Bataclan attack survivors still dealing with scars a year on
Reopening of Paris venue an attempt to move on but life has changed irrevocably for some
A man lays flowers in front of the Bataclan concert hall in Paris a few hours before the reopening concert to mark the first anniversary of the terrorist attack in which 90 people died. Photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
As rock music played in her kitchen in a Paris suburb, Audrey (24) was trying to stay positive as she prepared for surgery the following week – her 12th major operation since she was shot during the terrorist attack at the Bataclan concert hall last year.
“I’m really grateful to the doctors who’ve worked so hard to try to save my foot, but I’ve had to come to terms with the fact it might be amputated one day,” she said, with crutches and painkillers nearby. “You just have to keep your spirits up and keep living life to the full, for the sake of all the people who died that night. You can’t give up, you have to live for them, and I think about them all the time.”
A year after Islamist terrorists killed 130 people in Paris in co-ordinated attacks on the national stadium, restaurants and a rock gig at the Bataclan, nine survivors are still in hospital. Eleven, like Audrey, are outpatients still undergoing surgery, and 600 more remain in treatment for the psychological consequences which can be crippling, making everyday tasks a struggle. Scores of others are coming to terms with life-changing injuries.
Sting will reopen the refurbished Bataclan on Saturdaybut France still grieves for more than 230 people killed in several incidents over a period of little more than 18 months. Just when Audrey was dealing with surgery and recovery this summer, one of her friends died in the terrorist attack in Nice, when a lorry driver ploughed into a crowd watching a Bastille Day fireworks display, killing 86.
“It set me back,” she said. “To lose someone in another attack, to find myself going to Nice for a funeral, it was so hard.”
On November 13th last year, Audrey, a paramedic who did not want her surname published, had put her four-year-old daughter to bed and gone for a night out with two friends to see the Californian band Eagles of Death Metal.
At around 9.30pm, thinking it was one of the best gigs of her life, she took out her phone to take a picture. A newspaper alert popped up saying there had been a shooting at a restaurant nearby. “I showed it to my friend, who said: ‘We’re at a gig, nothing’s going to happen to us at a gig.’ Five minutes later when shooting began behind us, we knew what it was and we got to the ground.”
Armed with automatic weapons, three gunmen killed 90 people in the Bataclan in an attack that lasted more than two hours.
Audrey and a group of people around her tried to get up and run out while one gunman was reloading. But they were fired at. A man behind her was shot and fell on top of her.
She wished her paramedic training had not given her so much knowledge of the process of death; she felt “too aware” of what was going on amid the people thrown to the floor. Instinctively, she felt the pulse of the man on top of her.
“I knew it was over for him,” she said, pained. But she knew she had to stay totally still underneath him. “It was very simple. A man lying to my right had a ringing phone; it was his wife. We gestured to him not to answer . . . He answered and was shot. We knew if we moved, it was over for us.”
Adrenaline numbed her own pain. But her friend saw she was pale and wounded. She had taken two bullets, one in the foot, shattering bones, nerves and ligaments, and another smashing her ankle, sending shards into the knee. After around 30 minutes, while the gunmen ran upstairs, her group felt they had “five seconds to get out”. Her friends pulled her into the street, where she passed out.
Audrey woke up in hospital, where she would stay for two months, using a wheelchair, and where she learned that another friend, not part of her group, had been killed inside the Bataclan. “The world felt like it collapsed,” she said.
One year on, she feels determined, buoyed by the close support network of survivors who formed the association Life for Paris. Even so, in the first months – unable to sleep from pain and nightmares, and no longer able to drive, walk unaided or take the Metro for fear of panic attacks – she would take a taxi in the middle of the night to sit outside the Bataclan, contemplating it, sometimes every night of the week.
“At midnight, or 2am, or 4am, I would put a message on my Facebook group that I was going over there and I knew someone would come down and be there with me looking at the Bataclan,” she said.
With her injuries, Audrey will not be able to resume her job as a paramedic. She always avoided desk jobs, but accepts that’s now her future.
“I’ll never give up on rock music,” she said. She is not going to the Sting concert
that will reopen the Bataclan on Saturday, but she’ll go to the singer Pete Doherty’s gig there next week, on crutches, determined to enjoy it. “I know it’s going to be hard, but I need to go back into that concert hall to finish this.
“I need to go back to that room where I almost lost my life, where there was carnage, and show that we’re still here, that we’re not afraid to go back. It’s a way of saying that we’ll keep having fun, while always thinking of the people who died there. We’ll do it for them,” she said.
With the refurbished Bataclan reopening and a weekend of commemorative events to mark the first anniversary of the attacks, some survivors were wary of revisiting the trauma.
In a Paris park, Dominique (42) sat on a bench vigilantly watching the people coming and going around her. One of the hundreds of people still undergoing hospital treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder after the Paris attacks, she took several months to consider herself as a victim or ill. Although she has returned to her public sector job, she sometimes finds the psychological impact of what she lived through debilitating.
She went to the Eagles of Death Metal gig alone. Crushed under four or five people on top of her in the stalls amid panic as the shooting began, she later managed to escape, but is unable to recall how she got out.
Life has changed irrevocably. Like many survivors, using the Metro has at times felt impossible. “In the attack, people fell all around me and on top of me, so physical contact with strangers has become unbearable. Any kind of blockage, or stopping in a tunnel, is suffocating for me,” she said.
Daily life is marked by insomnia, flashbacks, physical pain, digestion issues, feelings of guilt at surviving and the exhausting hyper-vigilance of scouring every public place for safety. On buses she found herself sitting just behind the bus driver, thinking if there was a shooting she would be the first dead and would not have to witness others dying.
There is also a type of disconnect. “My relationship to space and time changed. I don’t feel things around me, like hot or cold. My brain calculates that if it’s sunny and people are wearing T-shirts it must be summer, but I can’t say I feel the warmth of the sun on me and know that it’s summer,” she said. “It’s as if I’m in a fourth dimension, a kind of twilight zone. Sometimes I don’t recognise myself in the mirror.”
Yet, coupled with this, there is a profound thankfulness for life. “I’m much lighter in life, much more in the present moment. I no longer fear the moment of my death – it’s not about death, it’s about how you die, and that night I didn’t want to die by bullets.”
The first time she cried again was watching coverage of June’s nightclub shooting in the US city of Orlando, where a gunman killed 49 people. “One survivor described how with each bullet fired he thought he would die. That’s how I felt. Every time a bullet was shot I heard the explosion of it leaving the gun, I thought I would die and then there was silence. I wasn’t dead. With each new shot, there was the thought-stream: ‘I’ll die; I’m not dead. I’ll die; I’m not dead . . . ’”
She feels it will take another year at least to work through the psychological impact, but is hopeful for the future.
She has gone to concerts since, notably one by the Eagles of Death Metal. “I needed to create other memories of that group,” she said.
But she cannot bring herself to say the word Bataclan, and avoids going near the street it is on, turning her head the other way if she’s on a bus. She accepts that some survivors or families want to go back, but she could never see another gig there. “It’s a place that saw too much suffering,” she said.