I had no intention of writing anything. I didn’t know what or how to write. I am in what I can best describe as emotional purgatory since the night of 14 July. I am neither sad. Nor depressed. Nor unhappy. Not even fearful. Just numb and stunned: bewildered but with a leaden heaviness in the pit of my stomach, rising to my chest. Thankful for leaving the Promenade des Anglais in Nice immediately after the fireworks. Thinking of all the alternative scenarios which would have led to different outcomes for me: psychological trauma, physical injury or death.
For it was just about 10 minutes after my classmates and I had left the area that the deadly white truck ploughed into the crowd, a few meters from where we were, mowing down over 80 people to death, and injuring hundreds. These were families, lovers, friends, colleagues, children, teenagers, parents and grandparents, whose lives had been cut short in one instant.
I am one of the lucky ones who had left the Promenade just minutes before the incident.
I am in a large crowd walking on one of the adjacent streets, at the main city square, Place Massena, heading home, when we see people running from the Promenade, spilling into the square. It is frantic. Chaotic. Nothing like I have ever seen. Mothers grab their children. Friends disperse. The crowd sways and moves in all directions, with a collective look of sheer terror. Something is happening. We don’t know what it is. No one knows. My Brazilian classmate pulls my arm and urges me to run. I just had a new, ‘revolutionary’ hairdo. It feels heavy and is dragging me behind. Nevertheless, I run into one of the backstreets. Holding my hair with one hand, my handbag with the other, like a cartoon character, feeling scared and ridiculous at the same time.
We stop. It feels surreal. We actually manage to crack a little laughter amidst all the confusion. We, at least I thought it might have been a false scare. There had been a bomb scare just the week before, a few meters away from my apartment, and the entire area, a 200m radius, had to be cordoned off. No one knows what is happening. Then we start running again. We hear what sounds like gunshots. Now I’m really scared. I imagine gunmen shooting into the crowd. We run, until I get home, and my classmates disperse.
I am stunned and dazed. Several minutes later, I start receiving phone calls, text messages and emails from my closest friends who knew I was (and still am in Nice for about two weeks now for a summer French course) checking to find out if I was okay. It feels surreal.
Afterwards, I switch on the TV and check the internet, and gradually realise the gravity of what is happening, and what a close shave I had. As the night wears on, and gives in to daybreak, the details of the terrorist attack emerge. The death toll climbs higher. From ‘dozens’ and ‘twenties’ to fifty, sixty, seventy and eighty. I am more stunned the more I realise how lucky I am to have left that area immediately after the ‘feu d’artifice’ (fireworks display).
I get to my French language school at 09.00hrs, thankfully, a three minute walk from where I live. The mood is sombre. Many people did not show up. There is no way of knowing if they are safely hiding at home or if they are missing and are among the injured and the dead. People are huddled in corners, crying, shivering, in shock. An American girl is shaking like a leaf. Her face is wet and red. She wants to go back home. Her justified hysteria makes me emotional. The school authorities console us, urge us to be strong, give us precautionary advice. Many people were at the fireworks display. 14 July, was Bastille Day, a national holiday feted by all, which had turned to a national tragedy.
At mid-day, I go out to buy lunch and grab a newspaper at the city centre, close to the school, and about 15 minutes’ walk from the scene of the attack. The mood is sombre. Most stores are closed. People look downcast, most remain indoors, rightfully so. It is different from the vibrant Nice that is full of life, color, elegance and well-dressed, good looking and tanned people. An otherwise sunny and bustling city is enveloped in an unmistakable blanket of greyness.
I stay indoors the whole day. Feeling more stunned but surprisingly neither afraid nor hysterical. I can’t believe how lucky I am. As the day wears on, a numbness and heaviness in my heart persists, realising those people who were not so fortunate were in so many ways like me. Sometimes I want to cry, but I don’t. The story would have been different if I had stayed at the Promenade for just 10 minutes longer, or if I had decided to walk up a few meters to the famous Hotel Negresco. So close. This realisation gnaws at me still. I devour every detail in the news on TV and online. Then details of a coup in Turkey begin to emerge late Friday night, and it is too much for me. I switch off all news channels and go to bed.
On Saturday morning, we learn that the coup in Turkey had been foiled, but at the cost of over 200 civilian lives and thousands of injuries. I am baffled. Somehow, someone is thinking that what Turkey, which is effectively a barrier between Europe and the instabilities in Iraq and Syria, needs right now is the instability and power vacuum that a military coup is certain to bring. Look at world map to see how strategically positioned it is. I do not understand this. I am tired.
We have not learnt that toppling or attempting to topple an ‘illiberal leader’ with firm roots in his society, from Libya to Iraq to Mali to Syria, only ends up creating a power vacuum. We haven’t learnt that this power vacuum encourages extremists on the fringes (whether Islamists or of another ideological bent) to move in and occupy this vacuum, and the result as we have numerous times within the past decade is a mass ungoverned space, a den of instability and anarchy, precisely the kind of hub which breeds violent extremists. That this terrorism is spreading, and is no longer affecting disenfranchised, poor and voiceless people in far flung areas of the world, but is affecting everyone. In Europe. In North America. In South Asia. In the Middle East. In sub-Saharan Africa. It appears North Korea is one of the few safe spaces immune to such terrorist attacks.
In hotels in India, airports in Turkey, restaurants and train stations in Brussels or London, cafés in Australia or Canada, beach resorts in Egypt or Tunisia, in stadia or festivals in Orlando or Paris, in restaurants in Bangladesh, across the skies in North Africa or in Eastern Europe, in Mosques in Makkah or Kuwait City, in schools in Nigeria or shopping malls in Kenya. It is the same story.
We are not safe from people empowered and incubated in these vast ungoverned spaces partly created by foreign policy mistakes, miscalculations and failures towards Iraq, Libya and Syria, and from instabilities in Egypt and Mali. Extremists are patient beings, they operate with lengthy time horizons often spanning generations and defying the short-termism of elected politicians. They plot, lurk and wait for the perfect opportunity to fill a serendipitous power vacuum, sometimes of their creation, a chance to gain recognition that they desperately crave to impose and institutionalise their view of the world. If you don’t know much about Islamists, think about the High Sparrow in the Game of Thrones and his band of radical disciples, empowered by the power vacuum in King’s Landing, unafraid of death, revelling in the terror they inflict as they impose their warped view of the world and the resulting chaos.
These days, when flying between West Africa and Europe, I am petrified when crossing the Sahel and North Africa, knowing fully well, that terrorists are capable and equipped to shoot down planes from the skies as recently happened in Ukraine and Egypt. I was in Dubai for Christmas last December, it was beautiful, but the one thing that kept tugging at me was: “how long until a lone wolf, some suicide bombers or gunmen attempt an attack here?” My mortality is so salient to me, increasingly.
At some point, in the beginning of this century, a big, ugly Pandora’s Box was opened. So much evil escaped from it into the world. The foreign policy miscalculations which led to this are no longer abstract politics, affecting invisible people in the far reaches of the world. No. They affect us all. Our flat white lattes. Holidays. Education. Festivals. Everything.
It is human beings, everyday people like those whose lives were cut short at Promenade des Anglais but also the nameless and faceless victims in other parts of the world, paying the cost of policy failures with their communities, hopes, aspirations and their lives. Tourists in bikinis and bum shorts. Women in headscarves. Teenagers on their rollerblades. The killer truck did not discriminate by nationality, faith or creed as it mercilessly crushed the life out of people who had been laughing by the beach a few minutes earlier.
The last thing the world need is an unstable Turkey, of all countries. Maybe the lines I’m drawing across these seemingly separate events are spurious. But considering a lot of other factors, an unstable Turkey which borders Iraq and Syria, will be reminiscent of an unstable Libya to the Mediterranean – opening the floodgates to much chaos and more migration flows that dozens of Donald Trumps (who are sure to get elected across Europe and North America in the aftermath of this chaos and the pivot of their respective polities to the extreme right) will be unable to build walls fast or high enough to stem the flow.
We are told that we are safer than we have been at any time in history, yet, there’s so much uncertainty about the chances of dying violently – shot to death, bombed to pieces or crushed by a killer truck.
Things are calm in Nice now. There is security everywhere. Perhaps until the next attack, in God-Knows-Where, cutting short the aspirations, dreams and lives of innocent people.