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My Time in Paris During the Charlie Hebdo Terrorist Attacks

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Katie Brosnan/Courtesy

The day was Jan. 7, 2015, only our third full day in Paris. My class had just developed a routine and we were finally getting used to the time difference. We had class and breakfast at 9 a.m., on this day we learned about Peter Abelard, the great medieval theologian and philosopher, and his lover, Héloise, and were out of the hotel around 10:30 a.m.

We headed to Père Lachaise Cemetery in the 20th arrondissement, about 20 minutes from our hotel by metro, to visit the tomb of Abelard and Héloise. It was a cloudy, gloomy day and the cemetery was covered in fog and mist. Some of us commented about the weather, and how it gave the cemetery an eerie, ghostly feel. While we were at the cemetery, we heard siren after siren, and it was clear that a chain of ambulances or police cars were driving right by us. At the time, we were all ignorant to what was going on outside of our little tourist bubble. It was around 11:30 a.m. and we did not leave the cemetery until around 12.

From there, most of the class wandered around Paris for a few hours together. We saw the Louvre from the outside, had lunch, and then spent time on the Pont des Arts Bridge, more commonly known as the “Love Locks Bridge.” Around 3:45 p.m. we returned to the hotel, where we were able to get Wi-Fi for the first time all day. It was only then that we found out.

Earlier that morning, at approximately 11:30 a.m., two gunmen, who we later found out had ties to Al-Qaeda, attacked the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper headquarters, killing 12 people and injuring 11 others. The attack was the deadliest act of terrorism to occur in France in over 50 years, since the Vitry-Le-François train bombing in 1961.

“I was sitting in a tiny French café near Sacré-Cœur Cathedral when I found out there had been a terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo,” Michelle Scott, a sophomore also studying in Paris, said. “I immediately felt a rush of anxiety and wanted to get back to the hotel so I could get Wi-Fi and call my parents to let them know I was okay. I knew they would be freaking out.”

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Lindsey Burns/The Quadrangle

We all got into contact with our families and stayed in the hotel that night, waiting to hear more information about the situation, as at that time, the two gunmen and another suspect who drove the getaway car, were all on the loose. The circumstances became all the more real when we found out that our hotel was only a 12 minute walk from the Charlie Hebdo headquarters and that La Place de la République, a square and major metro station located five minutes away from our hotel, would be the main meeting ground for the demonstrations and rallies.

“It was scary knowing that there was a terrorist attack only three blocks from our hotel in Paris. There were policemen roaming the streets carrying huge guns on almost every corner,” Scott said. “You don’t see that everyday, but it gave us all a sense of security and comfort,” she said.

Later that night, most of us went into the square to get dinner and were immediately swallowed up by the crowd that had already started to gather in response to the terrorist attack. Hundreds of people filled the square, surrounding the giant statue of Marianne, who is a national symbol of the French Republic. We witnessed some people releasing sky lanterns that illuminated the dark sky, honoring the victims of the shooting.

“After the attacks, it was really powerful to see how not only how the city came together, but how most of Europe came together to support freedom of speech,” Sean Potter, a sophomore on the trip, said.

A few of us, ended up returning to La République around 11 p.m. to check out the demonstrations. People had already posted signs onto the statue, and some were even on top of the statue leading the crowd in songs and chants. It was peaceful, as people came out to show their solidarity and support for the victims and their families.

“Once the shooting happened, the tone in Paris became so gloomy, but it was amazing how fast everyone united,” Scott said. “’Je suis Charlie’ signs were made in probably less than an hour and French chants were recited all throughout the demonstrations. It was definitely a sight to see,” she said.

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Although we were right in the midst of all of the commotion, we all tried our best not to let the situation affect our trip negatively. The day after the attack, we decided as a group to change our schedule a little bit and visit the Louvre that day. We spent the day wandering through one of the most famous museums in the world, took selfies with the Mona Lisa and studied several masterpieces and works of art.

We were in the city of Chartres, approximately 60 miles southwest of Paris, touring the magnificent Chartres Cathedral when we heard about the hostage situation. That was probably the hardest part for me during the entire trip, as we were not really sure when the next time we would have access to Wi-Fi would be, and I knew my family was trying to get in touch with me.

We stayed in Chartres for a few more hours, and some of us were eating a quick dinner in a little café where I was able to communicate with one of the employees using what little French I knew. That was how we found out that the terrorists had been killed.

Fini, morts,” the employee said to me. “Finished, dead.” I understood.

On Jan. 11, our designated free day, a handful of us, from both classes, decided to travel to Versailles to visit the Palace, while others chose to stay in Paris to explore the city a little bit more. This was also the day when, according to The Guardian, 1.5 million to 2 million people, including 40 world leaders, gathered in Paris for a rally of national unity.

We returned from Versailles around 4:30 p.m. and instantly knew that the rally was huge and historical when we got off the metro. We had to get off two stops away from our usual stop at La République because all of the stations near La République were closed. We headed in the direction of our hotel and were almost stampeded by a mass of people heading in the opposite direction. It turns out we had just missed the major part of the rally and everyone was leaving La République, the very place we had to go. It took us longer than expected, but we were all able to make it back to our hotels safely, and even got to experience a little bit of the rally on the way there.

“There were so many people all trying to gather into one place. People were angry but they were passionate about France and they wanted to show that they were united,” Shannon Butler, a junior in my class, said. “However, people were passing out on the street, needing oxygen. I had an anxiety attack because it was so overwhelming and you couldn’t understand the language,” she said. “But it was a part of history I can say I was literally in,” Butler said.

After the national rally, things went basically back to normal. There was still a constant stream of people gathering in La République and the “Je suis Charlie” signs were still everywhere. But overall, the rest of our trip was not drastically affected. One day later on in the trip, we did try to go to the Montparnasse Cemetery where Simone de Beauvoir, the political activist and feminist, was buried, but, when we arrived, we found out that it was closed because one of the victims of the terrorist attacks was being buried there. Seeing that, and seeing all of the press and the cameras there made the situation so much sadder to us, but it also almost represented an ending to the saga.

“[The trip] wasn’t really different at all [after the attack],” Butler said. “We had a great time, ate great food, saw many historical landmarks and amazing views and laughed… a lot,” she said.

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“Though extremely tragic I am glad I was there for that moment in French history,” Claire Van Dyk, a junior, said. “The unity that transpired after the attack was nothing short of amazing. There was this feeling in the air of love, trust and harmony that I have never felt before.”