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One Year Later, Victims and Witnesses Recount Horror of Paris Terror Attacks: ‘I Feel it, Relive It’

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Thierry Orban/Getty

Walking home last week, Jean Pierre, a Paris resident who spoke to PEOPLE on the condition his last name not be used, passed by the Batalcan theater, which was unveiling a new entrance.

“There were people out taking pictures,” he says. “And I thought..”

Here, his words fail Jean Pierre, a dentist in his late fifties. He and multiple other survivors of the Nov. 13, 2015, Paris terror attacks, which killed 130 people, have spoken to PEOPLE as the one-year anniversary approaches. They are resilient, but grappling with depression, grief and nightmares.

An eyewitness and dentist who aided victims during the attacks, Jean Pierre paused to take a photo of the scene. He went home and posted the photo on Facebook, writing, “Happy to pass before its new facade but at the same time a big shot of stress. Too many memories of that fateful November 13 night brought to memory!”

The night of the attacks, Jean Pierre took his family out to dinner at La Belle Equipe, the bistro where 19 people were killed when the night’s first gunfire rang out. He sprung into action and began helping victims before paramedics and police arrived. One year later, he says he has occasional flashbacks, seeing “images of those dead” around him. As with many victims, witnesses and first responders to the attacks, he finds it extremely difficult to discuss that night.

“Immediately after the attacks, I experienced incredible stress. I cried — not always but from time to time. Initially, I had trouble going out in my neighborhood. I was afraid of people, of being out on the street.”

Peter Mikelbank
Peter Mikelbank

The following month, he says, he spoke with therapists on call at a local government building. His anguish was so acute that they advised him to go to the hospital the following day.

“I saw two psychiatrists: Two. That stressed me,” he says. “The waiting area was filled, there was people crying, people who needed help much more than I did, which stressed me out enormously.”

Doctors prescribed medication for him, but Jean Pierre refused.

“As far as I’ve healed, I think, it’s been a sort of self-healing,” he explains. “In the first days, early weeks, immediately after the events, talking about it seemed to help. But then, I don’t know: At some point it started making me nervous.”

He and his son, who was with him at the time, now discuss the horror with each other. “We talk about it together; it helps,” he says. “I don’t know how but it does. We talk about it like two war veterans.”

Last February, he traveled out of France to Madagascar, a trip he said helped him recover.

“I don’t know why,” he says. “Perhaps it was seeing — being surrounded by — people whose lives reflect much poorer conditions.”

Still, Jean Pierre continues to struggle to process what he witnessed.

“I’m better but from time to time, I have flashes,” he says.

“They aren’t exactly nightmares — but flashbacks. These happen occasionally. There’s no ‘trigger.’ Nothing. They just happen, from time to time…. Sometimes at night, when I’m asleep, or in bed. Sometimes in the street you’ll see people out having a drink or gathering like it was before and you suddenly fear it could happen again,” he continues.

He adds, “I hadn’t had an episode for months when someone asked me: ‘What happened?’ Suddenly I am overcome with emotion, and all I could do was well up with tears.”

Today, Jean Pierre believes he’s “better. From time to time I have ‘the flashes,’ but I wasn’t  hurt physically like many. There are so many others who suffered greatly, much more than I. I wasn’t wounded, hurt in my flesh. I didn’t suffer the loss of family members or loved ones. But I don’t know if I’m healed because I can’t forget what happened, what I saw.”

He says that each terrorist attack since the Paris attack has brought back painful memories.

“It’s less each time, it’s not the same as it was at the beginning, but I feel it, relive it, again,” he says.

“There’ll never be closure. Because I can never forget what I saw.”

Other Survivors Speak Out

A year after the attacks, frustration, helplessness and lingering grief are common among those who survived. Their conversations are marked with long pauses, uncontrolled emotions and tears.

On the one-year anniversary, Paris is organizing two early morning commemorations: one on a restaurant terrace near La Belle Equipe, the other outside the Bataclan, where a plaque honoring the 90 killed inside the concert hall will be unveiled. The evening before, Sting will reopen the Bataclan with a memorial concert honoring the victims.

Guillaume Payen/LightRocket/Getty
Guillaume Payen/LightRocket/Getty

In advance of the attack, PEOPLE spoke with multiple survivors. Many requested anonymity. Universally, they explain living with anxiety, stress and nightmares.  A number believe the anniversary commemorations “will help, allowing you to see others who’ve made it through — but it brings it all back,” says one survivor.

“You’ve your good days, bad days and darker days,” the survivor says. “I have nightmares. I’m not always inside the Bataclan in them but I’m always suffocating. I can’t breathe and when I wake up, sometimes it’s hours before I can calm myself.”

Another survivor says, “I’m on antidepressants. The drugs don’t work. They can’t make you forget. There’s days you wake up, have coffee, get on Facebook, write how you feel to 300 other people and someone writes back. And you say, ‘Thank God I’m not the only one.’ That’s really the only help there is.”

Jean Pierre returned to the restaurant terrace last March, attending the reopening of La Belle Equipe.

“I’ve lived in this neighborhood a long time and in the last year it’s become a cemetery,” he says. “Even if you weren’t inside the Bataclan, you live here, you can’t help but feel affected. You’ve seen it happen.”

He adds, “With the Bataclan reopening, there’s a little balm for my heart in a sense.”