Nice attack: ‘No words describe hell of bringing one’s child to the cemetery’

People reflect on the horror on the famed promenade that will never be the same again

It inspired Impressionist painters. It became a symbol of the Roaring Twenties, when Nice was a glamorous playground for film stars, barons and intellectuals who flocked to the city’s ballrooms and salons.

In recent decades it has become a magnet for millions of tourists across the world, keen to experience the famous tree-lined walkway and its glorious Mediterranean views.

From now on, the Promenade des Anglais will be the site of another, darker moment in the storied history of France's fifth city – as the site of what the regional mayor, Christian Estrosi, called the worst massacre it has seen.

On Saturday, as the area reopened for the first time since the atrocity, the police having completed technical work on a crime scene that stretched to almost 2km, the promenade was at first disconcertingly quiet. Children played in the shallow water and skaters took advantage of the thinner-than-usual crowds, but the atmosphere was subdued.

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All along the seafront, flowers marked each of the 84 spots, identifiable from police markings, where people died when they were struck by the 19-tonne lorry that careered through the crowds watching Bastille Day fireworks on Thursday night.

Locals and tourists silently wandered from one to the next, as if visiting graves at a cemetery. Some placed flowers. Others, overcome with the intolerable weight of the tragedy, cried and comforted loved ones.

‘Nobody is safe’

Among those laying flowers at a makeshift, tricolour-adorned shrine near the Meridien Hotel – just yards from where the lorry driver claimed his last victims before being shot dead by police – were Parisian

David Charles

and his wife Audrey.

They had planned to go to the fireworks display, but both their young children were sick that day so they stayed at home. “We’ve been telling ourselves that we’re lucky, but it’s so sad,” says Audrey.

"We're very angry. How could a lorry get onto the promenade that was supposed to be secure? It's the third tragedy to hit France recently. That's a lot. All those people dead. All those children dead."

David, Audrey and their children moved to Nice from Paris a year-and-a-half ago. Fear of terrorism was not the reason, but having been deeply affected by the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January last year (David did not go back to work for three weeks afterwards, and both joined the huge march in the capital in the days after the attack), they hoped Nice would offer a quieter, safer life.

"Charlie Hebdo was such a shock – it was the first attack, it was organised, it was new," says Charles. "Now we have seen this a few times. Nobody is safe."

Crowds congregated all weekend at similar memorial sites along the promenade. Many of those paying tribute placed handwritten notes on the ground, leaving a carpet of multilingual messages of love and goodwill.

“There are no words to describe the hell of bringing one’s child to the cemetery,” one note, signed by “Emilie” read.

“All my thoughts go to those souls lost for no reason. All my prayers for those who are fighting for life.”

As she read some of the messages, Sarah Boulmane, a Moroccan who has lived in Nice for 32 years, held her hand to her mouth, trying to hold back tears. "It's a nightmare," she says, a note of anger in her voice. "The government has to do something. Every six months we're burying children. It's time to do something – not politics, security."

Boulmane believes the government is “not up to it” and says she will consider voting for Marine Le Pen’s National Front in next year’s presidential election (the region is one of the party’s traditional strongholds).

“We don’t want policemen checking seat belts. They have to do something tough. All the foreigners who come here end up staying. France has to do something.”

Asked what should be done, Boulmane reflects for a moment and replies: “The government could deal with this. We could start by closing the border.”

Personal problems

As a native Moroccan, Boulmane adds, she feels “ashamed” that “every time this happens, it’s a Maghrébin”.

She knew one victim of the lorry attack: a fellow Moroccan woman aged around 40. “We want to cry, but we can’t, because we’ve already been crying for two days.”

Others see it differently. "The media are putting all Muslims in the same basket," says Gilles Dolciani, a life-long Nice resident. He suggests politicians are "exploiting" the tragedy for their own purposes and wonders, based on what he has heard about the attacker, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, whether the atrocity had more to do with his personal problems that any grand terrorist design.

“A friend of mine was in that crowd, but thank God she got out.”

Jean-Pierre Lodetti, a pensioner and native Niçois, scribbled a message of his own in red marker (“Solidarity with the families, fight hatred”) before stepping back and saying a quiet prayer. The attacks had left him shaken, Lodetti says, but it was vital that people continued to live their lives.

“We have to keep going and not allow ourselves be intimidated. That’s Daesh’s goal. It’s normal to feel fear, but you can’t stop going out.”

He came to the reopened promenade, Lodetti said, to "honour the memory of the dead, to show fraternité". He has also been trying to remind himself of what's good in life. "Think of the Irish supporters," he says, referring to the Northern Ireland fans who celebrated in Nice during Euro 2016 last month. "They were wonderful.

"Since the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the atmosphere in France has been heavy. The Euros were such a pleasure. When they were on, nobody could have imagined something like this here."