NICE, FRANCE — She was buying her 4-year-old daughter candy when she saw the truck barreling down the thoroughfare, striking everyone in its path. Hager Benaouissi pushed her child to the asphalt and lay on top of her. The truck miraculously missed them.
Now she is trying to save her daughter Kenza again.
“She becomes really afraid when there is a crowd,” said Benaouissi, a 32-year-old kindergarten worker. “In the middle of night, she wakes up and starts crying and screaming, ‘They are shooting!’ ”
On Thursday, 84 people died and scores more were injured when a Tunisian-born French resident plowed a refrigerator truck down a seaside promenade as tens of thousands gathered for a Bastille Day fireworks celebration. But hundreds, if not thousands, have endured invisible scars that could take a long time to heal, if they ever do, say psychologists and victims.
“They are facing enormous stress,” said Noel Daniello, a nurse in charge of a psychological support team at Nice’s Pasteur Hospital, where more than 1,500 people have arrived since Friday for counseling. “The bad memories could become a long-term psychological wound.”
Unlike last year’s terrorist attacks in France — on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in January and on the Bataclan concert hall and other Parisian nightlife venues in November — the rampage here targeted entire families. By long-standing tradition, Bastille Day in Nice is a time to take children for a walk along the beach-side, indulge them with candy and ice cream, and watch a magnificent display of fireworks on the French Riviera.
Today, the parents of at least 10 children are mourning their deaths and grappling with the psychological impact. Those of at least 35 injured children have waited in trepidation at hospitals, praying for them to survive. A 6-month-old child is still fighting for life in an emergency ward.
And countless parents — Christian and Muslim, of all political stripes — like Benaouissi are struggling to bring their children back to their normal selves, to be able to enjoy again the mundane pleasures in life.
“Some children don’t know how to play with toys anymore,” Daniello said. He recounted how he gave a 4-year-old girl some dolls and she did not know what to do with them. “It was like she was a year old. She didn’t lose anybody in the attack. But what she has lost is her childhood. She saw things she should have never seen.”
Ines Gyger’s 6-year-old granddaughter Kayla was killed in the attack. Her son-in-law and two other grandchildren are being treated for injuries. Her daughter remains missing.
“Where is my Christine?” she asked, visibly angry, as she stood outside the hospital. “Nobody is giving us information.”
French authorities say there are still bodies that have not been identified. Witnesses have described the truck hitting people with such force that some corpses were unrecognizable. And with each day, the anguish grows for relatives of the missing.
Steps away from Gyger, a couple waited for news of their nephew, caught between mourning and a slim sense of hope. They had last seen him before the attack and had not heard from him since. They were told by hospital officials that a crisis team would call them if he was among the dead.
“They are trying to identify people by their teeth to make sure it’s the right person,” said the husband, who declined to give his name. “I was there during the attack. The truck ran into people, cutting them into pieces, as if we were standing in a butcher’s to buy meat.”
The family of Aldjia Bouzaouit, 42, posted pictures of her on telephone poles and at the memorials along the Promenade des Anglais, the scene of the carnage. On Sunday, they finally got the call from the crisis team.
“She was killed brutally by that murderer,” her sister said over the phone before hanging up.
Across the Promenade, there were signs of a collective trauma. On notes placed amid the piles of candles and flowers to commemorate the victims, people bared their raw emotions, suggesting they will carry the pain for a long time.
“The empty looks, the smell of blood, makes it difficult for me to erase the memory,” one mourner wrote.
On a Facebook post, Doris Ducrocq wrote that she and some other passersby on the promenade assisted a man who had just gotten the news that his wife had died.
“He was having a mental breakdown,” she wrote, adding that she could not find the correct words to persuade him to seek help. “There is a real need for real help for these souls, and there are many of them.”
Sarah Aissaoui and her partner, who is diabetic, had survived with minor injuries. But they have been unable to cope with keeping up his medication since then. At Pasteur Hospital, she sat outside the psychologist’s office but was afraid to revisit the day of the attack.
“I can’t go inside,” she said. “It’s too difficult.”
Seven-year-old Hedy Darris was inside an ice-cream shop on the promenade when the screaming started. His older brother grabbed him and they ran for safety, along with thousands, until they reached a relative’s house. But Hedy could not escape what he had seen. So his mother brought him to see a psychologist.
“He’s afraid to go alone to the toilet,” said his mother, Miryam. “Even when on our way here, I was turning on the radio in the car and he said: ‘Turn it off, Mom. He’s going to come and kill us.’ He can't stand noise anymore.”
She asked her son whether he wanted to visit the promenade to see the flowers — and get an ice cream. He refused.
A few seconds later, Hedy brought up another memory from the day of the attack.
“There was a mother with a baby and a grandfather,” he said “I saw the grandfather running away with the baby but I don't know what happened with the mom.”
On Sunday, Benaouissi sat with her daughter after a visit to the psychologist. The mother’s left ear was bandaged, as was her left hand, injuries from the day of the attack. She was visibly tired. She is taking sleeping pills before bed.
An ambulance, sirens blaring, pulled up to the hospital entrance.
“Is there somebody dead inside?” asked Kenza, clutching a stuffed polar bear.
“What has happened is all behind us,” her mother gently reassured her. “There is nobody in there who has died. There are only people in there to come and help us. Don’t worry.”
Annabell Van den Berghe contributed to this report.