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It was the biggest criminal trial ever held in France, where hundreds of people who survived the deadliest peacetime attack on French soil gave shocking details of their ordeal – from crawling past corpses at Paris’s Bataclan concert hall, to being held hostage by gunmen or ducking Kalashnikov fire at restaurant pavement tables.
Now, after 10 months of harrowing testimony from the victims and the bereaved, judges will return their verdicts on Wednesday. But beyond the sentencing, the trial’s platform for survivors to speak out has been hailed as a crucial step in France facing its collective trauma over the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, which killed 130 people and injured more than 490.
In coordinated attacks claimed by Islamic State, suicide bombers first struck outside the national sports stadium, then in drive-by shootings and suicide bombings targeting cafés and restaurants where people were out on Friday night. Finally, a gun attack at the Bataclan during a rock concert by Eagles of Death Metal killed 90 people.
One public prosecutor at the trial said France had come closer to “piecing together the puzzle” of the attacks. Almost all of the 10-men unit who struck the city died that night, either killing themselves or being shot dead by police. The only survivor is Salah Abdeslam, a Brussels-born French citizen, whose suicide vest was found dumped in a bin, with investigators saying it was “defective” but him saying he backed out at the last minute and fled. Abdeslam is the main defendant in a total of 20 suspects accused of providing planning and logistical support.
Yet it was the trial’s searing accounts of personal pain and resilience from survivors and the bereaved – delivered only metres away from Abdeslam and other defendants in the specially built dock – that were seen as a historic lesson in the psychological impact of terrorist attacks.
Zoe Alexander’s younger brother, Nick Alexander, was the only British person killed in the Bataclan attack. Aged 35, from Colchester, he was the merchandise manager for Eagles of Death Metal. Zoe addressed Abdeslam directly at the trial. She told him that her brother was someone who had no hatred, detailing his life and love of music. She pointed out that Abdeslam had also lost a sibling in a brutal and violent way the same night: his older brother, Brahim Abdeslam was part of the same attack group and blew himself up in a bar in the final stages of the attacks. She said Abdeslam’s family was bereaved, just like her family were.
Returning to Paris for the verdicts, Alexander said: “I addressed Salah Abdeslam directly because I felt that we’d been through a similar experience, from two different sides. I wanted to point out that we were all in this room together because of something that came from intolerance and hatred, and this democratic process that we were going through was the flip-side of that …”
She told Abdeslam of the trust her family had set up in Nick’s name, which grants musical equipment to small charities, in order to show the defendants that “something beautiful had been created from the awfulness that they left behind”.
Alexander added: “The humanity of the trial will probably be the overwhelming thing that I and my family take away from it … Spending over 10 months in the same room as people who have lost relatives, or who have survived unimaginable things, with the people that created those unimaginable things … the humanity of what you see is phenomenal.”
Tony Scott and Justine Merton-Scott had gone to the Bataclan gig as a birthday celebration. Flying in from Leeds, they arrived late, so “fortunately” headed up to the balcony rather than their usual stalls. When the gunfire began and the attackers reloaded, they escaped up a stairwell, through a skylight onto the roof and through a bedroom window into an apartment. Three hours later, they were rescued by firemen’s ladder, “rather than being taken back down through the massacre site”, Justine said. Tony added: “But I still remember climbing down those ladders at the front of the building and there were bodies lying in front, on the floor, of people who had probably been out drinking in the bar. That sticks with me.”
Justine observed that several of the accused had, at the end of the trial, suggested they had been “affected” by survivors’ accounts. She felt that was important and worthwhile.
Being in court had also strengthened their “emotional bond” to the close-knit community of survivors who they call their “Paris family”.
There had been a young child sitting behind them at the gig – during the concert Justine had asked Tony to move so he didn’t block the boy’s view of the band. But they had wondered ever since what had happened to the boy in the attack. His mother’s evidence in court was the first detail they had on his survival and recovery.
Sébastien Lascoux, was the 36-year-old manager of a community radio station in Paris, when he invited his friend Chris to the Bataclan gig. Lascoux survived the attack, eventually escaping from the stalls over “a tangle of bodies, but not wanting to step on them or hurt them, so I apologised to them as I went”. Chris was killed as he tried to shield another friend from the bullets.
“Before I spoke at the trial, I was afraid of being overcome by emotion, I was afraid of speaking in front of the accused and becoming emotional in front of them,” Lascoux said. “In the end, I did cry while giving testimony, but it didn’t matter. I wanted to be a voice for Chris who was no longer there to speak himself.”
He said he was glad to have added his voice to the accounts of that night. But after testifying he was laid low with “extreme fatigue” for 10 days. He no longer goes to gigs and left his radio job, the journey to which had involved him walking past the Bataclan every day.
“As survivors, we all have different backgrounds and we felt things very differently, but the kindness and the feeling of understanding among us has been incredible,” Lascoux said.
Georges Salines, whose daughter Lola, 28, was killed at the Bataclan, was present at almost every day of the trial and testified about his loss.
“What I felt from the start was the absurdity of these terrorist attacks where young people killed other young people,” he said. “I asked myself for a long time why I felt no hatred. I understood it when listening to the sister of another attack victim, Father Hamel, killed in Saint-Etienne du Rouvray. She said: ‘We were so sad there wasn’t any room left for hate.’ I found that very true.”