Survivors of Nice terror attack try to put words on the unspeakable

By Michael Fitzpatrick - RFI
SEP 24, 2022 LISTEN

This week, the Nice terror trial has started hearing the testimonies of the civil plaintiffs, those who were bereaved or injured or traumatised when Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a truck into the crowd celebrating Bastille Day in 2016, killing 86 people, injuring hundreds of others.

It took four minutes and 17 seconds. An eternity. In that time, 86 people lost their lives, hundreds were injured, and possibly thousands traumatised by the sights and sounds of mass murder perpetrated by a man at the wheel of a heavy vehicle. 

The special criminal court in Paris this week began offering a space for the bereaved and broken to make their suffering part of the legal record.

There are no easy days at a trial like this. But, as was the case at the so-called Bataclan trial, the public suffering of the bereaved is especially difficult.

Much of the rest of the process is handled by legal professionals. The police and medical evidence is presented by individuals hardened by professional experience.

These witnesses are ordinary people, still grieving, many of them unused to speaking in public, certainly not about the intimacy of loss. 

Some 280 plaintiffs have indicated their intention to address the court, at the rate of 15 per day. The process is expected to take five weeks. An eternity.

Still afraid to cross the road

On Tuesday, a confusion in the court planning meant that only two witnesses could be heard.

Sandrine was 22 years old on the night of the attack. She is still afraid to cross the road.

Most of her memories are of sounds, vague impressions, a sense of panic. She broke her arm jumping to escape a menace that she couldn't see, did not understand. People were fleeing. She fled with them.

She remembers a child among those taking refuge in a beach-side restaurant, praying out loud, "Lord, please help and protect us." 

Jérôme used to be a professional footballer. On the evening of the attack, he opened the doors of his nightclub to those trying to escape, later to the injured who failed. Two victims died on the premises.

Jérôme feels guilty about those he couldn't help. He was one of the first to attempt to stop the careering vehicle. Ninety people were given first aid in his club.

He spoke of the effect of panic, how the crowd drove himself and a local policeman back as they tried to reach the vehicle. There was nothing they could do.

Three days waiting in forlorn hope

And then, on Wednesday, there was the family of Laura, a mother, father and four siblings who waited three days for news of their child, dead but unrecognisable after the attack.

As Soren Seelow, an experienced legal reporter who is covering the trial for the newspaper Le Monde says, "the worst part is not the number of dead, not the violence, not even the images ... the worst part is the testimony of those who remain. I'm not sure I wanted to hear this story. I'm not sure I want to write it down either." 

But write it he did, and it's a remarkable piece of journalism.

Laura died and her family had to live with the hope that she was still alive. In different ways, they went literally mad. A loving, supportive family collapsed around an absence.

Laura's twin sister Audrey has chosen to testify separately. She will be heard on 27 September.