Pub nights provide solace for Paris attacks survivors
On a weekday night in a pub in the French capital, a group prop up the bar with beers in hand to share their experiences of the terror attacks that rocked Paris on November 13.
The survivors gather regularly for a drink after meeting on Facebook -- and say the get-togethers have become a lifeline because only people who were there can really understand.
"Where were you?" "How did you get out?" "Did you lose anyone?" are just some of the questions that participants in the "therapeutic aperitif" ask.
Most of those nursing drinks were at the Bataclan theatre when jihadist gunmen burst in, spraying concert-goers with bullets. Others were enjoying a drink on a terrasse or watching France play Germany in a football friendly at the Stade de France.
All are survivors of the attacks or relatives of victims, who were driven to seek out and share their experiences with others who narrowly escaped death on that mild autumn night.
For many of them, Life For Paris, a private Facebook page for the survivors and their loved ones has become an essential part of life.
What binds its more than 400 members, who are required to supply a concert ticket, medical certificate or other proof of their connection to the attacks to gain admittance, is that they "all went through hell that night", says 27-year-old ambulance driver Cedric Rey.
Cedric was at the Bataclan Cafe, in front of the concert hall, when the three jihadists who eventually killed 90 people stormed the venue.
For the past two months he has been haunted by the "stupid voice on the cop's answering system" that answered his distress call.
He is also stalked by the memory of a pregnant woman with thick glasses who walked past him just as one of the gunmen cocked his rifle and pointed it in his direction. "That woman took the bullets for me," he told AFP.
- 'Like zombies' -
For days after the killings, he kept returning, numbed, to the scene of the attacks with 19-year-old fellow survivor, Nahomy Beuchet.
"The first week, we went together to the Bataclan every night from 7:00 pm to 5:00 am. We lit candles, hung around and talked with the cops on duty. We were lost, we were like zombies," he says.
Nahomy says she "felt alone" before stumbling across the Life For Paris group.
On meeting other survivors, her first question is to know where they were positioned in the Bataclan when the shooting started.
She herself was in front of the stage, which was "the worst place to be that night", as the gunmen opened fire into the audience from the balcony above.
Meeting up with other people that also bore witness to the bloodshed is a help, "if only just to retrace chronologically what happened".
But Nahomy still struggles to put the attacks behind her.
"I've decided to leave Paris. I'm going to start a new life," she said.
- 'Victims' club' -
The near-weekly pub nights are emotionally-charged affairs, where tears often flow but also many laughs, group hugs and consoling back rubs are shared.
"Here there is love and human contact," says Catherine, 35. "My friends and family do what they can but they're awkward. I don't blame them. It's because they weren't there."
Cedric, too, struggles to connect with his regular crowd.
"Some people tell us 'it's time to move on'. I understand them. Time is going by."
But unlike them, the young man with dark bags under his eyes is not what he calls a mere "spectator" to the attacks but an escapee, returning from the trenches of a "war".
"After the war, you return home but all you want to do is meet up with your mates (from the trenches)."
Giulia, a 33-year-old Italian student, is also drawn by the sense of shared experience that underpins the group.
"With them you don't have to say how you feel. They already know".
For some the sharing is like a drug. At the end of the night, after dinner in a restaurant, some of them return -- yet again -- to the makeshift shrine outside the Bataclan.
"I've become addicted to it. My psychiatrist tells me I should distance myself from it. But I cannot move on, it's my whole life," says Catherine.
Others, like Anthony, maintain more distance with what he sees as "a victims' club".
"I don't feel a visceral need to see them, there's a natural closeness but I wouldn't want to spend my life with them," he says.
AFP / Expatica