After bloodshed in Nice, a grieving France asks, 'Why the children?'

It is the seemingly endless piles of teddy bears, Minnie Mouse dolls, Bart Simpson puppets and stuffed animals — bunnies, donkeys, zebras, giraffes — that take your breath away, silent and heartbreaking reminders of why the terrorist attack in Nice was so different.

French authorities say 10 children — the youngest six months, the eldest 18 years — were among the 84 people killed when a man drove a tractor-trailer at high speed into the crowds celebrating France’s national holiday late on Thursday along the seaside promenade in the heart of Nice.

Many of the victims were so badly crushed that 16 bodies have not yet been identified, authorities said Sunday. Among the wounded, five children were in critical condition, hospital officials said.

“Pourquoi des enfants?” The question appeared on signs posted on walls and fences and left at memorials. Why the children?

The senseless deaths of so many children, some attending their first Bastille Day celebration to watch fireworks, might be one reason why throngs of mourners have made what seems to be a nonstop procession to the Promenade des Anglais. Tens of thousands have been milling about the boulevard next to the sea all day and late into the night in speechless sorrow. 

Someone erected a giant white poster, decorated with tiny child hand prints in red and green around the word “justice." Again and again, flowers, votive candles and stuffed animals were accompanied by notes reading “pour les enfants.” For the children.

Memorials have taken shape on dozens of spots along the promenade that has been kept closed off to traffic, marking the areas where victims were last seen or their broken bodies found.

Occasionally, friends or family members of a victim could be seen simply sitting on the pavement and staring at the places where their loved ones perished, weeping or speaking softly to no one in particular.

One man set up a small piano near a memorial and played Chopin’s solemn “Marche Funebre” — the funeral march.

“It feels as though the ground has fallen away from beneath our feet,” said Ines Gyger of Switzerland, whose 6-year-old grandson was killed in Thursday’s attack. She spoke outside the Pasteur Hospital in northern Nice. Her son-in-law and two other grandchildren, ages 6 months and 4 years, were also injured and still in the hospital.

“My family is in shock,” Gyger said. “I want to know the truth. The French authorities told us nothing. It was the Swiss authorities who told me that my grandson is dead. The French authorities? All they can do is arrange one minute of silence. We don’t need a minute of silence. We need two minutes of information.”

An 11-year-old boy from Texas, Brodie Copeland, was also among the children killed. The avid youth baseball and football player died along with his father Sean, 51, when they were hit by the truck driven by Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel.

Three UC Berkeley students were injured in the attack. Of the 85 students participating in the university’s study abroad program, one student, 20-year-old Nicolas Leslie, was unaccounted for after the rampage. A photo of Leslie — dark-haired, slender and smiling — appears on “missing” posters all over the city. On Sunday, he was confirmed dead by French officials.

At many of the memorials, people wept. Unspoken was the question: Why would a father of three attack so many children? 

The collective mourning on the promenade and outside the city’s two hospitals seemed to be helping many cope with the trauma of so many children being hurt and killed.

Carolina Villani, a nursing home worker, had been enjoying the Bastille Day fireworks with her family when the speeding truck killed her brother Bruno and a friend of her mother’s, Hugues Mismack. Her sister, Christine Fabry, was badly injured and her 14-year-old son left in a coma.

Villani said in an interview outside the Pasteur Hospital that what pains her most right now was the uncertainty about her nephew, Andre Raffaeli, who disappeared.

“Nobody has any news about my nephew,” she said. “He’s still missing. We’re looking for help. Andre is 16 and turns 17 on Tuesday. Please help us find him.”

Damane Neslib was also waiting outside the hospital for news about his sister-in-law, Sarah. The 16-year-old girl who hopes to one day become a lawyer has been in a coma since she was run over by the truck. “We’re not sure of anything,” said Neslib, a 28-year-old crane operator. “She has head injuries. The doctors are doing tests but we’re waiting for the results.” 

No one knows what the psychological impact will be on those who survived the attack, especially the children.

Mhamdi Azouzi and his wife have four children and the family, along with other relatives, was in the Bastille Day crowd. “We saw the panic and managed to get away,” he said. His family later learned, however, that his 27-year-old cousin Bilel Labbaoui had been run over and killed.

“We got home and we noticed our children were all in a kind of shock,” said Azouzi outside Lenval Hospital. “We thought they were OK at first, but then things didn’t seem right. So we brought them to the hospital to make sure they were OK. The doctors examined them and said they should be OK, even though this will all take a long time to digest.”

Also outside Lenval Hospital was Tahar Mejri. His wife, Olfa Ben Souayah, was killed by the truck, and he had spent two days searching Nice and its hospitals for his 4-year-old son, Kylian.

“I don’t know what happened to him,” Mejri told reporters outside. “We got separated on the promenade when the panic broke out, and I don’t know what happened to him. It was all so chaotic. There’s no information, zero, zero. I don’t know if it’s OK or not. I’ve tried everywhere, the police, hospitals and Facebook. Where’s my son?”

Later, outside the Pasteur Hospital, he was told that Kylian also was among the dead. Mejri began screaming before breaking down in tears.

Kirschbaum and Harvey are special correspondents.

MORE ON NICE

Perpetrator of Nice terror attack asked for 'more weapons' before rampage began, authorities say

Nice's Promenade des Anglais reopens, drawing throngs of mourners

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
71°