PARIS — The deadliest attack on French soil since World War II killed 130 people and injured 416 nearly six years ago. On Wednesday, in the largest criminal trial in the country’s history, more than 2,000 lawyers, witnesses and survivors will seek to bring justice to a nation still traumatized.
Behind the gilded gates of the historic Palais de Justice in the heart of Paris in a specially designed courtroom, French national Salah Abdeslam and others will sit in a bulletproof defendant’s box.
Police belive Abdeslam, 31, was the only attacker to survive Nov. 13, 2015, when nine gunmen and suicide bombers struck bars and restaurants, the Bataclan concert hall and Stade de France sports stadium. French police say a suicide belt belonging to him was found unexploded after the attacks.
Nineteen other suspects are accused of helping provide guns and cars or of playing a role in organizing the largest Islamic State attack in Europe. Six will be tried in absentia, including five who are presumed dead.
‘The truth is justice’
Involving some 330 lawyers and over 1,800 plaintiffs, the trial scheduled to last until May is costing French government millions. For survivors, it will be their first opportunity to face down their attackers.
American Helen Wilson, 55, from Los Angeles, was at the Bataclan Theater the night of the attack with her boyfriend Nick Alexander. Wilson was shot in both legs. Alexander was shot in the stomach and died in Wilson’s arms that night as the gunmen continued their massacre.
She said she was testifying despite years of post-traumatic stress disorder, recurring nightmares, and severe bouts of depression.
“I’m gonna do whatever I can to make sure my voice is heard and that his voice is heard and that all of those other people that are no longer with us are heard through me,” Wilson told NBC News during a recent interview. “This is part of my job. I don’t believe this is all I have to do in the universe, but this is a big part of it.”
At the site of the attacks in Paris, there are signs that the city had moved on.
In the last week, a theater troupe and drag queens at the Bataclan, where 90 died, laughed outside the theater entrance. Patrons packed the terraces of La Bonne Bière café sipping their café crème in the sunshine on a warm late summer day.
At the Stade de France, site of two suicide bombings the night of the attacks, large billboards advertized upcoming musical events.
But despite the city’s apparent recovery, scores of victims, survivors, families and first responders are still coping with the fallout from their collective nightmare.
Lawyer Samia Maktouf, 57, represents 40 survivors and victims’ families. She said many are not getting the support they need and, worse, must constantly prove to the French government that the events of that night continue to affect their daily lives and ability to function.
Many are still seeking answers about the attackers, their plan, their accomplices and about the actions of French police that evening.
“The truth is justice, and to understand what happened on the 13th of November 2015 is important,” Maktouf said.
‘Deep inside my soul’
In the small one-bedroom Parisian apartment Helen Wilson shares with her adopted cats, pictures of her late boyfriend Nick cover her refrigerator.
Wilson, who struggled through years of heavy alcohol and drug use after the attacks, is now sober, sees a therapist twice a week and uses meditation to cope with the physical and emotional scars.
The bullets from the AK-47’s tore away muscle tissue in her legs and left her with nerve damage and chronic pain. “They’re quite painful, but I have a different relationship with pain today than I did before,” she said.
Wilson says she has no illusions that this trial will put her demons to rest.
“It’s never really left the front of my mind to be honest, it’s omnipresent for me. I still live it every day. And I have to consciously take myself to another place in my brain and in my heart to not break down and cry all day long,” she told NBC News. But as strange as it seems, the horrific night of November 13 changed her for the better.
“It’s led me to really look at myself and go deep inside my soul,” she said, “I’m stronger than ever even though some days I don’t feel like I am.”