In Paris, on the Frontline

Loveena Tandon, the UK/European correspondent for Aaj Tak/The Headlines Today

Loveena Tandon

I had dropped the kids to school and was just settling into organising my evening Chai Chat shoot when I got a call from the office.  “Satirical magazine Charlie-Hebdo’s office has been attacked”. It was show time for me as ever! I knew it is big and it was. I was constantly over the phone and doing lives for Aaj Tak and Headlines Today as I was collecting updates all in the same go. Then, in one of the lives I was asked, “How far is Paris from London?” “An hour and 15 minutes”, I said. Prasoon, my colleague and anchor said, “Then leave for Paris …will talk to you from there.”

Loveena Tandon, the UK/European correspondent for Aaj Tak/The Headlines Today
Loveena Tandon, the UK/European correspondent for Aaj Tak/The Headlines Today

I booked the flight tickets; packed my bag and got my camera kit together and off I went. I quickly informed husband while going through airport security of my two day Paris rendezvous and organised for the kids to be picked up.

I had been to Paris before as a tourist and found myself every stuck because of the inability to speak French. It was no different now. I landed at 8pm but had no where to stay. Somehow I got through various information desks from one corner of the airport to the other in Paris and found myself a place to stay near the Charlie Hebdo office. Hotels are very crucial for my assignments. I choose them strategically. Two things are must– a strong Wi Fi and a hair dryer. This hotel looked a bit sad and later realised had a sad Wi Fi too but fussy is one thing I could not be at that hour. I dumped my bag in the room and headed to Place de la Republique in Paris where people had gathered for vigil.

It was very cold and late in the night. I thought everything must have ended considering the vigil which started at 6pm that evening but far from it. It felt like a place of homage. Shock and grief pieced through the dark night and was loud and clear on people’s faces.

One young group was discussing something with great passion while in the other corner, another set of people were watching some climb up the Republique to paste posters of the cartoonists. Yet in one corner people lay pens and candles and flowers in a beautiful symbol of solidarity as others just sat down around it with heads in their hands or folded hands – heads down as if it was a place of worship. The reality was still sinking in I felt. They still could not believe three gunmen can barge in broad daylight and ‘punish’ journalists for doing their job. I too spent a little time taking in the atmosphere and then started talking to people.

“We have come here today to say loudly we are not afraid of you and we will not surrender anything. We will stand for our freedom together.”

“We know now something happened. Now we must think of what’s happening in the world as it is all connected.”

I did wonder what they felt about the Muslims, today.

“Yes we are angry but not with the minority community, the Muslims. These are terrorists nothing to do with a religion.”

But did Charlie Hebdo not cross the line in the name of freedom?

“Yes they did. Sometimes I did not agree with them but if someone insults us it does not mean we will kill them…I do not agree with Charlie Hebdo but I am still here to show my solidarity.”

“They did not attack the journalist, they attacked us. Today we stand as one, Jueis Charlie.”

Juesis Charlie it was and all were ! I could feel the spirit of Juesis Charlie and no wonder this now is the most tweeted phrase in the world today!

People were still coming to terms with the tragedy but they did became one against terrorist and for the freedom of speech!

It was getting dark and late but people kept coming, and by that time it was morning in India and started doing my lives. I was still tracking the news of the attackers who were on the run. This attack was a little different from all the other suicide attempts. Here these gunmen had a full proof plan and wanted to escape. Escape they did. Where were these men? Who are these men? Was the question I was getting information on when news of a woman policeman being killed in Montrouge came across.

Are these two connected? We were told No. Now I had two stories to track. The string of lives started. From information of a 52 year old man caught to one run away started pouring in! Where is this Montrouge? South of Paris about 4.5 km away, a densely populated area. As I was doing lives, phonos, tracking information I sat in the taxi to go to Montrouge. Rain chooses the best of times to oblige. It was cold and rainy as I got down! I wanted to buy an umbrella but how do I find one! Finally I did find a shopping area but they would not let me in and my Press Card came in handy!

The street was cordoned off and I waited whole day in rain for some news. Finally by evening it opened and I went to the spot where it had happened and did some lives and news pieces. It was a busy shopping street. The woman shot was a municipality policewoman who we later got to know was all of 27 years old and joined the job 15 days back. I spoke to her colleague who expressed discontent at municipality police not allowing them to carry guns in France, may be, she could have defended herself if she did but we got to know later she was shot from behind!!!

As all this drama unfolded, one of the three gunmen of Charlie Hebdo surrendered. A 19-year-old boy. The other two we got to know were brothers, 32 and 34 years of age. These two Kouachi brothers had escaped after hijacking a car. Would they attack again? Where would they be? Thousands of police personnel were on the job but still the brothers escaped, hijacked a car and ran away.

It was getting dark and seemed police had done their initial investigation. It was time to get to the next one. Paris was busy. It was peak time. Nothing really stopped but it was not the same. Don’t think Paris rather France would be the same after this attack. The men killed were icons of the country.

People loved them despised them but never ignored them. The taxi driver told me how he never really liked Charlie Hebdo but never missed to buy it and go through the cartoons before he went to sleep after his night shift. That day was no different. He bought Charlie Hebdo straight away went to the cartoon of Charb. The cartoon said there is still no attack in Paris and there was a cartoon of a jihadi saying ‘It’s still news years for us not yet end of Jan. This was the man, the editor who was shot in the attack. Did he almost predict his death? Did he have a premonition or is it simply the irony of life.

God knows but spooky it was. I was dead tired when I reached my hotel. Outside was like a chiller and my room close to a furnace. Sending feed, finding more information about the brothers, listening to news I must have dozed off only to be woken up for a live at 2 A.M. I quickly gathered myself for a live. The Kouachi brothers had looted a petrol station and had entered huge woods by foot. Night vision helicopters were searching for them; 88,000 police had been deployed across the city. Between these phonos and lives, I was packing too as I was to leave that day. It was 8th of January 2015. Just then, the news came that the brothers had hijacked another car and were heading towards Charles de gaulle. Then I got to know the brothers have entered a printing company in Dammartin-en-goele a few miles from the airport. It was a relief and yet the start of another story. In fact, all this was no less than a Hollywood action flick.  At least I got a part to pary in the real life Hollywood flick if not the actual ! I checked out and took a taxi to Dammartin. We were stopped in another village Siant Mard a km from Dammartin first.

The brothers had held someone hostage and were in the printing company. Negotiations had opened and they had expressed the desire to die like a martyr. Amidst I got a few calls and texts asking me if I was safe including that of my Mum. Just as I was reading those I also found out that there has been another attack just next door to where I was coming from in 11th district in a Kosher shop. Oh my good Lord ! What was happening? More than this, we now got to know all the three incidents were related. Kouachi brothers knew Amedi Coulibaly– the man responsible for Montrouge and Kosher shop attacks. He also had an accomplice, his wife, Hayat Boumeddiene.

In Dammartin, negotiations had started. I was cursing myself as to why I ended up on this highway when an attack happened just next door just missing a small point that the gunmen did not think of warning me so I could have stayed back.I knew, I was staying back. Office asked me to extend the ticket and I did for another two days.

After the dramatic chase, negotiations felt like a lull after the storm or rather before the storm. Just then, I saw some movement of vehicles. The area must have been opened but how do I get a taxi. This was a small town and the only taxi number I had did not pick up the phone. The whole small patch by the highway was full of journalist in their own world with taxi and OV vans and here I was, on my own thinking how to get into the village. As I was walking up and down, a guy asked me something in French. ‘Only Engligh please I said and to my surprise he spoke English. He wanted to know if the way to Dammartin had opened as he wanted to go further. ‘That’s it’ I said. With my press pass I could take him. I took lift and ended up at the frontline. It was just then that the police had started the encounter. Grenades, shooting, explosions…the string of lives started again. Commandos had started moving in in the East Paris kosher shop too. After just 15 minutes or so, the news came that both the brothers were dead and so was the gunmen in East Paris.

Four hostages died in the Kosher shop but the one in Dammartin survived.

Later, we got to know the brothers had let their hostage go but there was another man hiding in the company who the brother had no cur off.  And, it was this man who gave most of the information to the police via his phone.

What a dramatic end to a dramatic series of events. People in this beautiful village uptil now asked to stay in started to peep out. I spoke to a few and got to know all day tjeir kids were in a school next door to the printing company. A village that had never seen anything like this ever before had the world media and al sorts of police, army and SWAT team turning at their door steps.

All three gunmen died but Hayat Boumeddiene ahd runaway. Of course we now know she caught a flight from Madri to Istanbul on 2n of Jan. Cleared immigration there in 17 seconds and now is in Syria. She had a flight to Paris on the 9th of Jan which of course she did not catch. She was the one in touch with the wide of the yunger Kouachi brother all through the year. In the span of the two days I stayed I went to Amedi Coublibaly and Hayaat Boumediende’s apartment area, spoke to a few peole. Hayat is still at large holding the key to many links to these entire operations atht shook Paris and the world. While police looks for her Charlie Hebdo came out with their edition of paper last Wednesday with the cartoon of Prophet Mohammed on the front page crying an the caption reads We forgive them!

(The writer is a renowned journalist and foreign correspondent of Indian news channel, Aaj Tak and Headlines Today)


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