with the lowest incomes – continue to live in emergency shelters, often alongside the long-term homeless. This is the case for Abdel and his family.

“I don’t have a mailbox, I can’t invite friends over… but the worst, our clothes, our furniture, my kids’ toys, we never got them back.”

This feeling of injustice and anger is shared by local government. For weeks after the police raid it alone was left to cope with families without steady incomes, some of them being undocumented migrants.

“It was a drawn-out process. At first the government left us with all the responsibility. But now we have regular meetings to move the various cases along,” a local government spokesman admitted.

On the verge of bankruptcy

For some though, the change is too little too late.

Claudette Eleini, the Kojics’ lawyer, accuses the city of Saint-Denis and the French government of ignoring the material losses and the psychological trauma suffered by her clients.

“Nothing has been done to address what has happened to them,” she told FRANCE 24. She says the Kojic family have been financially ruined as a result of the raid.

They were among those lucky enough to be moved into low-income housing, rather than a temporary shelter, but still must pay 900 euros in rent every month. The couple had paid off the mortgage on their old three-bedroom apartment, but even though the Kojics have not stepped foot in it in more than 11 months, they are still expected to pay the building’s maintenance fees. In a particularly cruel twist, they continue to pay 151 euros each month for a mattress they bought on a credit card mere days before the raid.

“They are bombarded with bills,” said their lawyer Eleini, saying the local Saint Dennis government recently slapped them with a 1,000 euro bill for safety repairs on their old building.

“Months after the police operation they continue to receive gas and electric bills that exceed 700 euros. They are on the brink of bankruptcy!” the lawyer fumed.

Claiming status as ‘victims of terror’

In a bid to alleviate the Kojics’ financial woes, Eleini is fighting to have her clients recognised as “victims of terrorism”.

A special fund has been set aside by the French government to compensate people directly affected by terrorist attacks in the country. Until now, the Kojics and their former neighbours in Saint-Denis have only been recognised as victims of a “police operation for which the state is not liable”.

This vague status does not allow them to tap into the special terrorist victims’ fund, nor does it help them pay for counselling.

A local aid organisation called Right to Housing (Droit au logement) has also filed a legal request for France to recognise residents of the building in Saint-Denis as “victims of terrorism”. But, so far, it has come up against a brick wall.

“Attaining this status would allow them to have long-term psychological help,” says Right to Housing leader, Simon Leher. “In these cases, it’s common for people to have relapses or suffer post-traumatic stress.”

The Kojics appear to be a case in point. Zaklina had to undergo an operation following a serious infection. “The doctors said it could be related to my stress,” she says. Goran, who had no previous medical issues before last year, has developed diabetes. “He hasn’t been able to work,” Zaklina, who has been forced to provide for the entire family on a cashier’s salary, explains.

There is one glimmer of hope on the horizon. The Kojics should receive between 5,000 and 8,000 euros in aid from the state in the coming weeks as collateral victims of the police raid. They may also qualify for an additional 3,500 euros at a later date for psychological damages. It will help them pay their bills, but remains meagre consolation for a family clearly living through a nightmare.