Sadness and pessimism were the overwhelming emotions in the Parisian neighborhood of Porte de Vincennes on Friday evening, after four hostages had been killed during a siege at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket.
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Hundreds of residents of the usually quiet neighborhood had gathered 300 meters from the store. At such a distance they couldn’t see much except for police cars rushing in and out of the area, but officers wouldn’t let them get any closer. Quizzing the dozens of journalists there, they tried to learn as much as possible about the attack that rocked their neighborhood, listening to the explanations of every witness, policeman and expert.
At about 5 P.M. local time, several loud noises were heard – the sound of stun grenades that Special Forces troops had thrown into the store before firing their way inside. Within minutes, people looked at their mobile phones where news alerts announced that four hostages had been found dead in the store and that officers had killed the gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, and, reportedly, his accomplice. (The reports about the death of his accomplice turned out to be false.)
Two people in the crowd were horrified but also relieved, because their relative had survived the attack. “It’s a miracle he’s alive!” said P. Haddad, whose brother survived by hiding in the supermarket’s cold storage room in the basement.
His father, however, seemed crushed. “What’s happening is so sad for our country,” he told Haaretz.
A meter away, two non-Jewish residents shared their concern for the future.
“In the supermarket, they obviously targeted Jews. Two days ago they hit journalists and the free press, but tomorrow they might attack any one of us. It’s frightening,” said Guilaine.
A policeman representing an officers’ union hailed the attitude of the hostages who managed to hide.
“Throughout the attack, these witnesses informed police with their mobile phones about what was happening inside the store,” said Gal Fabiano. “The death toll is terrible, but we did everything we could to save lives. Police acted very quickly, so the hostage takers wouldn’t kill more people.”
The operation was very quick, lasting only a few minutes.
Earlier in the afternoon, as the raid began, two technicians were sitting in their van across the street from Hyper Cacher. The two men had no idea what was going on. One of them, Paul Bernardini, said they were watching the news when they suddenly realized they were hearing shots.
“We thought we were just paranoid at first, and then we lowered the radio’s sound and realized that the latest attack was happening dozens of meters away from us. We hid under the truck and then went into a bakery until it was over.”
Fabiano said this week’s attacks showed that the authorities need to provide more resources to security forces, and that the courts need to be more firm with criminals.
“Some journalists said we’re afraid of terrorists. That’s wrong. We’re only afraid of judicial leniency. It’s terribly discouraging for the police. Laws must be applied. The men who led these attacks were all well known to the police. They were criminals before becoming religious radicals,” said Fabiano
Tired after hours of tension, some residents settled in the Netter Café, next to the police barricade on Porte de Vincennes Boulevard. There, they continued to discuss ways to fight terror, often with neighbors they hadn’t known before.
Célia, Hind and Salim – respectively, a Jew, Muslim and Christian – met for the first time on Friday, while waiting for an outcome to the crisis. As police vans kept rushing down the road, they sat together for coffee. Célia and Hind have lived for years in this neighborhood, where communities live side by side. Quickly, they started talking about the “disasters” that lie ahead, fearing violent action against Muslims in retaliation for the attack.
“For the past 48 hours, people have been looking at me as if I had something to do with these attacks. When I told a street beggar I didn’t have any change to give him, he called me ‘dirty Arab,’” said Hind.
“This is terrible. The terrorists are trying to divide people, but here we all live side by side and this isn’t going to change. We have to keep far-right leader Marine Le Pen away from Sunday’s demonstration [a national unity march], because she’s only dividing people,” added Célia.
The Jewish grandmother will soon see her daughter and grandchildren immigrate to the United States, but she isn’t moving anywhere. “I’m happy for them, but I’ve traveled enough in my life. I told my daughter, ‘Don’t think about me. Think of what’s best for your family.’”
“We’re sitting here together, a Jew, a Muslim and a pastor,” said Salim, showing his new friends. “I work with troubled youth and think we need to give people more hope. There’s no heart and love in our society – that’s why they turn bad.”
All three sat, drank coffee, took selfies. They smiled and laughed, but said they believe France’s future will be anything but rosy, and that the situation will keep deteriorating.