Paris attacks survivor recounts night of horror in ‘My Bataclan’ graphic novel
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Fred Dewilde was at the Bataclan music hall on the ill-fated night of November 13, 2015, when more than 90 people were massacred. As the one-year anniversary nears, he tells FRANCE 24 how writing a graphic novel helped him on the road to recovery.
The drawings are in black and white and the language used is strong, at times almost overwhelming. For Fred Dewilde, who survived last year’s terrorist attack at the Bataclan music hall, the easiest way to speak of the unspeakable has been to express himself by creating his graphic novel, “Mon Bataclan” (My Bataclan). Dewilde says that using words and above all symbols to create the 48-page work have served as a therapy of sorts, helping him process his harrowing experience at the Parisian concert hall.
“I’m not someone who is uncomfortable with words, but I reflect before I speak. It’s the opposite when it comes to drawing, it’s a lot more instinctive. It’s clearly helped me comprehend what I’ve been through,” the 49-year-old graphic designer tells FRANCE 24 in an exclusive interview.
On the night of November 13, 2015, Dewilde spent two hours playing dead by lying motionless on the Bataclan's main floor. He held a stranger’s hand throughout, all the while being pressed against lifeless, bullet-riddled bodies amid a sea of blood. Those two hours seemed to last an eternity.
The hand belonged to Elisa, who had been shot in the buttock.
“She’s 32, but I heard her say 22. Of course that suited me. It gave me the strength to take on a fatherly role,” he writes, describing how the two managed to create a “bubble of humanity” as the horror surrounded them. They talked with each other and took some kind of refuge in humour. They used any means possible to make it through the night, to survive.
“No one had any control during those two stolen hours,” he says. “And when you lose control, you get this feeling of emptiness. I’ve been able to reclaim this moment through drawing.”
Dewilde drew his first comic strip when he was 5 years old. But in the aftermath of the attacks, it was words, not pictures, that poured forth.
“The images I had in my head were impossible to draw,” he says. Too violent, too raw. Writing served as a filter: “The few lines I wrote sent chills down my spine, but they were necessary as transitional metaphors."
‘Putting feelings into words’
Three months to the day after the attack, Dewilde began to draw. He has depicted the terrorists – in his memory four, even though the official count says three – as skeletons. “It’s ‘The four horsemen of the Apocalypse’ without their fucking horses,” he explains. After finishing his first strip, Dewilde felt himself become unblocked. “By creating this type of character I avoided personifying [the terrorists]. But it also meant they were dead. They were already dead,” he writes.
After making six or seven more strips, Dewilde realised that his work might also help others and urged other survivors to come forward with their experiences of that night at the Bataclan. “Victor Hugo wrote a poem about the death of his daughter and everyone rhapsodized about it because by relating tragic events you are able to put words to human emotions,” he says.
After spending three months at the drawing board, “My Bataclan” was born.
”It took me three months to get to the end. Coincidentally, I finished the drawings on Friday, May 13. Exactly six months after the attacks. To the day.”
In the book's second half, entitled “Living again”, Dewilde naturally and bluntly describes the struggle of doing just that. A seemingly Sisyphean effort. Showering, eating, concentrating … the simplest tasks have become complicated. And he can’t stand the slightest noise anymore, not even his daughter's crying. For Dewilde, any noise reminds him of “firecrackers”, or at least what the audience at the Bataclan first mistook for firecrackers. Then came the gunshots, the screeching feedback of the sound system, the moans and the screams from the people being shot down.
“Ever since that night, I don’t like noise,” he says. Today, Dewilde has taken to wearing headphones to shut out any “abnormal” sounds, “such as sirens”. “Despite my best efforts, I haven’t found a way out of this yet. A part of me is still on the floor of the Bataclan, still lying in blood.”
‘There won’t be any tears’
With less than a month to go before Paris marks one year since the Bataclan attack, the road to recovery still feels long, he says. “We're brutally realising that it’s already been a year, but many of us still haven’t made it out of there. The temporal distance is completely distorted. A few months afterwards, I felt like it had happened years ago. Now, it almost seems comical to say, 'It’s been only a year,’ and we're afraid of being unable to face the voyeurism that it all might engender ... A year is a milestone."
So should this horrible night at the Bataclan be commemorated at all? Although some are asking themselves this question, Dewilde's response is categorical.
“Commemorations, no matter what the event – whether it’s to remember someone who’s died or to celebrate a person’s birthday – are all moments where you have the opportunity to get together, to show support. I think it’s good to have a date. It helps us to remember and not forget, like we have with wars. But I don’t feel like going to a national commemoration, to show myself off as a victim. We’re victims among victims with all the ambivalence attached to that status, we’re in the same state of mind. We know we are trying to get out of it. There will be no tears or self-pity,” he says, adding that he will spend this November 13 with other members of a survivors' group.
Not once does Dewilde express any hatred in his drawings. Instead, he urges calm when it comes to some of the more controversial debates that have sprung up in the aftermath of both November 13 and the terror attacks that have continued to mar 2016 as well.
“Personally, I feel the political handling of the attacks has been catastrophic. I’m an atheist, but the pope’s speech really moved me. He’s the only public figure whose speech made some sense, it was soothing. The mass at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray did me a world of good. I told myself that there are people in this country who are actually capable of not provoking hate.”
‘Islam isn’t fanaticism just as Catholicism is not the Inquisition'
Having survived that night at the Bataclan, Dewilde says he may have “the right to feel hatred but doesn’t”, and is adamant against anyone equating Islam with terrorism.
“These people, these French people who shot at us, were fanatics. They killed 90 people at the Bataclan, 130 in total, and wounded a countless number of others, but they don’t represent Muslims. You can't colour everyone with the same brush. Islam isn’t fanaticism just as Catholicism is not the Inquisition. I’m not necessarily in agreement with everything Muslims believe, nor am I with Catholics. Yet I don’t reject them for that. We have the right to be different. I defend that right tooth and nail,” he says.
“I have the impression that we’re asking French Muslims to justify themselves. If you ask someone to justify themselves because they’re Muslim, you’re unfairly categorising. It's saying 'Muslim' means 'fundamentalist'. It’s very harmful, like adding fuel to the fire.”
Dewilde remembers a time when living together, side by side, was just how things were. “I grew up with Jean-Pierres, Jean-Claudes, Moussas, Mohammeds and others. It was completely normal. But today, the same person I knew as a kid has suddenly become stigmatised because of his or her culture or religion … Integration is considered cultural progress,” he continues.
The conversation veers toward war and politics. As a father, the wars in Syria and Iraq worry Dewilde.
"...We're in a hateful dialogue. Hatred breeds hatred, so let's be more intelligent. I’m against warfare, whether it's at home or elsewhere. Let's try to be more human with each other and perhaps that will give us better results than what we've managed so far."
This article has been translated from the original in French.
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