Winter descended on Paris in a short, sharp burst on Friday night. Till then, the French capital was still decked in soft autumnal hues and a gentle mood. And then suddenly, overnight it was darkness at noon. The long-expected terror attacks were upon us. The threats by Islamic terrorist groups to strike in the heart of Paris were once more a reality — ten months after the Charlie Hebdo attack.
We all live in a world where terror stalks. If you live in a city that has been the target of terrorists, you develop reflexes in crowded places: A quick, darting glance to identify suspicious individuals and unattended luggage, a distancing of oneself from potential threat. Yet, as months pass without incident, we get lulled into complacency. And though the French government had just launched extra security measures in preparation for the UN Climate Change Conference scheduled to begin on November 30, terror was the probably the last thing on the minds of most Parisian.
It certainly wasn’t on my mind as I made my way home from the Indian Embassy after a discussion, with writers Ambai and Kunal Basu and sociologist, Bindeshwar Pathak, that was a prelude to the India Book Fair. It was only later, from the safety of my own home, that I discovered the carnage underway in Paris.
The young jihadists had chosen a Friday to unleash their evil on an unsuspecting city, perhaps, because the Muslim day of prayers was more auspicious or very simply because there was a greater likelihood of larger crowds out and about on the streets. Knowingly or not, they did, however, reinforce the common belief that Friday the 13th is the day when bad things happen.
In a series of six methodical, coordinated attacks that targeted non-touristy, young neighbourhoods and left 129 dead and 352 injured, they attempted to strike a severe blow at the very essence of the French Republic. For what better expression do we have of liberty, equality and fraternity than the racially, socially and gender-mixed crowds at a concert, a football match, a bar or a bistro? The attempt was also to snuff out the French way of life and make Parisians uneasy in the future about three of their passions: music, football and frequenting cafés and bars.
It was a long, dark night. Most Parisians sat transfixed in front of their TVs and computers in a state of incredulous horror and disbelief, repeatedly watching the images of violence and despair playing out on the screen as journalists tried to piece together the different attacks. Yet, as often happens, out of adversity was born humanity. A twitter hashtag “#opendoors” quickly spread as Parisians offered shelter to those stranded in Paris, taxi drivers switched off metres and offered to drive people home for free and hundreds queued up spontaneously at hospitals for up to three hours to donate blood.
French President Francois Hollande, who had to be whisked away from the national football stadium after two explosions, declared a national emergency, tightened borders and announced three days of national mourning. The French woke up to a country at war, with the army deployed and an amplified police presence. The government advised people not to venture out unless strictly necessary. Saturday, a pall of gloom enveloped Paris as a de facto curfew got implemented with the police breaking up even groups of two and three people. The Eiffel Tower was closed indefinitely.
But as the day wore on, although town halls, libraries, schools, museums, markets etc. remained closed, people ventured out timidly to place flowers and candles at the sites of the different attacks. Tentative tourists decided that, fearful or not, they had to take in the sights. An intrepid musician set up his piano near The Bataclan, the concert hall where 89 people lost their lives, and played John Lennon’s “Imagine”. Some stores and supermarkets opted to open.
For the open-air market where I live, it was almost business as usual till the police came and made them pack up. The stall owners declared that continuing with life was the best form of resistance to terrorist attacks but one sensed an underlying economic concern. These are financially tough times in France and the loss of business for even a day is difficult for small businesses to take. For the tourism and hotel industries, the negative economic fallout of the attacks is inevitable.
November 13 marks a turning point. The country has never before witnessed such a large-scale terror attack. There is a heightened feeling of vulnerability. People know that the government is powerless in the face of such attacks.
With these latest strikes, it has become clear to the French that potential terrorist targets are no longer limited to the government, the Jews or those who have in any way mocked Islam. Ordinary, innocent civilians, including women and children, are all soft targets for these explosive-carrying and Kalashnikov-armed, merciless, mobile terrorists, who move easily from one spot to another felling victim after victim.
Yet, what Paris has suffered today, Beirut suffered the other day and Ankara before that. And of course, Syria suffers in an on-going way. But it takes a western capital to make the world sit up and take notice, for monuments to be lit up in the colours of the French flag, for the outpouring of sympathy. In Syria, it would just be another day.
The writer is a Paris-based freelance writer