Saint-Denis, the northern suburb of Paris, has never had much of a good reputation in recent years, but residents were shocked Wednesday to discover that it is also an Islamic terrorism hideout.
In a pre-dawn massive raid on an apartment by police and army personnel, the top suspect in Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was shot dead while his cousin blew herself up using suicide vest. Eight others were taken into custody from the premises.
“I was home with my wife, my mother and my 4-year-old daughter, and it happened right in front of us,” 31-year-old pastry chef Lassana told dpa, explaining that he had a clear view of the special forces assault on the building in Rue de Corbillon.
“The first explosions came at 4.15-4.30 am, they lasted about five minutes, then came the sound of machine guns. I could see police on the roofs around the property, using lasers and torches … then a drone flew just in front of the house’s windows,” he added.
“My mother thought it was firecrackers or fireworks, but when I heard the ‘tatatatata’ [machinegun sound], I said, ‘No mum, there’s a problem here, these are terrorists.’ Then we stopped talking, we just listened, lights out,” said Lassana, who did not give his surname.
“What really sticks in my mind are the flashes of the explosions, the noise: it was really loud, to the point that our front door, the windows of our building were shaking, we felt the vibrations, it was really quite nerve-racking,” he continued.
“I’ve seen horrible things happen here, but I could never imagine this: it’s shocking to know that we have terrorists living next door,” local resident Badra Zran said while the police operation was still ongoing.
Saint-Denis is one of the high-unemployment, multiracial and crime-ridden “banlieues,” or suburbs, that surround the French capital, as well as the home of the national football and rugby stadium that was targeted in Friday’s attacks.
A flashpoint of nationwide riots 10 years ago, it has been a so-called Security Priority Zone since 2012.
That status earmarks extra police resources for public-order blackspots, marred by burglaries, armed robberies, illegal street merchants, squatting and drug-trafficking, the French government says on its website.
Everyday life remains tough.
Zran was reeling from being caught up in a deadly gangland shooting incident last month, inside a restaurant. Her children, aged 4 and 3, dodged the bullets by hiding in the cold storage rooms, she said.
“When I heard tonight’s explosions I went into their room and found them hiding under their beds, crying,” the 24-year-old single mother, who works as a decorator, said.
“The atmosphere is not good. If I had the money, I would have left already. There are so many drugs here,” welder Sanoko Abdoulaye, a Saint-Denis resident of 15 years, complained whilst waiting to be allowed to return home by police.
Najalam Karim is a bartender who said he was lucky to be home early on Tuesday: he was back at midnight rather than at the usual 3-4 am time, sparing him from being caught in the middle of the police operation.
He said he felt insecure, but no more than other Parisians. “Everybody is afraid for their children in Saint-Denis, but in Paris it is the same, people have the same fears” across different neighbourhoods,” he noted.
Patrick Braouezec, local mayor in 1991-2004 for the Communists, warned against marking out Saint-Denis as a ghetto. He said the 110,000-strong community was badly scarred by de-industrialization, which had caused 30,000 job losses from 1965 to 1985.
However, he and other local politicians also described the place as a vibrant, multicultural place, home to prime tourist attractions such as the local 12th century Basilica, burial place of nearly all French kings.
“We must continue to live, have fun, work,” while saving our youth from radicalism, Braouzec said. “Saint-Denis is not the problem, the problem is education, unemployment, integration, housing,” he insisted.
Amid the gloom, Lassana said he would not trade the area for anywhere else. “I like the vibe in Saint-Denis,” he said.
“What happened this morning is going to change things, we will have to ask ourselves some questions. My mother told me this morning: ‘I think we should leave’. But I told her ‘no, we are staying: it’s happened, but we hope it is going to be the last time.”
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