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Can a trial help heal victims of the Paris terror attacks?

September 7, 2021

A trial on the 2015 Paris terror attacks is getting underway. Although it is likely to run over many months and most of the defendants won't be there, it may help survivors to better live with the trauma.

Jesse Hughes, the frontman of the US band Eagles of Death Metal, pays his respects to the victims of the 13th November Attacks in front of the Bataclan in Paris, France, December 8, 2015
The deadly terror attack left many in mourningImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Bataclan terror trial begins in Paris

Ever since November 13, 2015, Sebastien Dauzet has been feeling vulnerable.

That night, nine gunmen attacked what he considers the heart of his neighborhood.

The terrorists killed 130 people in attacks at the Stade de France stadium just north of Paris, as well as in several bars and the Bataclan music venue in the capital. It was France's bloodiest terror attack since World War II.

Dauzet had recently taken up a job as a bartender at La Bonne Biere in northeastern Paris. That night, the restaurant became a war zone.

'Suddenly, everybody was running'

"At 9.30 p.m. that night, I thought I was hearing firecrackers — I didn't understand what was happening," the 41-year-old told DW recently, while standing in front of the bar where he no longer works.

Sebastien Dauzet in front of La bonne Biere restaurant
Dauzet used to work in the La Bonne Biere restaurantImage: Lisa Louis/DW

He points to the restaurant's dining room and terrace: "Suddenly, everybody was running. One man who had been shot in the leg was trying to climb up the stairs over there."

"I looked outside and saw the attackers firing their Kalashnikovs. It was like in a movie. I threw myself on the floor, and stayed there for a while," he recalls.

Difficult return

Just 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) southeast from there, terrorists had started shooting at people at La Belle Equipe.

Although he wasn't there when the attacks happened, returning to that bar is still difficult for Dauzet.

"I have this Italian friend, Fil, whose Mexican girlfriend was at a birthday party here. He had proposed to her just two months earlier," he explains from the sidewalk in front of La Belle Equipe. "She was killed in the attack," he says soberly.

Dauzet crosses the street and stands in front of a commemorative plaque fixed to a wall and decorated with flowers that also had Michelli, the name of the woman, on it.

"She was an angel. She was beautiful, intelligent, kindhearted. We still miss her," he says, with tears in his eyes.

Surviving the Bataclan attack

Mammoth trial

The French justice system will now seek to hold 20 people accountable for these brutal attacks.

Only one of the accused, Salah Abdeslam, is thought to have been directly involved in the assaults — by driving the terrorists to their target locations and participating in the manufacture of explosives. The other 19, some of them in absentia or believed dead, are accused of having planned and organized the attacks or of being the terrorists' helping hands.

The trial is expected to go on for at least nine months and involve 1,800 civil plaintiffs and more than 300 lawyers.

Thierry, a 56-year-old who prefers not to have his last name published, is among the civil plaintiffs.

Deep psychological scars

He survived the Bataclan attack by hiding with a few others in a dressing room for hours — while three gunmen massacred 90 people during a concert. The band Eagles of Death Metal had been playing.

"When the police finally freed us, they escorted us out of the main door. I looked over and saw several bodies lying on the ground over there, in the smokers' corner," he explains to DW while pointing toward one stretch of sidewalk in front of the music hall.

The salesman, who works in the tourism industry, believes he has a lucky star. But behind his joyful smile remain deep scars.

Thierry in front of Bataclan venue
Thierry survived the terror attack by hiding in a dressing roomImage: Lisa Louis/DW

"I don't think the wound will ever heal," he says. "As soon as you encounter a problem in everyday life, the trauma comes back. And I sleep very little, I keep waking up. Every night, I dream that I'm fighting with a gun against terrorists — to save lives."

He added that the court case is unlikely to change all that.

"Of course, I will testify — also because the trial will be filmed for the archives and future generations," he says. But he doesn't expect anything spectacular, he adds.

"The accused won't cry or apologize. They will simply pay for what they've done — and I hope that they'll get tough sentences."

Some survivors 'expect too much'

But not all the survivors will be able to manage their expectations as well as Thierry, psychiatrist Delphine Morali thinks. She works at the psychotrauma center at the Institute for Victimology in northeastern Paris, where a crisis unit was set up immediately after the attacks. Morali still has about 20 survivors as her patients.

"Some of them continue to struggle to live a normal life," she explains. Some, like Thierry, "are still suffering from symptoms such as hypervigilance and insomnia."

"Certain survivors expect too much from this trial," Morali says. "It's an important step that the pain inflicted is recognized and the attackers are sanctioned — but that alone won't be enough to recover from the trauma."

She adds that many had been left with a general feeling of insecurity, as other attacks have occurred since then. Overall, more than 250 people have been killed by terrorists in France since 2015.

Bataclan attack: A tale of two fathers

Morali also points out that most of the terrorists of the November 2015 attacks are dead. "They won't be punished — and that creates a feeling of frustration," she says.

Gaping hole

Matthieu Mauduit is indeed anticipating that he may be disappointed by the court case. His 41-year-old brother Cedric was murdered in the attack on the Bataclan.

Mauduit still feels like part of his life is missing.

"I continue to take antidepressants, and there's not one day I am not thinking of him," he told DW.

He says he owes it to his brother to be one of the civil plaintiffs during the trial.

"I really hope we'll get some answers, but I'm trying not to build up false hopes — the accused will certainly not apologize, as they are stuck in their fanaticism and don't even recognize our justice system," he says.

Man drawing court scene in front of empty court room
The Bataclan trial is set to last for at least nine monthsImage: Daniel Fouray//OUEST FRANCE/PHOTOPQR/MAXPPP/dpa/picture alliance

Putting in some distance

Barkeeper Dauzet, meanwhile, has decided he will watch the trial from afar.

"I don't think participating would be good for me. Plus, there are already enough plaintiffs," he adds.

Dauzet was supposed to be at Bataclan that night in November 2015 with his then-girlfriend, who was also working at a bar. But neither of them was able to take the night off.

And while contemplating the commemorative plaque for the victims across the street from the music venue, a fresh reality suddenly caught up with him.

"I've just realized that it could quite easily have been my name written on here, too — that really hurts," he murmurs.

Dauzet plans to soon move to the countryside — to leave this city and its chilling reminders behind.