Terror in Europe

One Month Later In Paris, That Painful Choice To Move On

Heaps of flowers, candles and other memorials to the Paris attack victims still remain on sidewalks and in front of businesses where tragedy struck Nov. 13. Locals understand the desire to pay homage, but say limits are needed on visible reminders of the

Stopping to mourn, near the Bataclan
Stopping to mourn, near the Bataclan
Lucie Soullier

PARIS â€" Ahmed, a grocer on Rue Oberkampf, doesn't dare throw away the flowers scattered on the sidewalk outside his shop, but he wishes he could. "They won't let us forget," he says.

Just a few dozen meters down the sidewalk to the right, 90 people were killed at the Bataclan concert hall during the Nov. 13 terror attacks. Ahmed spent the nightt hiding in the back of his store. Afterward, the street was closed off just outside his business. When he reopened on the Tuesday after the killings, he had to step over the candles and other tributes to get inside. He would like for people to stop leaving flowers, but knows "that's not possible."

Two weeks after the attack, on Nov. 29, the sounds of sirens made people feel as if they were under siege again. There were helicopters and police, tight security. Instead, it was U.S. President Barack Obama paying homage to the victims outside the Bataclan. Like hundreds of thousands of people before him, he came to pay his respects, again reminding the 11th arrondissement neighborhood of eastern Paris what it has become over these past few weeks â€" a memorial under high surveillance.

In a café near the Bataclan, people were indulging in black humor on the day of Obama's visit. "Every two weeks we're held prisoner in your bar," Jean-Charles Isaac-Tourre, a regular of the Apérock Café, told the bar owner. "You're going to have to find another way to retain your customers."

About 20 people took refuge here on Nov. 13, when the first deadly salvos burst out. They were able to leave only after the police assault. On the Sunday evening when Obama visited, they were authorized to leave the premises only after the presidential motorcade had left.

To deal with this exceptional situation, a new routine has settled in here. Police officers have become regulars of the restroom. In exchange, they escort customers to the bar when the street is sealed off. It's from the terrace here that nearby residents threw out sheets to cover the bodies on the night of the attacks.

Selfie sticks and Japanese tourists

At the Baromètre, a few meters down the boulevard, Armand says his customers have changed. Tourists and onlookers have replaced the young neighborhood hipsters. It's the same, strange pilgrimage around the Petit Cambodge in the 10th arrondissement. Appalled, Emilie Morat, who works in a nearby shop, explains that selfie sticks and coaches full of Japanese tourists have been on the rise since the attacks.

The terrorists fired with Kalashnikovs on this restaurant and the bar opposite, Le Carillon, and 15 people died on the sidewalk, on the corner of Rue Bichat and Rue Alibert. "I don't want to stop people from paying tribute," says Pascal, a 39-year-old delivery driver who lives nearby, almost apologizing.

The area dedicated to the untouchable memorial only started being limited Dec. 1. City workers and a few residents gathered that morning to fill trash bags with the remains of candles and drawings that had been washed out by the rain. It was a first step. For now, the rest of the tributes and photographs will remain. "But at some point, we'll have to remove them too," says Stéphane Bribard, a security advisor to the city.

Ultimately, Paris city hall will collect all the memorials and take them to another remembrance site. "It's too soon to know what to do and when," Bribard says.

But for some residents, it's already a bit late. Many find it unbearable to live "under a cone of moroseness," says Emilie Morat. That's why her colleague Hélène Lebecque had the idea to make a garland of small colored flags that would connect the residents of the Carillon neighborhood. "We need to give the neighborhood new joy," the young storekeeper says enthusiastically, even suggesting a puppet show for local children. Or a concert. "Nothing too festive, though," she adds.

Prolonging trauma

Many of those who live around the scenes of the attacks have a note of guilt in their voice. They know people mean well, but these heaps of flowers don't help them. Prescriptions for sleeping pills are on the rise at the drugstore near the Belle Equipe, on Rue de Charonne, where 19 people were killed.

Psychiatrist Louis Jehel, who traveled from University Hospital of Martinique to evaluate the situation with Parisian psychological medical services, says that's no surprise. "How do you avoid having nightmares when you return to a cemetery every evening?" This support ritual of leaving flowers and candles was useful during the first days, he says, but it's now counter-productive for the indirect victims of the attacks: those who live there. Walking by these tributes to the dead every day only prolongs the trauma, the flashbacks, the anxiety.

"After a month, it becomes a pathological risk," Jehel says.

Some suggest that those who wish to pay tribute do it on the Place de la République, where the central statue has become a huge memorial since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January and the latest ones Nov. 13. Jehel agrees. In Israel, a country more accustomed to bloodshed, attack sites are quickly cleaned up, and memorials are created in neutral locations, in large part to protect local residents from the pain of the reminders.

Pascal has chosen avoidance. He makes sure he doesn't "walk past too often" with his five-year-old daughter. And he's not alone. Some parents take "incredible detours" to drop their children off at the nursery school on Rue du Carillon, head teacher Laurent Boutillier says. But an alternative is impossible for Jean-Christophe, whose drugstore opens onto Comptoir Voltaire, where a suicide bomber blew himself up on Nov. 13. "We're touched by the tributes, but we're looking forward to reopening," he says.

Neighborhood symbol

The Bonne Bière was the first to reopen, on Dec. 4. Three weeks to the day after the shooting that left five of its customers dead, the tables were back on the terrace on Rue de la Fontaine-au-Roi.

It was necessary to paint some of the walls to "remove the stigmas of that nightmare," says café manager Audrey Bily. The Petit Cambodge will follow in mid-January. The others, still in shock, will continue to rest silent. The Bataclan, meanwhile, has no plans at the moment to host another concert.

Neighboring businesses have seen their revenues suffer from the awful events and eagerly await the reopenings. Despite supportive purchases from locals, Hélène and Emilie's store on Rue Bichat reaped only 60% of the revenues of a normal month. On the other hand, the wine merchant on rue Montreuil, near Comptoir Voltaire, actually saw a huge increase in sales because as people avoid cafe terraces, they have come to buy wine to drink at home.

At the Apérock Café, the second beer comes with a bit of off-beat humor. "There's going to be more availability in the neighborhood," jokes Xavier as he scans apartment rental ads.

Sometimes, Carmela Uranga manages to forget what she saw from her window when the terrorists struck. But as she soon as she steps outside, it's "impossible not to see." The 47-year-old mother thought about moving in the first days after the horror, but she soon gave up on the idea. Now she feels oddly at home in Paris. She is a Scottish-Argentinean with an American passport who grew up in England, and for whom "the concept of nation has never been very clear."

Uranga instead knows very clearly what this neighborhood now represents, which she vows to stay and defend: "Solidarity, dialogue, laughter."

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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