By Jean Charles Putzolu
Georges Salines is a doctor. Azdyne Amimour is a shopkeeper. They have both led eventful lives. Georges practiced in several countries before settling in Paris with his family. Azdyne is a lifelong adventurer. He settled near Paris after traveling the world. Georges is not a believer. He calls himself an atheist "with Christian roots". Azdyne is Muslim: semi-practicing, but deeply attached to the values of Islam.
According to this premise, these two men may never have met. However, the events of 13 November 2015 decided otherwise.
Georges' daughter, Lola, was at the Bataclan that evening to attend a concert at the famous Parisian concert hall, by the American rock band "Eagles of Death Metal". Lola was 28 years old and worked in the field of children's publishing. She even started her own company. She was happy, spending most of her time at work but also travelling whenever she could. Travel was part of her family's DNA. Travel satisfied her thirst for knowledge, escape and nature. Lola died that night. Hit by two bullets, she collapsed and never woke up.
Azdyne had lost track of his son. In recent years, their relationship had become strained, and on the evening of 13 November 2015, he had no idea where Samy might be. Azdyne and his wife Mouna would be informed later that Samy was one of the three attackers of the Bataclan.
On the evening of 13 November 2015, Paris experienced 33 minutes of hell. Seven terrorists claiming to be members of the Islamic State, launched attacks on three different places in the capital. A suicide bomber detonated at 21:20 in front of the Stade de France. The explosion could be heard on the football field where France was playing against Germany. Some players were surprised by the noise, even looking up for a moment before the game continued. The French President, François Hollande, left the stadium moments after the explosion. He was informed of events and was accompanied to the crisis unit.
Shortly afterwards, at 9.25pm, three other terrorists emptied their Kalashnikovs in another district of Paris, shooting indiscriminately at people sitting in the outdoor cafés on the Rue de la Fontaine-au-Roy. They reached Rue de Charonne at 9.36pm and the carnage continued. Passers-by were trapped.
Shortly afterwards, the third group of attackers took action at the Bataclan where 1,500 people were watching the concert. Three armed men entered the arena and started shooting. The scenes of blood and suffering were indescribable.
130 people died and 350 were wounded in these three simultaneous attacks. They turned a country upside down and changed the lives of Georges and Azdyne. His son, Samy, was killed, along with six other terrorists, by the police that night.
Samy had "trained" in Syria. He'd joined Daesh. Azdyne, who strongly condemned fundamentalism, had made the trip to try to bring him back to reason. But to no avail. Today he still feels guilty. "What did I do to lead my son astray?", he asks. It’s a question that haunts him, along with many others. He attended discussion groups of jihadist families who, like him, have children in Syria and do not understand. If on the one hand this participation helped him, on the other he lacked something to process his grief. Because Azdyne also had to overcome his grief.
After the attacks Georges created an association of families of victims and survivors. For some time he took over the presidency of "13onze15, Fraternity and Truth", the name of the association. He was known to journalists and his name circulated in the various interviews or positions that could be found, seen and heard in the media. Georges was also in mourning, the association and the book he wrote immediately after the attacks "The Unspeakable A to Z", served as therapy to help him overcome the impossible. He did not take refuge in prayer because he is not a believer. He did not feel hatred, anger or revenge. He said he couldn't understand "the absurd”.
Azdyne needed to go further to overcome "his" impossible. The focus groups he attended did not offer him the fullness of what he was seeking, he could't get to the bottom of it, and he needed to see what was happening on the other side.
On the other side are the families of the victims. Through a third party, Azdyne asked to meet Georges. It was early 2017, just over a year after the attacks.
Georges received a phone call presenting Azdyne's request. He was surprised, amazed, a little destabilized by it. He took time to think about it and asked himself a number of questions: Why does the father of a Bataclan terrorist want to meet me? Was he willing to meet the father of the boy who may be the killer of his daughter?
He didn't refuse to meet. After all, this man asking to see him is also a victim, a father who has lost a son. He concluded that Samy, the terrorist's son, was also a victim; a victim of the crazy ideas that he and other fundamentalists propagate, instilled by manipulators. Of course, Georges was told that Azdyne does not share any of the fundamentalist ideas of those who manipulate his religion. So he accepted to meet and with a friend, who is a member of the victims' association, he went to a café in the Bastille district, in the centre of Paris.
Azdyne arrived. Georges stood up, visibly tense. Azdyne too. Somehow, he thought of Georges as being more courageous than him in accepting the meeting. "I'd already lost everything," says Azdyne, "I was on the wrong side of the story. By agreeing to meet me, George had much more to lose. He was a man known to the media, president of a victims' association that appears on radio and television, so what would people think of him when they found out he met a terrorist's father?" Georges asked himself the same question. Of course, he talked about this meeting with members of the association before accepting it. The idea was quite well received, but not always. Georges was often asked to explain his approach. Sometimes he gave up explaining to those who didn't want to understand. Georges did not insist too much in these circumstances, he felt the wounds were still open and painful and that everyone needed to follow their own path toward rebuilding their lives. Georges' road, like Azdyne's, passed through this Bastille café.
Azdyne and Georges shook hands on this morning in February 2017. They sat down and introduced themselves. The conversation, stunted at first, quickly adopted a more relaxed tone. "Azdyne is a touching person," says George. “Charming".
They talked about their lives, their families, and of course they talked about Lola and Samy, painful as it was for both of them. "It was my therapy," Azdyne says. "I haven't seen a psychologist since the bombing. He was suggested to me, but I wanted to overcome my tragedy alone." The meeting with Georges allowed him to close the circle.
The two met several times. They became friendly. Each time in a café or a restaurant, never at home. They preferred to maintain a certain distance.
The more they met, the more they began to think that their uncommon path could become a message in itself. The more time they shared together, the more they talked to each other, the more they realized the great strength behind this dialogue, their dialogue. It helped them overcome their feelings of hatred, the possible thirst for revenge, misunderstandings and everything that ultimately leads a society to divide. Together, they decided to send a message that is exactly the opposite of that of the terrorists.
With dialogue, anything is possible.
To facilitate this message going beyond the sphere of their multiple encounters, Georges and Azdyne decided to write a book, to tell their story, their conversations, what they have in common, as well as their differences. There are differences, of course, but they are no longer sources of division. These differences have not been overcome, and probably never will be, but they have been understood and accepted.
This is the title they chose for their book: "We Still Have Words – A lesson in tolerance and resilience".
(The book is available in French, "Il nous reste les mots", Ed. Robert Laffont)