“Our house became like a hospital, our courtyard like an operating theatre. There were injured people everywhere. We brought those in shock or lightly injured into the house to make sure there was space to operate those who were in a critical condition in the courtyard.”
Those are the words of Natalia Syed, who lives in an apartment directly behind the Bataclan concert hall that a year ago became the epicentre of one of the worst terror attacks to hit Europe when gunmen stormed the venue and started mercilessly shooting people dead, supposedly in the name of Islam.
What began as a peaceful Friday evening in the Syed household became a night of carnage and grief that left them reeling.
Gabriel, Natalia and their three children, aged eight, 12 and 18 - a Muslim family - were watching football on television when their modest bottom-floor flat in Oberkampf became a place of refuge and life-saving treatment for many of the injured people who managed to flee the Bataclan.
It was at around 9:40pm that the family heard the first gunshots, but with the 11th district being a “lively, bohochic” neighbourhood, they had passed them off as fireworks. Then Natalia’s husband, Gabriel, received a text message from a friend saying there had been an attack at a restaurant and pub in the north of the district, where they later discovered 15 people had died.
“When I saw the text I went out to have a smoke,” Gabriel, 57, remembers. “There were all these people running away from the Bataclan. I heard the bangs louder now. Then I saw police. It was emergency police – not the usual civilian police. They were running the other way. They were shouting ‘Go home, close the doors’.
Gabriel went back inside and turned on the news. “Attacks at the Bataclan”. The family watched in shock as presenters reported on the carnage that was ringing out just yards away from them. Within moments they heard screaming voices outside their gate.
What followed was a surreal scene as traumatised victims flooded into their courtyard, many seeping with blood. “There were around 60 injured people here,” recalls Natalia, who is the caretaker of the apartment block. “It was packed. The ambulance took a while to come, so it was just the civilian police and us trying to treat all these people.
“Neighbours from upstairs came to help. Two of them were trained doctors who began operating on the seriously injured. Others came with pillows and blankets and bandages to try stop the bleeding, but gunshot wounds are hard to compress with a bandage.”
Natalia lifts a blanket covering the family sofa to reveal large, faded patches of blood. “I've tried to scrub it,” she says. "I've tried every cleaning product but they won't come out."
A policeman – the only officer known to have been seriously injured in the November attacks – had been lying on the sofa. “He had lost his finger,” says Letitia, the couple’s 18-year-old daughter, who had sat with the officer in the living room. ”He was really brave. I gave him my heart-shaped cushion to lean on, but he had to bite it to ease the pain. He kept asking whether the other policemen were okay.”
In the backdrop of the chaos, the massacre continued. “The shooting went on for at least 50 minutes, and we could still hear it," remembers Gabriel. ”Then there was the shoot-out. We all heard the gunman blow himself up. That was something else.”
During the hours after the attack, the makeshift response continued, as more injured people entered the courtyard as well as a stream of people in desperate search for missing friends and family.
“One woman was in bits,” says Natalia. “She had lost her husband. They lived in the South of France, and their children had bought them tickets to the concert as an anniversary present. It was the first time they had come to Paris together.”
People died in the Syeds’ home that night, but the terror of what happened didn’t the family hit until later. “We saw horrible things,” says Natalia.
“It didn’t shock me at the time. It was like a reflex. It wasn’t until the police had left at around 5am, as I was cleaning up the blood, that the images started coming back to me, and the reality of what had just happened sunk in. That’s when I felt scared.”
Gabriel and Natalia won medals from the mayor for their conduct on the night, along with six other caretakers in Paris who took injured people into their homes. A year on, they say the impact of what happened can still be seen in the city, manifesting itself in part by heightened levels of distrust and intolerance.
Laetitia, who goes to schol in Paris, has noticed the more racist attitudes in the city. “It has divided people,” she says. “There’s more racism, more misunderstanding, more divisions. I’ve heard people in public places saying Arabs should go back to their country. It has become more common.”
But amid this increased distrust, Natalia says within their immediate community people have come together as a result of the horrors of that night.
“It’s incredible how much the community has come together,” she says. “Before, everyone in this building and the surrounding area seemed too busy to speak to each other. But now, after going through that and seeing so much pain and bloodshed together, everyone is so much closer.”
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