PARIS: As if in a movie, two armed men pulled up in a car next to Damien as the French-Belgian man strolled down the road listening to music on his headphones in a trendy part of Paris.
Within minutes the area would become a scene of unimaginable horror, leaving the 39-year old struggling to come to terms with the moment he had come close enough to see the slight smile on the face of one of the gunmen before turning and running.
“I felt a car slow down to my left, I felt someone my height get out,” he told AFP, recounting the tragic events of November 13.
He heard a series of blasts. At first he thought they were firecrackers. “Damn, who would make a joke like that?” he thought.
Damien said he had been visiting the French capital for the first time on the fateful night when France suffered its worst-ever terror attacks.
Nineteen of the 130 people slaughtered by gunmen and suicide bombers at bars, restaurants, a concert venue and the national stadium, were gunned down in the street where Damien found himself.
He recalled the chilling seconds he sensed something terrible was about to happen as he strolled down Rue de Charonne — one of the jihadists´ targets — towards iconic Bastille square, home to countless bars and restaurants.
“Then I saw a man wearing a dark suit, elegant, with a short beard and black hair,” Damien said. In his hands was a Kalashnikov.
He saw another man, also armed, on the other side of the car, and his instinct told him they were probably not the only attackers.
“They were shooting at the cars stopped behind them, very calmly. The guy nearest to me was very calm, with even a slight smile drawn on his lips,” said Damien, who was standing just two metres (yards) away.
“They held their Kalashnikovs at their sides, they were extremely relaxed. It was like watching a gangster movie,” he said.
No one shouted. “There was no feeling of aggression aside from the violent din (of the shooting). We were all hypnotised.”
In a split second, he decided to run in the other direction — and he kept going until he ran out of breath.
Behind him he heard “an endless stream of bursts of fire”, as he, rightly, imagined the worst.
It was 9:36 pm, the Paris prosecutor said, when the killers arrived at the scene. And at 9:38 pm Damien called a friend. In two short minutes, 19 people had been slain.
‘The same emotions’
Again and again, Damien said he goes through the moments before the massacre.
“The hardest part is knowing that I shared the same emotions with all those people on the other side of the pavement — but that they were massacred.
“What if I had arrived 20 seconds earlier?… What if I had taken another path? … I can´t think about it too much — I get dizzy.”
He paid tribute to the victims in the days that followed, lighting a candle on the Rue de Charonne and walkuing to the Bataclan music venue, scene of the deadliest attack.
He said he thinks he recognises Abdelhamid Abaaoud, believed to have orchestrated the attacks, when he sees his picture online.
Meanwhile, in order to get through the days, he said he tries “to celebrate being alive.” Since last Friday “everything has been a bonus.”
He said he feels scared every time he hears a loud noise, but finds comfort sharing his experience with other survivors and with police officers.
He said he is glad “see people around me laugh,” but for Damien himself, laughter is for the moment a luxury beyond reach.