In a single arduous year of 2015, Paris has suffered two horrific attacks that caused large-scale loss of human life. For some strange reason, I have been a witness to both of them. It was in the cold month of January, just as Parisians were coming out of the festive season, that the Charlie Hebdo attack unfolded before our eyes. I remember so vividly that day of anguish, as we came to understand that artists were now being attacked in their own adopted home, their haven and refuge. Paris the beloved city, which embodies creative expression and libertine spirit, had just encountered its antithesis in the form of meaningless bloodshed.
Less than 10 months later, this antithesis is further revealing its monstrous aspects at the threshold of winter and the year-end holiday. But this time around it was a Friday evening — that much cherished soiree where everything is forgotten and all is forgiven. It would have been like any other Friday evening in Paris, the streets filled with Parisians and tourists, and in smoke-filled bars and restaurants, conversations over a glass of wine. Well, that was how it was supposed to be.
But all that changed within seconds of those three explosions that were first heard in the Stade de France, where, ironically, the friendly match between Germany and France continued till the end. President Francois Hollande, who was there to watch the match, was quickly ushered away by the security agents while the police continued to guard the stadium. Then followed a series of attacks on popular spots across the city, with clockwork precision — rue de la Fontaine-au-Roi (five dead); rue Bichat (15 dead); boulevard Voltaire (one attacker dead); rue de Charonne (19 dead); Bataclan concert hall (89 dead); and the seven deadly suicide bombings. The body count so far is 129, besides 350 severely injured.
At the time this passed, I was sharing my customary Friday glass of wine with friends in my small apartment, barely 500 metres from rue de Charonne. We were descending to have dinner when those inauspicious phone calls began. “Where are you? Don’t get out.” Ironic how it is always the same words during every terrorist attack. Terror, anywhere in the world, spawns the same language. The language of fear.
This attack, just like Charlie Hebdo, was designed to generate a spectacle of terror where stunned French people were witnessing violence on their own turf, in their own gardens. I could almost smell the fear in the November air, acutely similar to the 2008 humid November of Mumbai. The same suspense, people trapped and the dance of death unfurling before all of us as we watched and continue to watch.
Looking around me, it was evident that to the Parisian — who, unlike their counterparts in Gaza and Damascus, is unaccustomed to a way of life where death is always around the corner — the attack had hit even further home. This particular assault had not been on artists and cartoonists, or symbols and institutions of the Republic, but the common man and woman, smoking on the street, on any street. The attack was aimed at the citizenry, at the young, at the French way of life.
The public reaction has also differed sharply in the two attacks. Following the January attack, we saw people mobilising the same evening at the iconic La Republique and the subsequent Je suis Charlie rally, in which world leaders participated to express solidarity. That afternoon, as I walked along with 3.5 million people loudly singing ‘La Marseillaise’ and armed with the ubiquitous pen, all were united by a common ideal — freedom of expression.