Paris attack: ‘It could’ve been us’

WORLD MOURNS: A woman prays at a makeshift memorial in front of the Bataclan theatre, one of the sites of the attacks in Paris.Picture: EPA
WORLD MOURNS: A woman prays at a makeshift memorial in front of the Bataclan theatre, one of the sites of the attacks in Paris.Picture: EPA

Luck, a stranger’s bravery, or hiding among bodies – SA folk tell how they cheated death in Paris

FORMER Port Elizabeth residents and other South Africans in Paris have told of the horror of the attacks and the resilience of Parisians, determined to get life back to normal. Shops and restaurants in the district where the attacks took place were open and busy yesterday.

Former Port Elizabeth Collegiate pupil Robyn de Jager, 22, who is studying in Paris, said: “Everyone is still in shock but the people of Paris are really coming together.

“They are attending memorials and donating blood.”

She said even though people were walking the streets many were still vigilant.

“Everybody is watching everyone,” she said.

Last night, panic broke out in central Paris near the scene of some of Friday’s attacks as police deployed in the area, but it appeared to be a false alarm.

At least three French suicide bombers were involved in the deadly attacks, which killed 132 and wounded 349, investigators said yesterday.

Two of them were living in the Belgian capital Brussels, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said.

Seven of the eight men blew themselves up, and police killed the other one.

Former Durban resident Umeshree Govender, who is studying in Paris, had planned to go out with friends in the 11th District, a busy night-time area near where the attacks took place.

“It was just luck we chose a different restaurant,” Govender said.

“It’s very scary when you think about it – it could have been us.”

Of the scene in Paris yesterday, Adrian Lees – a South African who stays in an apartment about 150m from the La Belle Equippe restaurant that was attacked on Friday night – said: “It’s a sunny, Sunday morning. It looks like any other morning, but it’s not.”

Lees went out for breakfast yesterday only metres from the scene of one of the attacks, defiant.

“I refuse to stay home and cower,” he said. “It’s great it to be out in street, but maybe it’s foolish.

“People are queuing [only metres from the restaurant] to get brunch.

“It’s very busy but it’s [also] a very good place to mow us down.”

Lees said the terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper office in January, that left 11 people dead, also took place about 300m from his apartment, but these terrorist attacks felt different.

“With Charlie Hebdo, people with very radical political views, were targeted by Muslim extremists.

“Somehow [the ordinary person] was not a target. What has changed now is we are the targets.”

Civilians in Paris were asking, “where and when will we be next?”

Lees and his husband are on their way to Cape Town for two months on Thursday.

“It’s a very upside down world when Cape Town is safer than Paris,” he said.

Isobel Bowdery, who graduated from the University of Cape Town last year and was in the Bataclan concert hall with her boyfriend to watch the US Eagles of Death Metal band when the attackers opened fire, posted a graphic account on Facebook.

“You never think it will happen to you … the atmosphere was so happy and everyone was dancing and smiling,” Bowdery said.

“And then, when the men came through the front entrance and began the shooting, we naively believed it was all part of the show.

“It wasn’t just a terrorist attack – it was a massacre. Dozens of people were shot right in front of me.

“Pools of blood filled the floor. [The] cries of grown men who held their girlfriends’ dead bodies pierced the small music venue.

“I pretended to be dead for over an hour [lying among the bodies]

… holding my breath, trying to not move, not cry, not giving those men the fear they longed to see.

“I was incredibly lucky to survive.” Efforts to contact Bowdery direct were unsuccessful.

According to Facebook, she initially thought her boyfriend had been killed, but had mistaken a dead man for him.

Luthando Mbatha, 23, of South Africa, who was also at the concert, told the Sunday Times: “I heard the gunshots and screams.

“A man – I couldn’t see his face – pushed me over a railing. He was shot dead on the spot – he saved my life.”

Another South African, Janine Piek – who was in Paris for medical treatment – said the centre of Paris was busy yesterday morning and the “very visible police presence across the city was reassuring”.

“People were quick to get back to acting as if things were normal,” Piek said. “The shops are open. The buses and trains are going.”

But there were also differing accounts of the mood.

Former Port Elizabeth resident Samuel Rupp, 26, who lives on the outskirts of Paris, said he was at home when the attacks took place and was notified by a friend in San Francisco who wanted to know if he was OK.

“At the moment, all the shops are closed, the streets are quiet – it’s like a ghost city,” Rupp said.

“My girlfriend is from Paris and everybody is just shocked and sad.

“There’s three days of mourning, but tomorrow it will be a shaken city – it will probably be like that for the next couple of weeks.

“The general mindset of people is that it’s not safe to go out anymore because there was no warning about this or anything,” Rupp said.

Julian Hutz, 38, from Port Elizabeth who moved to Poitiers, France, a year ago, passed through Paris on a train early yesterday on his way to Germany.

“The mood was very subdued and sombre,” he said.

“Police and military were everywhere. Also, everyone was watching everyone … it felt like a zombie movie. It is too horrific to even think about what happened.”

Hutz said he did not want to see any of the attack sites.

“I just want to hunker down and carry on normally.”

Belgium issued an international arrest warrant yesterday for one of three brothers linked to the attacks.

Authorities in at least five European countries are scrambling to tie together leads and hunt down possible accomplices. Security sources said one of the three brothers died in the concert hall, while another had been detained along with six other people in Belgium.

Seven of the eight men who died in the attacks, which have been claimed by the Islamic State group, died, either at the Stade de France stadium or in and around the Bataclan venue.

The French government said at least one of the bombers who detonated explosives near the stadium had tried to enter the venue where France were playing Germany in a football match.

Prosecutors say they believe three groups of attackers were involved, raising the possibility that one group may still be at large.

Two cars used in the attacks were hired in Belgium.

One was quickly found near the Bataclan venue, and one overnight on Saturday in the suburb of Montreuil east of Paris, with two AK47 rifles inside.

Witnesses said the second car was used by gunmen who shot dozens of people in bars and restaurants in the hip Canal St Martin area.

Meanwhile, President Jacob Zuma‚ while condemning the “senseless” attacks, has cautioned countries against linking these to the refugee crisis in Europe.

He told the G20 summit in the Turkish city of Antalya that the attacks did not mean that every refugee was a terrorist.

“Refugees flocking to Europe in search of peace and a better life must not be labelled and ostracised as a result of this,” he said.

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