WAR, AND TERRIBLE ANXIETY, SEEP OVER OUR BORDERS
Janine di Giovanni
Two days, two terrorist attacks: July 14, 2016 and November 13, 2015.
Because they both happened in my country, my home, France, what I remember are the small details – the cloudless blue skies, the warmth of the air – they both started out as perfect days.
November 13, the day of the Bataclan Theater killings, was unseasonably warm – so warm that people decided to dine outside that night, on the terraces of restaurants, to enjoy the last of the late autumn heat. I was judging a photographic prize that day. My fellow judges and I went out to lunch near Place Vendome and I remember thinking how happy I was – the sun, the light on the ancient Parisian stone, the feeling of having done a good job. Meanwhile, all the people who would be dead by midnight were living out their last day on earth. They would die because deranged terrorists would seek out people who were simply out on a Friday night having a good time.
July 14, Bastille Day, is a national holiday commemorating the beginning of the French revolution when the Bastille prison was stormed. By 10 am at this year’s celebration, crowds were gathered in Paris at the Champs d’Elysee to watch Europe’s oldest military parade; jets flew in unison overhead dispersing clouds of red, blue and white smoke, the color of the French flag. President François Hollande joined the crowd singing "La Marseillaise," the national anthem of France.
My son, Luca, and I were too lazy to go to the parade, so we rose late, and ate breakfast in front of the TV watching the festivities. A crowd of school children dressed in T-shirts to mimic the flag led the verses — composed after the declaration of war of France against Austria in 1792. The words are particularly violent but also deeply stirring – a kind of rallying call to citizens to fight against foreign invasion. President Francois Hollande looked moved and at one point, appeared to have tears in his eyes. I remember thinking: He must be recalling the dead from November 13th.
The words to La Marseillaise are harsh and violent, although it is a beautiful song. When I think of it now, the words were also eerily prophetic of what would happen a few hours later:
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!
To arms, citizens!
Form your battalions!
Let’s march, let’s march!
We sang along with the crowds, and all across France, in villages, in seaside resorts and in the larger cities, people were celebrating and gearing up for the traditional fireworks at night. Barbecues, picnics, family lunches, parades.
In Nice, a lovely coastal city once a haven for British and American expats back in the Jazz Age, people were leaving the beach and gathering to watch the fireworks. There was little reason for anything but merriment, and joy.
But that night nearly 400 of them would be mowed down on the Promenade by an 18-ton truck driven by Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian truck driver who had lived in France for some time. Later, his own parents would talk of his darkness, his depression, his difficulty in finding his place in the world. These are the easiest people for ISIS and jihadists to recruit – those who have no place in the world.
And today, I woke up to the news that an 84-year old priest had his throat slashed by ISIS supporters while saying mass. A Priest saying mass? But then I recalled going to mass at St. Sulpice near my home on Easter Sunday and seeing the police with automatic weapons and I remembered, from my writing about ISIS and my work in the Middle East, how they were trained to go back to Europe and kill as many people as possible – in churches, cinemas, schools, bus stations.
How does this make me feel, in a country that I love, where people believe in the high quality of life?
Living in France now is living in the age of anxiety. As a parent, I remember walking my son to school after the November 13th attacks and seeing those heavily armed flak jacketed police at every corner. Was I relieved to see him being protected? No, I felt invaded, angry that my city had become a war zone. I never thought that getting on a bus or a metro could be a death sentence. But the thing is – it could be anywhere. Going to visit my mother in New Jersey last week, I got on a commuter train from Penn Station in NYC. We were stopped for more than an hour when armed police and sniffer dogs got on the train and evacuated everyone – someone was in custody for having said he planted a bomb on the train.
So now this is Paris, and it is not Paris. Then again, it is not just Paris, it is everywhere. New York, Madrid, Mumbai, San Bernadino, Bangladesh, Brussels, Orlando, Munich. War, terror, seep over all borders.
On Bastille Day, I was watching fireworks on a terrace in the 7th arrondissement, overlooking the Eiffel Tower. When they started, a group of us gathered to watch, stunned by the beauty of the light show, drinking champagne, eating chocolate cake. I remember feeling proud — despite our loss at the Euro Cup soccer match the week before to Portugal — to be French, a nationality I adopted in 2005. "When the French do it right, they do it right," a British friend, standing near me, said.
I saw a BBC alert on my phone at around 10:45 p.m. It said that ten minutes earlier, in Nice, someone drove into the celebrating crowd, halfway through the fireworks we were watching in Paris. It seemed unreal, even though many of us were aware of the danger, having been warned by intelligence reports that another attack in Paris might be likely. On the other hand, the State of Emergency, left over from November 13, was about to be lifted.
A month ago, just around the time the Seine got flooded, the Ministry of Interior urged citizens to download an App on their smartphones called SAIP, an alert system "to inform populations." I felt ridiculous — Paris is not a war zone, I thought – but I did it.
The choices of how to react in case of an alert – whether it be attacks, nuclear, dam failure or hazardous material, include "good practices" such as "do not expose yourself, take cover." In every hostile environment course I have taken to prepare me for battlefront reporting, we are told to not expose ourselves.
But how could the people crowded on the Promenade last night have known a man with serious mental issues would plow them down with a truck, run over their bodies, and try to kill as many people as possible? Somehow, "Do not overcrowd telephone networks" and "Limit your movements to facilitate intervention of security forces," no longer seem to cut it.
All this reminds me of another time I went somewhere to feel safe and live an easygoing life, and it backfired. In 2002, I went to the Ivory Coast after a decade of reporting war in Africa. I chose Abidjan because it was meant to be a beacon of peace in a bloody region – with neighbors like Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. A few months into my residency, war broke out literally overnight. I ran to my window and saw child soldiers running with Kalashnikovs through my lush garden of mango trees, where tracers were now lighting up the sky. I was evacuated shortly after by the American Embassy, which made all citizens leave.
That experience scarred me, and scarred me in a terrible new way — into never really feeling safe. Anywhere. Even so, when I moved to Paris in 2004 to start a family, I believed that nothing bad could happen here. And yet I kept my old war reporter habits of stockpiling bottles (and I mean literally hundreds of bottles) of water, flashlights, batteries, medical supplies and yes, a satellite phone. People thought I was crazy, or suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. "This is Paris!" one French friend laughed. "Not Baghdad!"
We can’t compare Paris or anywhere in Europe to Syria or Iraq or any other active war zone. But tragedy is tragedy. The parents that lost their children to the car bombs in Baghdad have as much pain as the parents of those children who died in Nice. So in my view, and I realize it’s a Western view, last November, Paris became Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Syria, and every other war zone I worked in. My home had become another unwilling battlefield.
Raising a child in this environment is not easy – I call it parenting in the age of anxiety. But I am also aware of how lucky we are – Paris or Brussels get hit brutally once, or twice, but Baghdad and Aleppo are hit every single day. Every day someone loses a child, an aunt, a wife, a husband, a brother, a friend.
I am not sure my French friends or family see this country at war – the way some of my American friends might see it. But we do see it embattled, saddened, and vulnerable. I would be lying if I said I am not waiting for the next attack. Every time I take the steps to the metro, every time I get on a train or a bus, I look around at the people near me. And I wonder: "Are we going to have to save each other?"
It took me years, painfully at times, to understand the French character, but I think (having a French child helped) I do understand it now. Resilient and proud, and able to make the best of a dire situation. In a sense, we are facing a dark abyss, and everyone knows it.
But despite our uncertainty, no one is leaving, no one is fleeing. We are all in it together.
Janine di Giovanni, Middle East Editor of Newsweek and contributing editor of Vanity Fair, is one of Europe’s most respected and experienced reporters, with vast experience covering war and conflict. Her reporting has been called “established, accomplished brilliance” and she has been cited as “the finest foreign correspondent of our generation”. She recently became an Ochberg Fellow at Columbia University in recognition of her work on violence and war and the trauma it brings to society, and has been named as one of the 100 most influential people reducing armed conflict by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV). She is also an Associate Fellow at the Geneva Center for Policy Studies. Website: www.janinedigiovanni.com