Five years on, Parisians remember how the November 13 terror attacks unfolded
It started out as a Friday night much like any other – Jean-Christophe was meeting up with a new love interest in town, Kavita was celebrating her boyfriend’s 43rd birthday and Sam was attending a funk gig – but the evening would turn into a night of sheer terror, as a group of jihadist commandos descended on the French capital and launched a series of attacks, killing a total of 130 people. Four Parisians remember how the night of November 13, 2015 unfolded.
It was around 9.20pm and Jean-Christophe Nabères, 33, was in the middle of dinner with his date in a central Paris restaurant when he started getting news alerts on his phone about an explosion at the Stade de France stadium just north of Paris. He was shocked at the news.
“But then I started getting more alerts, as well as texts from friends, talking about shootings in several different areas in the city,” he recalls.
The coordinated jihadist attacks began with three suicide bombers detonating their explosive vests by the Stade de France sports arena in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis. France was playing a friendly football match against Germany and had drawn a crowd of at least 80,000, including then president François Hollande. All three suicide bombers and a bystander were killed in that attack.
The blasts were followed by gunmen opening fire on several bars and restaurants – Le Carillon bar, Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, Café Bonne Bière and Italian restaurant Casa Nostra – all located near the busy Canal Saint Martin neighbourhood in Paris’s 10th and 11th arrondissements (districts).
Lili Rathipanya, 40, who lives just 50 metres from Le Petit Cambodge, recalls how she started hearing “never-ending” sirens blaring outside her window.
“I remember thinking how odd it was that the sirens just never seemed to stop. There were ambulances, police cars, everything.” Moments later, she logged into her Facebook account and found her newsfeed inundated with posts about the ongoing attacks.
“The media were sending live reports, and friends were posting warnings about what was going on. It was really frightening.”
Facebook had, for the first time, activated its “Safety Check” feature for an event that did not involve a natural disaster, allowing Parisian users to mark themselves as “safe”.
“It was unreal that it was happening just outside my home,” she says, explaining that she quickly posted a message on her account, telling people her door was open for anyone seeking refuge.
In the streets by Rathipanya’s home alone, 18 people were killed that night.
But the attacks were far from over. The gunmen, who were later confirmed to be associated with the Islamic State (IS) group, had also opened fire further into the 11th arrondissement, targeting Parisians having dinner and drinks at the Comptoir Voltaire Café restaurant and La Belle Équipe bar, leaving 21 people dead at the latter.
The deadliest assault of the night, however, almost simultaneously took place at the Bataclan concert hall – also in the 11th – where the American rock band Eagles of Death Metal were playing. Ninety people died and more than 200 were injured, many of them seriously, after three gunmen wearing explosive belts stormed the premises and attacked the band’s 1,500-strong audience with machine guns. Hundreds of survivors were also held hostage until police raided the theatre a few hours later.
‘Funk music saved my life’
Sam Davies, 38, who lives just a stone's throw away from Le Carillon and who had attended a concert at the Bataclan just the night before, was on his way home after a quick drink with friends when he, on a whim, decided to finish his Friday night by supporting a friend who was singing at a nearby bar.
“So instead of turning right that night, which would have taken me past Le Carillon, I turned left,” he recalls. “So funk music quite literally saved my life.” While listening to the concert he received a text message from a friend, saying there had been a shooting at Le Carillon.
“At first I thought it was just a drug thing, like a random shooting thing, so I didn’t think about it too much. But then I started getting texts from other friends, checking I was OK.”
Everyone in the audience started checking their phones, he says. “And about halfway through, everyone just burst into tears, when it dawned on everyone how serious it really was.”
Davies, who sometimes works as a freelancer at FRANCE 24, and everyone else attending the concert were locked inside the bar for at least two hours to ensure their safety. After spending the night on a friend’s couch he returned to his neighbourhood the next day. “One of the images that have really stuck with me since then is that of a street cleaner who was sweeping the blood from the zebra crossing. It was deeply unsettling.”
‘People’s faces changed’
For Kavita Brahmbatt, 41, the night of November 13, 2015 was similar. She was celebrating her boyfriend Ben’s 43rd birthday with friends at a gallery in the Marais neighbourhood when she went to get her phone from her handbag to check why one of her friends hadn’t turned up yet.
“I looked at my phone and I had like 25 missed calls,” Brahmbatt says. “Then Ben came over and told me: ‘There’s been a terror attack. Don’t freak out’.” When Kavita looked up from her phone, she saw that the friend she’d been talking to had also just learned the news after looking at her own phone.
“All three of us found out at the exact same time,” she says. “Then, one by one, you could see how people’s faces changed as they found out what was going on.”
The friend she had been waiting for had been warned to turn back.
“She called me later and told me how, just when she stepped out into the street to leave her place, her neighbour had pushed her back into the door, saying there had been shooting in their street. She was totally freaked out.”
Brahmbatt, along with around a dozen other people attending the party, stayed locked inside the gallery until 6am the following morning. “It was like being inside a timeless bubble,” she says.
“We locked the doors and pulled down the shutters,” she says. In the following few days, her boyfriend was told a friend of his who had been missing had been killed in the attacks.
Nabères and his date did not end up having the night they had hoped for either. Despite all the alerts on their phones, they decided to try to continue with their evening anyway.
“We went to Pigalle (in northern Paris) to have a last drink, but bar after bar [was] closed. We probably tried five or six, and when we finally found one that was open, we were told we had to leave after just five minutes.”
He remembers how they walked into the street, and how an eerie atmosphere suddenly enveloped them. “The street was totally empty of people, and then we just started running.”
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