‘Be patient with us’: the heartfelt cry of survivors of the November 13 Paris attacks

Life for Paris

Life for Paris

The association Life for Paris, which is made up of 700 victims of the November 13 attacks, has organised a day of commemoration for the one-year anniversary this Sunday. France 24 met volunteers and survivors ahead of the big event.

“I can’t wait for Monday,” sighs Serge, 41, who is a volunteer with Life for Paris.

But first, he has to get through Sunday, a monumental day of commemoration for the series of coordinated attacks that took place in the French capital a year ago – on November 13, 2015 – leaving 130 people dead. The event is being organised by this association of victims.

Life for Paris plans to bring together hundreds of people including victims, their families and friends, first responders, as well as residents of the neighbourhoods where the attacks took place and passersby who were caught up in the horror. Invitations have also been extended to elected officials and journalists.

The event will begin at 12.30pm with a commemoration ceremony, open to the public, held in front of the city hall of Paris’s 11th arrondisement. The second half of the memorial is invitation-only and will be held in a nearby community centre until 6pm. Life for Paris has planned a full programme for the guests, including speeches, commemorations, concerts and a round-table discussion bringing together experts on resilience. There will also be an exhibition including hundreds of the most touching messages left at the sites of the attacks that were collected by the Paris Archives.

But before all that can happen, there is a lot of work to be done. The small team assembled on the Thursday before the event – a grey, rainy November day – has a lot to do. Some are working on hanging the exhibition while others are working on the signposts that will direct attendees.

“We took on the responsibility of organising a pretty huge thing because we really wanted to open the event up to the public and to do something that was full of life, not too gloomy,” Serge explained. “So it is a bit stressful.”

But it isn’t the logistics that are on the mind of this ponytailed man, who looks a bit like a rocker but who speaks softly and precisely, and has a dreamy expression. It is stressful for him to be projected one year back in time, to when he was attending a concert at the Bataclan and his life changed forever.

Three times a victim

On November 13, 2015, Serge was a victim three times over. First of all, physically: a bullet grazed his arm, though it didn’t injure him seriously. Secondly, emotionally: his wife wasn’t as lucky as he was. She died that night, leaving him to raise three children alone: their daughter, who is now five, and Serge’s two teenage stepchildren – his wife’s children from a previous relationship. Finally, he has suffered psychologically: since the attacks, Serge has experienced PTSD. For the past year, the classic symptoms have haunted Serge in waves: sadness, exhaustion, insomnia, loss of appetite, inability to concentrate, memory loss, ringing in his ears and flashbacks – the same horrifying images that play over and over again in his mind.

“The PTSD fluctuates,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s a little better. Then, I relapse. The difficult thing is that it can flare up at any given time without warning. There are no warning signs. So, when I’m doing well, I have to really take full advantage of it.”

Last month, Serge quit his job. He had worked for the same company for 16 years as a computer technician; it is where he met his wife.

“Like a lot of other members of our organisation, I just didn’t see any point in my job anymore,” he said.

But he said he doesn’t want “to stay too long without a job or to wallow in being a victim”.

Serge believes it’s crucial to keep moving. That’s one of the reasons that he decided to join Life for Paris, which was born out of a post on social media a few days after the attacks. Since then, he has poured himself into work with the association.

‘What happened at the Bataclan is like a puzzle’

The group has given Serge the opportunity to “discover something new and be useful”. He’s made new friends in the organisation and met people who he can share with.

“As members, we understand each other,” he said. “Many of us feel a disconnect with our old friends, but we don’t feel that here.”

Talking to people has also helped Serge to fill in his narrative of the attacks.

“At first, I had big gaps in my memory,” Serge said. “What happened at the Bataclan is like a puzzle that I’ve been able to piece together by talking to other people. But I’ll never be able to reconstruct it fully.”

The members of Life for Paris were affected in different ways by the attacks. Caroline survived the Bataclan. Pierre* survived one of the cafés targeted by the terrorists, but doesn’t want to say which one. Alexis’s parents managed to survive the Bataclan, but he is haunted by the fact that he should have been at the concert with them because “we listened to The Eagles as a family”.

Many members of Life for Paris talk about the therapeutic power of sharing with each other.

“It’s amazing to be able to speak to other victims,” said Valérie, who works as a press officer in the fashion industry. She survived the attacks on the Bataclan a year ago. In early September, she became a member of the board of Life for Paris.

“You can talk about it to your best friend, but it’s not the same. Our association is the only place where you find this kind of sharing and communication. For me, it’s helped me to make sense of this sh*t.”

A project looking at the construction of memory

Many victims express a need to share and exchange. They have a desire to compare and contrast their memories with those of other survivors in order to reconstruct a logical sequence of events. They want to rebuild their lives. All of these needs are at the heart of an unusual research project called “Programme-13-Novembre”, which is set to take place over the next decade.

The leaders of the project are Denis Peschanski, a historian who is a researcher at CNRS [The French National Centre for Scientific Research] and the president of the scientific council of the Mémorial de Caen, a museum and World War II memorial in Normandy that explores 20th-century history, and Francis Eustache, the director of the research department at Inserm [The French National Institute for Health and Medical Research] in Caen.

Their goal is to study the construction and evolution of the memory of the November 13 attacks and to look at the link between individual and collective memory.

Over the next decade, research teams working with “Programme-13-Novembre” will gather and analyse the testimonies of a group of 1,000 volunteers who fall into four categories of varying closeness to the attacks – ranging from survivors to people living miles away from the attacks in the French towns of Caen, Metz and Montpellier. The same people will be interviewed four times – in 2016, in 2018, in 2021 and in 2026.

Putting distance between the survivor and painful memories

Research teams have just finished the first round of interviews with people in Circle 1, which includes survivors, their close friends and family, and others involved directly in the attacks such as police officers, soldiers, doctors or Red Cross staff. For now, it is still too early to draw conclusions from the interviews, as they have not yet been analysed. However, Peschanski says that what stands out is the diversity and richness of the testimonies.

“We conducted about a hundred interviews just about what happened at the Bataclan,” Peschanski said. “Each one tells a different story. Some people were only there for three minutes, others three hours. There were those on the upper floors, on the lower floors, in the dressing rooms. There were people taken hostage. There were people who were there alone and those who were there with a partner…”

Gathering these testimonies could be a powerful tool for healing, says the researcher, as many survivors suffering from PTSD suffer from flashbacks. This means that images from their past invade their present and prevent them from living normally.

“In general, people flashback to the shock itself, which is a tiny part of the entire memory landscape,” he said. “One way to cope with these flashbacks is to construct a more global vision of what happened. If you can place the haunting memory back in its place within the narrative of the event, you can often gain distance from it.”

Taking care of the survivors

The team has already recorded 2,000 hours of interviews. Some of the testimonies are so disturbing that “Programme-13-Novembre” decided to provide the researchers themselves with regular counselling.

All of them have started smoking again, Peschanski says wryly. “It’s hard, but we’ve gotten really moving letters from victims who told us that talking to us helped them to find some peace,” he said. “Our goal is purely scientific, not therapeutic. However, if we can help survivors understand that their memory evolves and that they won’t always be trapped inside it, that’s good.”

Serge believes that. One day, he will be able to say “I was a victim” in the past tense. But that will take time – a different amount for each person.

“That’s the message that Life for Paris wants to relay on Sunday,” said Caroline Langlade, the president of the association. “We need to take care of the survivors. Trauma is now deeply rooted in our flesh. It might be there for the rest of lives. None of us chose this. Be patient with us and kind. Because tomorrow it could happen to you.”