Studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At Montclair State University, the Global Education Center offers students a chance to expand their education while exploring a variety of cities around the world. MSU In Nice is one of many study abroad programs that Montclair State offers every summer for five weeks in France. After years of obsessing over France and the French language, I spent 12 months preparing for my summer trip to this beautiful country.
When I arrived, I was prepared to have a great summer, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened on Bastille Day, July 14.
After missing the Fourth of July back home, Bastille Day was a day that my classmates and I really looked forward to. After a great day tasting wine, cheese and olive oil with our French professor, Dr. Joanna Dezio, seven of us decided to sit on the beach that night below the Promenade Des Anglais, along with thousands of other people, to watch the firework celebration before heading to the holiday activities near Le Negresco Hotel.
At the last minute, we all decided to cross the Promenade over in the old city to a karaoke bar. Just three minutes after crossing the street, two American students ran by us while one said, “There’s a guy with a gun.” A gun went off in the distance and the narrow streets of the old city flooded with panic and fear as people ran from the unknown. Some hid in nearby shops, some made it out of the old city and others, such as myself and two of my classmates, scouted shelter in strangers’ homes.
The other four people who were with us got swept away with the crowd. Somehow, they were able to make it back to our residence building safely.
After a fun day, it didn’t occur to us that something like that could happen. It didn’t occur to us that in just three minutes, our view of the world we thought we knew could change forever.
The three of us ran up a hill away from the crowd and began banging on random house doors. I saw a man and a woman smoking outside and begged them to help us.
They were a Dutch couple visiting Nice. The apartment was an Airbnb rental. They let us inside the apartment along with nine other strangers. With the lights off, doors locked, and curtains closed, everyone sat on the floor silent and terrified. Outside, all we could hear were people screaming and still running.
Contacting family members back home was the hardest thing because we all thought that it would be the last time we would ever speak to our loved ones.
“That night was the scariest night of my life,” said MSU in Nice student, Gabriely De Almeida. “I’m just happy [that] I didn’t see the [incident] because I know [that] I wouldn’t have easily recovered from that. I’m extremely blessed to be alive.”
France endured three terrorist attacks in 19 months. The first attack happened on January 7, 2015, when the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo suffered a fatal shooting by two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi. They murdered twelve people, including many journalists of the newspaper. The gunmen’s motive for the shooting was that the newspaper had offended an Islamic prophet.
On November 13, 2015, six different locations in Paris were attacked by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), killing 129 people. Then, on July 14, 2016, France’s national holiday, the Nice attack shook the nation. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian national who resided in Nice, drove a white cargo truck onto the Promenade Des Anglais near Le Negresco Hotel at approximately 10:30 p.m. The attack left 86 people dead and 434 injured.
“This doesn’t happen here,” said Nice local, Sébastien Genovese. “It was a shock to everybody.” Genovese, along with several others, witnessed the attack on a café balcony near Le Negresco.
The attack left many questions, especially about the attacker’s religion. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was known to Nice locals as a “loner.”
People who knew him personally said that he wasn’t a religious person, but joined a Mosque and began supporting the Islamic State months before the attack. So far, every attack in France has been religion-based and raised the question, “Why is France under attack?”
In September 2014, after France launched bombing runs against the Islamic State in Iraq, ISIS extremists called the French “spiteful” and “dirty.” Then, they urged those of Muslim faith to target and kill French citizens as an act of revenge.
After eight hours of seeking shelter in this Airbnb apartment, my classmates and I thanked the Dutch couple for their generosity and kindness and left. Still afraid of the unknown, we walked back to our residence, where we found everyone else awake, scared, but safe. The morning after the attack, I felt numb. I couldn’t eat, sleep or leave my apartment due to overwhelming fear.
Montclair State’s modern languages and literatures chairperson, Dr. Lois Oppenheim, and the Global Education Center interim director, Domenica Dominguez, were the first people from Montclair State to reach out to me during the attack. From getting ready to fly everyone out of France as soon as possible to organizing over-the-phone counseling for all the MSU in Nice students, they did everything in their power to make sure everyone was brought home safely.
On the morning after the attack, Oppenheim sent out an email to every student that stated, “Please know, all, that if there is anything at all that I or the department can do, you need only let me know. You have been through a horrific experience. It may take time to fully absorb it. Don’t hesitate, please, to make use of any services that we can make available to you through the university.”
The Nice attack was the scariest thing that I’ve ever encountered, but the aftermath was what helped me recover.
After the attack, the people of Nice stood by one another and supported each other like family. Religion, race or gender didn’t matter. Strangers wiped strangers’ tears as if they were their own. Everyone came together as one people, showed the rest of world that united people do not cower in fear over terrorism.
This is a first person account told by Feature Editor Amanda Williams.