PARIS – Almost six years after the deadliest attack on French soil since World War II, killing 130 people and injuring 416 others, the largest criminal trial in the country’s history opened on Wednesday with more than 2,000 lawyers, witnesses and survivors of the series of terrorism.
Behind the gilded gates of the historic Palais de Justice in the heart of Paris sit the French citizen Salah Abdeslam and others in a bulletproof box in a specially designed courtroom.
Police believe 31-year-old Abdeslam was the only assailant who survived November 13, 2015, when nine armed men and suicide bombers attacked bars and restaurants, the Bataclan concert hall and the Stade de France sports stadium. According to the French police, a suicide belt belonging to him was not exploded after the attacks.
Nineteen other suspects are alleged to have helped with the procurement of weapons and cars or to have been involved in the organization of the largest terrorist attack by the terrorist group “Islamic State” in Europe. Six will be tried in absentia, including five believed to be dead.
“The truth is justice”
The trial with around 330 lawyers and over 1,800 plaintiffs, which is scheduled to run until May, will cost the French government millions. It will be the first opportunity for survivors to face their attackers.
The American Helen Wilson, 55, from Los Angeles, was at the Bataclan with her boyfriend Nick Alexander on the night of the attack. Wilson was shot in both legs. Alexander was shot in the stomach and died in her arms as the armed men continued their massacre.
She said she testified despite years of post-traumatic stress disorder, recurring nightmares, and major depression.
“I’ll do everything I can to make sure my voice is heard and that his voice is heard and that all of the other people who are no longer with us are heard through me,” Wilson said in a recent interview with NBC News. “It’s part of my job. I don’t think that’s all I have to do in the universe, but that’s a big part of it.”
At the site of the attacks in Paris, there are signs that the city has moved on.
Last week a theater troupe and drag queens laughed in front of the theater entrance in Bataclan, where 90 were killed in the terrorist attacks. The guests filled the terraces of Café La Bonne Bière and sipped their café crème in the sun on a warm late summer day.
In the Stade de France, where two suicide bombings took place on the night of the attacks, large billboards advertised upcoming music events.
But despite the city’s apparent recovery, numerous victims, survivors, families and first responders still grapple with the aftermath of their collective nightmare.
Lawyer Samia Maktouf, 57, represents 40 survivors and families of the victims. She said many are not getting the support they need and, what is worse, continually proving to the French government that the events of that night continue to affect their daily lives and functioning.
Many are still looking for answers about the attackers, their plan, their accomplices and the actions of the French police that evening.
“The truth is justice, and it is important to understand what happened on November 13, 2015,” said Maktouf.
“Deep in my soul”
In the small Parisian one-room apartment that Wilson shares with her adoptive cats, pictures of her deceased friend cover her refrigerator.
Wilson, who struggled with heavy alcohol and drug use for years after the attacks, is now sober, goes to the therapist twice a week and uses meditation to work through the physical and emotional scars.
The AK-47’s bullets tore away muscle tissue in her legs, leaving nerve damage and chronic pain. “It’s pretty painful, but I have a different relationship with pain today than I used to,” she said.
Wilson says she has no illusions that this process will calm her demons.
“To be honest, it never really got out of my head, it’s ubiquitous to me. I still live it every day. And I have to consciously move to another place in my brain and in my heart in order not to collapse and…” crying all day long, ”she said, but she said, strange as it may seem, the terrible night of November 13th had changed her for the better.
“It made me really look at myself and go deep into my soul,” she said, “I’m stronger than ever, even if some days I don’t feel like that.”