In neighbourhood targeted by Paris attacks, 'something has changed forever'
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To mark the first anniversary of a series of coordinated Islamic State group attacks on the French capital, commemorations were held at each of the sites targeted. France 24 visited Paris’s 11th district to see how life has changed for residents.
On the morning of Saturday, November 12, residents in Paris’s 11th arrondissement (district) woke up to a crisscross of barriers and police tape set up around the street corner where the café La Belle Equipe sits, squashed in next to a sushi bar. It was the first sign of the commemoration weekend that many of the locals had been dreading, which would mark a year since gunmen descended on the café, killing 20 of its staff and customers on November 13, 2015. Already, for the past week, camera crews had started to roam nearby streets, reminding inhabitants of the days after the attacks last year, when journalists swarmed their neighbourhood.
On November 13, 2015, terrorists carried out multiple attacks across Paris – targeting a football stadium, the Bataclan concert hall and other cafés. In total, 130 people died and hundreds more were injured. Many of those who died at La Belle Equipe were people who lived or worked in the neighbourhood – it includes a group of 11 friends who had gathered to celebrate a birthday and the owner’s partner.
The attack ripped through the heart of the neighbourhood beloved by its residents for its social, religious and ethnic diversity.
The evening before the ceremony
On the evening of November 12, 2016, the neighbourhood is typically bustling despite a cold November rain. People smile as they sidestep each other with umbrellas. Others clink glasses, tucked cozily in the area’s many restaurants. It isn’t hard to imagine the weekend atmosphere that was shattered a year ago, when the attacks suddenly occurred.
Located a few doors down from La Belle Equipe, Diagonal Supermarket is open later than most shops. People bustle in and out, carrying wine bottles and bags of crisps. The cashier sits behind his register, peeling a clementine and filling the room with a bright, sharp smell. He was working there last year when the gunshots rang out – “Of course we heard it, we are only 30 metres away from it.” Will he and his colleagues go to the commemorations tomorrow?
“I’ll be working,” one says, smiling politely. He keeps the horror of the night to himself.
Several doors down, warm light from La Belle Equipe spills onto the damp pavement. The café is busy, as it is every night since it has reopened in March after several months of renovations. If they feel the presence of ghosts, the people sitting at alfresco tables don’t show it. A couple whispers conspiratorially over a bright orange cocktail flecked with green leaves, leaning close together.
They seem oblivious to the policeman standing guard next to them. Across the street, three more are stationed in front of a police van. At the sites of the attacks across Paris, other security officers are also in place, securing the zone ahead of the visit President François Hollande, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and other VIPs will make for the memorial ceremony Sunday.
November 13, 2016
As dawn of the anniversary breaks, the same police team from the night before stands guard. The residents venture out into the quiet morning to get baguettes, coffee. One old man calls out to another across the street, “Are you awake yet?”
By 8.30am, eight police vans have arrived in rue de Charonne, and more are parked in other nearby streets. The first journalists are already broadcasting live.
La Belle Equipe remains shuttered. The owner, Grégory Reibenberg, said in an interview that he will close it every November 13. He and his young daughter are planning to have a family brunch and to stay far away from public ceremonies. The girl’s mother – Grégory’s ex-wife Djamila – died in the attack. In two minutes of gunfire, Grégory lost Djamila, his business partner, his employees and friends. Yet he managed to reopen his café, a phoenix from the ashes. Any other day, an uninformed passerby wouldn’t know the horror. Only today is it closed in remembrance.
By 9.30am, an hour before’s Hollande’s scheduled stop, the security presence at the corner has blossomed. Gendarmes have set up checkpoints on all the streets leading towards the crossroads where La Belle Equipe sits: rue de Charonne, rue Faidherbe, rue Richard Lenoir, rue Godefroy Cavaignac. People who want to attend the event are searched, those who just want to walk through are turned away with some harshness. An old man grumbles as he is turned away by a guard: “You mean I have to walk all the way around this?” He shuffles off for his long detour. An old women cheerily shows a gendarme her shopping trolley filled with vegetables.
“We thought it was fireworks. It was only later we realised it was people dying”
Those who get through the security checks are herded into small groups blocked off behind barricades at each of the streets. They stand there patiently, though most cannot see the central area where the plaque will be unveiled.
Those with the best views are in the apartments looking over the crossroads. Faces peer down from most windows. People lean out, smoking. An old man rubs his forehead pensively. French flags drape down from some of the windows.
Only the families of victims are allowed to advance, where they will meet the VIPs set to unveil the plaque. But the list is limited. One man visits each checkpoint in vain. He says he travelled from outside Paris to commemorate his lost family members, who died in the attack. Yet his name isn’t on the official list held by staff from the Paris city hall and he is left, teary, to stand among the silent, sombre crowd.
A misty rain falls, pearling on the gendarme’s uniforms. People come one-by-one, sometimes in couples. Most don’t talk. When they do, it is in hushed tones.
Romain, a local resident, came alone. He says he isn’t even sure why. He lives a few streets away, between La Belle Equipe and the Bataclan, the concert hall where 90 people died. That night, he heard the gunfire at La Belle Equipe.
“We thought it was fireworks,” he said. “It was only later we realised it was people dying.”
Romain says the neighbourhood hasn’t been the same since. “It’s depressed,” he said. “The unimaginable happened to us and it is hard to go on.”
Finally, the President’s huge convoy pulls along rue de Charonne. Security and VIPs pile out of large cars. Among them are President Hollande and Anne Hidalgo, though many spectators can’t see them. They all line up by the imposing Palais de la Femmes, a historic women’s home across from the Belle Equipe where the plaque will be mounted.
Suddenly, Hidalgo’s voice boom out across the silence. As she and Hollande begin to read the names of the victims, the crowd breathes audibly. Anne-Laure Arruebo, René Bichon, Ludovic Boumbas... A minute of silence is held.
After long minutes, the crowd of VIPs pile into the vehicles and drive off. They are heading to the Bataclan, the last stop of their ceremonial tour. Cameramen pack up their shiny equipment and hurry to their next destination.
Rest in peace
Only then is the crowd allowed to move forward to see the plaque. People spill into the crossroads from the different barricades, uniting in one large body that gathers in front of the plaque. Candles perched on the side of the building are burning and, under the plaque, people have piled flowers. Many record the moment with smartphones raised.
Antoine, a neighborhood resident, stands quietly, smoking a cigarette as he looks at the plaque. His thoughts are interrupted:
“Hello, I’m an Italian journalist, do you know any victims?”
He shakes his head.
A minute later, another comes up. “Hello, I’m a journalist. Do you live here? Could we speak with you?”
He shakes his head. The night of the attacks, he was trapped across town as chaos descended on his neighbourhood. He didn’t return until morning. In the days and weeks following, Antoine said he saw journalists pushing people out of the way to film in La Belle Equipe.
Nearby, Michel, another neighbourhood resident, tells his wife, “I was just interviewed by French TV channel BFM-TV!”
“Did you tell them about Hyacinthe?” she asks. Hyacinthe Koma was an employee at La Belle Equipe, who was killed that night. Before his job there, Hyacinthe had worked in Michel’s restaurant.
Michel shakes his head no. “I said I knew someone, but I didn’t tell them more.”
Whether they choose to tell it or not, most people in this neighbourhood have a story to tell. A small group continues to consider the plaque. Several children lay flowers on the memorial and journalists snap their pictures.
Slowly, crowds disperse. The ceremony over, the frenzy calms. People wander off to other activities on this grey Sunday. Michel’s daughter squeals in excitement over a large dog.
Romain’s mind wanders back to last year. On the day after the attacks, dawn was magnificent.
“It was freakishly beautiful weather for November,” he says. “People in the 11th crowded into cafés in a sign of solidarity and resilience. But… it was like we all had to come to the understanding that this could happen to us. Something had changed forever.”