Survivors of Paris attacks gather online to heal unseen wounds
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Two survivors of the November 13, 2015 terrorist attack on the Bataclan concert hall have launched an association, "Life for Paris," to bring together the hundreds of survivors still reeling from their traumatic experience.
Maureen Roussel thought she was getting along pretty well, under the circumstances, until the morning of December 13, 2015.
It was exactly a month after she had escaped – visibly unscathed– from the Bataclan concert hall, where gunmen stormed a rock concert, killing 90 people in the deadliest of a series of attacks across Paris that claimed 130 lives.
Roussel had managed to flee the theatre pretty soon after the start of the attack and had resumed her normal activities, going to her favourite restaurants and cafés in the French capital.
But on December 13, when she looked in the mirror and encountered her pinched, drawn face and emaciated frame, Roussel realised that the Bataclan attack, in fact, had left its mark on her. "I thought it did not affect me because I did not get hurt,” she recounted as she nursed a coffee in a café in the heart of Paris. “But it’s a vicious wound."
The 28-year-old childcare worker who lives in a Parisian suburb realised she was no longer able to work. That’s when she decided to launch “Life for Paris,” a victim support group for survivors and families of victims of the November 13 attacks.
"Just because our skin is not marked, does not mean nothing happened and we’re not hurt. There are more than a thousand of us. Over a thousand who left that room, more than a thousand people for whom things will never be quite the same. This is huge. In this misfortune, I think it’s important to get together,” she wrote in a message posted on Facebook, which was viewed more than a million times and shared by 25,000 users.
It wasn’t long before Roussel was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the response to her campaign. "Some mornings, I woke up to 50 messages received through the night from survivors who needed to talk," she explained. One of the survivors was Caroline Langlade, who was trying to find someone she met that fateful evening at the Bataclan. Langlade would go on to become vice-president of "Life for Paris".
Victims without physical wounds
The private Facebook group now has more than 400 members and nearly 4,000 “likes” at last count.
“Life for Paris” offers users a platform for daily exchanges. Some of them, such as Langlade, are trying to put a name to faces encountered that evening, often to thank people who helped them. Others are trying to look back into the chaos, to digest their experiences, to get the news and updates they need to process their feelings.
The trauma is widespread. Sitting in a busy Parisian cafe, the two women talk, in low tones, of the need for legitimacy – since survivors without any physical injuries still feel vulnerable. At the same time, many are uncomfortable about being labeled as victims, fearing the term could last forever.
Then there’s survivor’s guilt, with some feeling stricken that they made it out of the concert hall while others did not. There’s also a fair amount of shame, the two women explain, not to have been the "superheroes" one would hope to be in such situations.
Fear of umbrellas and slamming doors
The reactions run the gamut from the debilitating to the seemingly trivial. "Some victims are scared to leave their homes to go shopping," said Langlade. She herself has stopped working since the attacks because, she says, "I cannot think." On the evening of November 13, Langlade was trapped for several hours in one of the upper levels of the Bataclan guarded, she recounted, “by a terrorist”.
Roussel explained how she struggled to explain her new fear of umbrellas to her family. "Sometimes, we have reactions that may seem bizarre,” she admitted. “I was once walking down the street and a person holding a folded umbrella passed by. I saw a gun. I also panic when something falls, doors slam, or I hear repeated thuds. Between us, we end up laughing.”
These are symptoms that all survivors are experiencing and trying to cope with in their own way. The goal of the group is primarily to fight the isolation that victims experience. "Today, we communicate because we realise there are many people who still feel isolated. We draw our strength from each other. And beyond that, we find that solidarity is the best way to tackle the fear and the death we have seen around us,” said Roussel.
‘A strong, invisible bond’
“Life for Paris” offers survivors the chance to hook up in the virtual world so members can help each other in the real one. "Sometimes, a person says 'I have to go to a concert tonight and I'm afraid I will not get there'. Then, someone else offers to accompany him or her."
Some members also organise visits to the hospital to meet those who are still being treated for injuries sustained during the attacks. According to Health Minister Marisol Touraine, there are currently 50 people still in hospital.
"When we meet, it seems like we’ve known each other a long time. We seem to jump the normal barriers between people. We hug, we kiss, we love each other. We are all aware of our fragility, we want to protect each other,” said Roussel.
"We're like twins,” Langlade adds. “There is a very strong invisible bond between us. We do not need to talk to know how we feel."
This "mirroring effect" is critical for survivors who want to spare their loved ones the grisly details of what they encountered. "There are certain things you cannot say, we want to protect them.”
Besides the emotional support, many survivors contact Roussel and Langlade for help on administrative procedures. "You are entitled to a lot of things but you have to speak to the right people," explained Langlade.
“Every survivor of the November 13 attacks has access to free healthcare and is considered a civilian victim of war by the ONAC (Office National des Anciens Combattants et Victimes de Guerre). A state fund, which covers all expenditures directly or indirectly related to the attacks – from medical care to transport costs allowing a victim to return to his/her family – has also been put in place. These are the sort of benefits that victims, especially those residing in foreign countries, often have difficulties accessing.
The overwhelming response from survivors has convinced the two women to expand their activities. They are currently creating a website and a forum "to reach people who are not on Facebook."
There are of course many survivors who refuse to be part of this gathering of "veterans" – including Roussel’s partner. But the young women are unfazed. "That's no big deal. What's important is the existence of this association. Maybe these people will need our help in a month, or a year. If so, we'll be there."