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How Do You Tell the Story of the Paris Attacks? You Let Survivors Speak

As The New York Times considered how best to commemorate this shocking and devastating event, senior editors wanted an approach that was different but true to those who had lived through it. The idea emerged of compiling an oral history.

As the Paris bureau chief, I was asked to “put the wheels in motion.” At first, I was skeptical. It was a rather vague assignment and it seemed enormous. (It was.)

Six weeks later, as we were finishing up the interviews, I concluded that the great American journalist and writer Studs Terkel was right: Oral history is one of the most honest and compelling ways to tell a story.

In a widely quoted interview he said: “The principle is that ordinary people have extraordinary thoughts — I’ve always believed that — and that ordinary people can speak poetically. Also that no one else speaks like that and that there is no other person like that in the world.”

Could we retell the story of the terrible night of Nov. 13, 2015, in the words of those who survived it and show their courage and their fears, their compassion and their pragmatism?

That was my goal. We interviewed people at length, letting them talk as long as they wanted as their minds wandered back to that night. People’s stories were rich and moving. . I thought I knew what happened in and around Paris on Nov. 13, but it turned out that there was much I didn’t know.

From the Paris fire chief, Gen. Philippe Boutinaud, I learned that in his view the soccer stadium, the Stade de France, was likely the terrorists’ principal target because if the suicide bombers had succeeded in getting inside the crowded arena, they would have wreaked havoc.

I learned more about Salim Toorabally, the French-Mauritian security guard who stopped one of the suicide bombers from entering the stadium — because the man didn’t have a ticket.

We learned that emergency workers tried to treat a maimed suicide bomber, not realizing who he was until they tore open his jacket and found wires beneath it.

We learned from doctors that triage had been a necessary part of deciding whom to treat first in the Bataclan concert hall — and that although emergency medicine physicians are trained to do it, deciding who to try to save first is never an easy decision.

From survivors, we learned that the moments when the terrorists were reloading their guns almost certainly allowed people to save themselves by getting up and dashing for the exits. A number of victims who played dead survived because people who were already dead lay on top of them.

There was enormous humanity and kindness, with people trying to pull each other to safety or comfort each other if they had managed to get away from the shooting but were still trapped in the building.

Not all of our material made it into the piece; there was simply too much. Some people were not quoted — only because there was not space to quote them all. But every one of them contributed to our sense that what we were recording was as accurate as people’s memories — which are never perfect but mix feeling and fact to convey something close to truth.

In the vein of Studs Terkel’s observation, each person has his or her own lens through which they see the world. And a single event — especially one involving so much trauma — is at once one story, and hundreds of stories.

In reporting this piece we wanted to be sure we did not rely only on the recollections of officials — the police, emergency responders and municipal officials — because the vast majority of people who were killed, wounded or simply there at the time were from every walk of life; they were Parisians and tourists and bystanders. However, public officials also played a major role and proved to be invaluable guides to the complex chain of events.

We started by making a list of everyone we wanted to interview — about 50 people. Some never responded to our queries, others said no — but 27 said yes. They included survivors and emergency workers, journalists and fire officials, doctors and the stadium announcer at the Stade de France.

Most of those interviewed are French and spoke in French, but a handful are English speakers. When the interviews were in French, we had two bilingual members of The Times’s staff work on the translations.

When I say “we,” it’s important to note that this project was a team effort, involving both French and American journalists — eight of us — who work for The Times.

We gathered tens of thousands of words of interviews and then culled them. We never changed people’s accounts, but assembled them in the order of the events so that — as much as possible, the narrative would unfold in the words of those who had lived through the attacks.

As our focus was on the events of Nov. 13, 2015, we had to leave out survivors’ accounts of how much they have struggled to recover, and this was perhaps the hardest part of our project. It is extraordinarily moving to hear from victims who have resolved to create something vital and vibrant in the aftermath of trauma.

Julian Dorio, the drummer playing with the American band Eagles of Death Metal that night at the Bataclan concert hall, came back to Paris a few months later with his wife, and she is now about to give birth to their first child. He is sure that life is coming out of loss.

George Salines, whose daughter was killed at the Bataclan has reached out to mothers of jihadists and tried to understand why their children went to Syria, and how victims of terrorism might be able to help in deradicalization. He formed 13onze15, a group for victims and the families of victims of Nov. 13.

Antoine Leiris wrote a remarkable social media manifesto of perseverance and vision in the face of the desolation he felt over the loss of his wife, Hélène Muyal-Leiris, who was killed at the Bataclan, leaving him to raise their then 17-month-old son.

Two days after the attack, he addressed the killers on Facebook. “On Friday night you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life the mother of my son, but you will not have my hate.”

Source: NYT > World

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