In Terror-struck Paris, Confronting a Different Sort of War

A crowd of beautiful French people, united in solidarity, with candles and flowers versus absolute barbarians. Who wins?

A woman prays as she pays her respect in front of a floral tribute near the Bataclan concert hall after Friday's terror attacks in Paris, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015.
AP

I woke up early Monday morning, three days after the worst terrorist attack in France’s history. A famous commentator was saying on the radio: “It’s not a war.”

I called my cousin, head of the emergency room at one of Paris' major hospitals.

“I got here on Saturday at five o’clock in the morning," Yonathan told me. "I knew the exhausted doctors needed more help. To know where to go, I could just follow the trail of blood on the floor. Even the chief physicians of the hospital had never seen so much blood. All over. Most of the injured had bullet wounds.

"I have never been in a war, but 50 people in pieces, covered in blood, with bullets to extract from their bodies, hands, arms or feet to be amputated – it looks like a war. The dead were for the most part shot in the head. Everybody was my age, and the age of the nurses, the doctors. By the way, Le Carillon is my favorite hangout.”

At Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge, two hip cafés above Republique, 15 young people were shot.

After the terrible night of Friday 13th, hearing the cold statistics, the horror becomes more real. A friend of a friend has had limbs amputated – 28 years old. Another friend has been lucky; the doctors put his eye back in place. The son of my friend Laurence was having a drink at La Belle Epoque, next to the Bastille, and did not go for a smoke on the terrace. His friends did and were slaughtered by fire from Kalashnikovs (19 were killed at La Belle Epoque).

Flashback to the last world war: Terrorists in the Bataclan concert hall asked a young hostage to hit the bodies lying on the floor to check if the people were dead. If they moved, he was told, they had to be shot in the head. Like what happened at mass graves in Ukraine in 1941. Or in 1994 Rawanda, but with machetes.

But we are in Paris and it's November 2015.

On Sunday I was in a studio at RCJ (Radio communauté juive), interviewing lots of interesting people, sociologists, judges, politicians... All agreed: “It’s new terrorism. Blind, not targeted terrorism.”

As if killing cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, Jews shopping at the Hyper-Cacher, policemen on duty, young soldiers, children at a Jewish school in Toulouse – as if all that is not as dramatic. But it's true: Friday was different, a “mass massacre.” Young (French) fanatic criminals shooting hundreds of other young people, sitting and drinking at our famous cafés, or singing with a metal rock band. It's Friday night and the weather is great in Paris.

At the end of the radio news program we broadcast Madonna singing “La vie en rose” and asking for a minute of silence at her concert in Stockholm.

Millions marching

Later I went to the Place de la Republique, then to the Bataclan where the Eagles of Death Metal band was playing on Friday night. All along the plaza and the boulevards, flowers, candles, messages. Just as moving as in January after the terrorist attacks, when we were four million marching along the same boulevards, between Republique and Bastille: People are now just as close to each other, in solidarity, the wonderful people of France, as then.

At the bottom of the statue at the Place de la République, I do something that's unethical for a journalist, a first in my career as a reporter. I had brought a candle with me. I lit it thanks to a borrowed lighter and put it under the big banner: “We are not afraid!”

In the crowd two men stand, dignified, carrying a poster: "I’m a French Muslim, not a terrorist." They address the crowd: “Don’t be afraid of us – we are in the same boat. We love France.” Applause around them.

We are so emotional today, we are for freedom, for liberty, for democracy. We love everybody. And the whole world supports us, declaring, “We are Paris.” The planet has been painted blue-white-red. "La Marseillaise" has become the new anthem of freedom, sung from New York to Sidney.

On the eve of the January attacks and the mass march, I had written a piece for The Washington Post entitled “A New France is born.” This France is still alive. And Parisians are ready to forget, at least during this time of mourning, their feelings of xenophobia and bitterness.

Walking away from the candles and the flowers, in a Paris more empty than ever, I stop at a friend’s house for a last drink. She is, by the way, an Auschwitz survivor. One of those in the house is talking on the phone, and turns pale. A friend of a friend has been found, finally; hit by four bullets, she is at the hospital now, after an amputation.

Another reads out text messages sent by people trapped inside the Bataclan: “Help, come now ־ they are killing us one by one!" The special police forces only launched its assault two hours later. Meanwhile, about 90 were killed, hundreds wounded.

The beautiful crowd with candles and flowers versus absolute barbarism: Who wins?

It is a different kind of war, without front lines and without regular armies, but with a real enemy – one who seeks to destroy our lifestyle... and our life. And who lives next door. Indeed, apparently all but one of the barbarian-killers of Friday night are French.

Annette Lévy-Willard is a journalist, writer and former diplomat.