The waiting was the worst part, says Alexis Breuil, 26, the not knowing if his little sister is alive or dead, or somewhere suffering in a hospital bed alone. Breuil was standing at a little cocktail table at L’Ecole Militaire, fiddling with his iPhone, trying hard not to look at it for news because his battery was dying but unable to resist checking every few minutes for word of his sister.
He ignored the little plate of chocolate cookies placed in neat rows on a gilded paper tray in front of him. The reception room could have been set up for a party, with a smoking area outside, cocktail tables and coffee on one end and dining tables at the far end. Red cushioned chairs lined the walls as if at a middle school dance and in many of them sat some 75 people in various states of distress. Some wept quietly. Every now and again, someone would get a call—that dreaded call—and they would break down, wailing. Emergency workers in bright orange and red vests would gently nudge them from the room outside.
It was a seasonably warm evening in Paris, the kind that would usually see lovers strolling the banks of the Seine, not far away. But tonight, Paris’s streets were relatively empty: Parisians and tourists alike sought refuge inside in the wake of six attacks Friday night that left at least 127 dead and scores injured.
The moment Breuil heard the news that the Bataclan Theater had been attacked, his stomach sank. His little sister, Elodie, 23, had left that afternoon with six or so of her friends bound for the concert—an American group they liked called Eagles of Death Metal.
Breuil and his parents, his brother and his girlfriend immediately began calling Elodie’s friends. Finally, they found one who’d been with her. The friend, who didn’t want to be identified in the press, told them he was three meters from Elodie when the shooting began, but he quickly lost her. They all hit the ground. Some people began yelling to run for an exit nearby. A man next to him was paralyzed with fear and together, hand-in-hand, they ran. Amidst the chaos, he heard one of the two shooters say in French that this was President Francois Hollande’s fault, “for everything that’s happening in Syria.”
The man clutching his hand fell, shot, dragging him down. Covered in blood, he got up and ran for the exit. Outside he found his friends, all except his girlfriend and Elodie. “Can you imagine?” says Breuil. “One day you’re just a happy teenager, playing video games. The next you’re laying in a pool of blood with corpses all around you.”
The Breuil family called Elodie’s cell phone all night—no answer. They called emergency lines and every hospital they could think of. Nothing. Frustrated, Alexis and his father, Emmanuel, left their home in Boulogne on the outskirts of Paris and drove to Salpetriere Hospital in the 13th arondissement. She wasn’t there but they were told to go to the Hotel Dieu Hospital across from Notre Dame Cathedral on Isle de la Cite. There, they were told, they might find a list of injured or unidentified victims. They found no such list, but Hotel Dieu said to go to L’Ecole Militaire, a vast military complex next to the Eiffel Tower. The complex is so big that, when families arrive, there are white minivan shuttles driven by soldiers in fatigues that ferry them to the reception room to await word on their loved ones. A wall of press gathered outside.
“I understand the anger. I’m not angry. Maybe I will be,” Breuil says wincing, “but I’m not right now. I worry that we’ll make the same mistake as before, when the U.S. was attacked, by responding to violence with violence. I want to show the other cheek. Instead of responding with violent acts we have to understand what is the cause of the problem and work together to try and prevent it.”
Though he cites the Bible, Mathew 5:39— “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also”—Breuil is not religious. In fact, he thinks religion is part of the problem. “People say these extremists are stupid. They aren’t stupid. They have another culture. They have a different climate, a different economy, a different language, a different culture. A different religion. And you have to try and put yourself in their place,” he says.
That’s what his sister, Elodie, a design student at Conde, did. She and their mother marched in the rally following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. “They did it to show their support,” Breuil says.
By this time, it was 3:30 p.m., and they waited, fighting to hope. Finally, around 5:30 p.m., a man came out and announced they would be consulting with each family one by one. They got in line. “This is where we leave you,” Breuil says. “Have hope for us. Have hope for France.” But soon Breuil’s hope was lost. Minutes later, he found out his sister was dead.
“I’m so so sorry. Is there anything I can do?” I asked Breuil.
“All you can do is inform the world about these horrible things that we do to ourselves,” he responded.