When Plattsburgh State student Nicole Sarai headed to Paris as part of a study abroad program through SUNY Oswego, she never thought she would be caught in the midst of a terrorist attack that captivated the world and killed 16 people during a two-day period.
During her four-month stay, which began in September, Sarai said she experienced a culture shock, as she found the city to be much more different than it is idealized to be.
“People aren’t very friendly, they’re very dry; it’s not like New York. I feel like, people there, you ask them a question and they’re like, ‘What are you doing?’” she said.
While she said some of the people in the group of 12 that she traveled with became more sensitive to the ridicule of the Parisians, Sarai typically didn’t let it phase her due to her past experiences working with a French company.
Because she studies French culture and language, however, it didn’t take Sarai long to begin enjoying the experience she had long looked forward to.
HEARING THE NEWS
The morning of Jan. 7 began like every other, filled with classes and conversation.
“I didn’t know anything happened,” Sarai said. “I was in school…When I got out of class, I hear somebody mention it, and then I hear my professor crying because somebody died, and then I started learning more specifics.”
The specifics of the chaos Sarai observed started at approximately 11:30 a.m. Jan. 7, when gunmen forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a well-known Parisian satirical magazine, according to CNN. Witnesses reported hearing the intruders shouting the Muslim phrase, “Allahu akbar,” which translates to “God is great.”
At the headquarters, eight Hebdo employees, a guest, a maintenance worker and police officer were shot and killed. Another officer was killed on the street after one of the gunmen fled the building.
Later that day, an 18-year-old named Hamyd Mourad came forward and claimed to be one of what law enforcement officials believed to be three terrorists. Mourad was quickly cleared of charges after investigators confirmed that he had been in school during the time of the attack.
WIDENING THE SEARCH
On Jan. 8, police named the main suspects to be brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi and began searching for them in Montrouge, a suburb of Paris.
According to CNN, the Kouachi brothers were on a United States database of “known or suspected terrorists” and had been on the “no-fly” list for several years.
Later that day, a female police officer was shot and killed during the search. Meanwhile, Sarai said that while the metro train near the Hebdo headquarters was shut down that day, everything else was up and running in Paris.
“Everyone was just going on with their lives, it was weird to me,” she said.
Above the city, however, Sarai said, were constant air patrols, while police and military officers patrolled the streets.
“For the most part I felt pretty safe, but I had my family calling me and asking if I was OK, which made me feel like, ‘OK, maybe I should be paranoid!’”
UPPING THE ANTE
As the search for the Kouachis continued into Jan. 9, Sarai said she recalls getting almost hourly updates of the case and where the suspects were believed to be hiding. The American students were advised to get their information from more local news sources from within Paris rather than American outlets.
“It just made sense,” Sarai said. “For the most part, the Americans were reporting some errors or wrong information that was just making things worse.”
In Dammartin-en-Goele, which is located northeast of Paris, the Kouachi brothers, who were now holding one hostage, were finally found cornered by police. At the same time, a gunman, later identified as Amedy Coulibaly, entered a kosher store, taking people hostage.
It was later announced that Coulibaly and one accomplice, Hayat Boumeddiene, killed four of the hostages.
“This was only, like, 20 minutes from where I was at the time, so I was very nervous,” Sarai said.
Police then launched attacks on the hostage situations in both locations, killing all of the gunmen involved.
Later that evening, an Al Qaeda group out of the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the days’ events.
As the events unfolded at a rapid pace in and around Paris, the rest of the world watched and updated with bated breath for any news.
Several days after the killing of the suspected shooters, Sarai joined thousands of global citizens and numerous world leaders, including Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a rally in the center of Paris to show solidarity. “Je Suis Charlie,” or “I Am Charlie,” was a popular phrase used.
Sarai said, despite earlier thoughts about the generally reserved nature she had observed from Parisians, this was an instance where everyone was brought together to celebrate one cause: freedom.
“That was nothing like I’d ever been to before,” Sarai said. “I’ll never forget how I felt being there that day with all those people.”
Email Maggie McVey at firstname.lastname@example.org.