“People reach out, but little by little they forget,” said Angeles Pedraza, whose daughter died in the 2004 Madrid attacks, as she joined other terror victims Friday to demand justice and recognition.
Pedraza was one of several dozen European survivors, relatives and terror experts at a two-day congress in Paris, held exactly 20 years after the bombing of a French UTA airliner over Niger claimed 170 lives, on September 19, 1989.
Catherine Vannier, whose 17-year-old daughter Cecile was killed in an attack on a Cairo bazaar in February, trembled as she took the microphone.
“I am here for her, to make sure she is not forgotten, and that we really find out what happened that day,” she told the room. “Alone I am powerless. But it is very, very hard. The pain is still so raw.”
“People see terror attacks as an event on the news. But for us it is never over,” said Melanie Berthouloux, one of 24 students wounded in the Cairo blast, for which seven alleged Al-Qaeda militants were detained in May.
Event organiser Guillaume Denoix de Saint Marc, who lost his father in the UTA bombing, was head negotiator with Libya in a historic deal in 2004 that secured a million dollars in compensation for each victim’s family.
Last year he founded the French association for the victims of terrorism, part of a European network offering help in coping with the scars but also a chance to join forces.
Nathalie Fustier survived a massive attack on the UN mission in Baghdad in 2003, but was left unable to take the underground, watch a fireworks display or spot a package in a street without panicking.
“For years you stop living, you are simply surviving.” she said. “I owe my survival to the help I received, though it came much too late.”
Like her, Pamela White narrowly survived an IRA car bomb attack in Northern Ireland in 1983, while she was working as a policewoman.
She was 12 feet (three metres) from a 30-pound (14-kilo) bomb when it went off, killing six other people.
“I lost confidence, my health, my career, my sanity,” said White, who received no help at the time and says she was only able to move on, years later, by reaching out to ex-militants and sharing with other victims.
“When you have been a victim of terrorism, it changes you for ever. It’s like stepping through the looking glass. And no one apart from other victims can really listen to you,” Denoix explained.
“But our idea is to put forward practical proposals. From passive victim, you take hold of your destiny and become an active player.”
As part of the European Network of Victims of Terrorism, an umbrella group of associations set up with EU funds last year, Denoix is pushing for Europe-wide legislation to guarantee victims recognition and support.
Current legislation across the 27-member bloc is piecemeal at best, with few states distinguishing between victims of attacks and regular crime, according to the group’s head Maria Lozano.
Other European projects include drawing up guidelines for media or emergency services in dealing with victims, while the French group hopes soon to have the ability to act as a plaintiff in terrorism trials.
Targeted in the first place as political pawns, many victims feel held hostage to politics again in their quest for justice, says Denoix.
“Investigations move slowly, and families are rarely kept informed. In cases of terrorism, national security interests are never far away, but it is very important that the victims’ right to know the truth is respected.”
“In terrorism cases, the real target is the state — though not necessarily the one of the victim,” said Denoix. “That makes it all the more painful when the state fails to acknowledge them.
Outside Europe, the picture is far bleaker with victims often struggling to obtain any official recognition at all.
Congolese father Adrien Mbouandji, who lost seven members of his family in the 1989 UTA crash, says: “Now the money issue is sorted, no one in Congo wants to talk about the attack any more.”
Sherifa Kheddar, an Algerian campaigner who lost a brother and sister in an Islamist attack in 1995, says victims are seen as a bothersome obstacle as Algiers pursues a policy of amnesty and reconciliation for ex-militants.
“The Algerian authorities don’t care about the victims. They say it is time to turn the page.”