PARIS — 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 — 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.
For now, Le Petit Cambodge remains closed — Photo: Sebisthequestion
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.
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.
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.
At the The Bonne Bière after it reopened last week. Photo: Eroisa77
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."