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For this witness, Paris attack flashbacks and an altered view of humanity

November 15, 2016 at 6:30 PM EST
Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the deadliest attacks in Paris since the Second World War, carried out by ISIS militants. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant follows up with a witness to the attacks, Mark Colclough, a British-Danish psychotherapist, to get a sense of how the city and attack survivors are coping in its aftermath.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: France has been commemorating the first anniversary of the Paris attacks, where ISIS militants killed 130 people and wounded nearly 400.

The attack on Friday the 13th last year was the worst on French soil since the Second World War.

So, how are the survivors coping with the trauma one year on?

Last year, we talked to Mark Colclough, a British-Danish psychotherapist who witnessed the killings at a cafe.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has been back to see him at home.

MALCOLM BRABANT: We’re driving to Funen, Denmark’s central island, where Mark Colclough now resides.

It’s 100 miles from his previous home in the capital, Copenhagen. In the search for peace of mind, he’s found it necessary to immerse himself in the tranquility of nature.

MARK COLCLOUGH, Psychotherapist: Paris has changed us on a profound level. It’s so profound, that we can’t quite touch it yet.

Within that change for me the last year, I have noticed how much I need to get away from the city and get away from congregations of people and sudden movement, and this kind of — you know, the head tick buzz of — Copenhagen’s not a busy city, by any means, compared to Paris, but it’s a lot busier than this.

And I have really felt the need to have some space, some peace and quiet, where I can just be myself and I can predict what’s happening. I’m an ordinary guy. And I was walking down the street in Paris on an ordinary evening in November, and I saw absolutely extraordinary events, have changed my view on myself, have changed my view on humanity entirely.

MALCOLM BRABANT: How have you been doing?

MARK COLCLOUGH: It’s been a long journey. I can hardly believe it’s been almost a year already.

I looked through the interview that we did in November last year, when we met. And I can see then that I assumed, two, three weeks of this, I will be fine, back to work as usual.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But Colclough didn’t return to work as a psychotherapist for a couple of months. And then he frequently required time off.

Do you think you’re going to be permanently damaged?

MARK COLCLOUGH: Oh, no, no, I don’t think that at all.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Is that because you personally and professionally have the tools that enable you to deal with this?

MARK COLCLOUGH: Yes, I think. I have been in and out of therapy since I was 19. It’s always been in my interest, has been psychotherapy and psychology. So I’m aware that I have tools, and I have a quite robust sense of self.

And now it’s a year later, and I have had a really good year. The first couple of months were very difficult,and then the summer gradually got better and better. And then the last couple of weeks, I have seen a bit of a downturn again.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Returning to Paris for the anniversary has affected his state of mind.

MARK COLCLOUGH: I have been back in Paris twice.

And returning to the scene of the shootings has been incredibly full of anxiety before going, but actually being there has been incredibly healing.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Mark Colclough says that one of the reasons why he’s suffered a psychological set setback this year is due to a decision by the French authority responsible for distributing compensation for victims of terrorism.

They have turned down his application because they say he was outside on the street as a witness and wasn’t inside the cafe when the shooting took place. Now, he’s disputing this decision, saying that he has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder for the past year, and, as a result, he has had to cut back on work by 60 percent.

MARK COLCLOUGH: I’m not looking for the money. Even the money feels weird. It feels like bloody money somehow.

But I took it as if, as an authority, they’re saying that the feelings I do have, the flashbacks I do have, the nightmares I still have, that I’m somehow either not entitled or less entitled to them somehow.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Have you become more altruistic? Have you become less selfish, less materialistic?

MARK COLCLOUGH: I have downsized my life in many ways. And my friends and my close — my close friends and family have said to me, pretty much across the board, that even though what I have gone through in Paris was horrific, it’s changed me, has made me more human, more vulnerable, more available to them.

And I find myself tearing up easily. I find myself being more moved by something more easily, the human gesture, how much we can touch each other by doing something very simple for each other.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Last year, Colclough was quite certain that he wouldn’t suffer from survivor’s guilt, and would replace it with what he called survivor’s obligation.

MARK COLCLOUGH: I think the obligation to live, to live fully and to give something back to the people that I meet in my life. I saw four people’s lives extinguished very, very quickly right in front of me. And that obligation is to give something back to the people I meet in the course of my life, not just professionally, but also personally.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But his desire to control his thoughts and suppress his subconscious have failed.

MARK COLCLOUGH: The hardest feeling over the last year has been guilt, guilty about not having done more and guilty about not having — I mean, I still have dreams about me intervening with the gunman and trying to attack him, which is — it was what I was planning to do.

I knew that he would be — or I assumed he would be deaf and blinded somewhat by using a high-powered assault rifle inside a small cafe. And I was hoping to attack him on the way out. And then I decided not to when I saw he had two exits from the cafe.

So, then I ran. But having seen all these things, and then the French authorities saying, well, because you stood on a road, we don’t quite recognize you as a witness of terrorism, it’s very weird.

MALCOLM BRABANT: If you, as a professional, are struggling as you are, how do you think other people are, especially those, for example, who weren’t just witnesses, but who were survivors in places like the Bataclan, where there were bullets flying around their head?

MARK COLCLOUGH: Yes, and those shot, not killed, but wounded and dealing with the physical aftermath of being shot.

The path of healing is a very individual one. Many witnesses have formed informal bonds and informal friendships that are strong as concrete. And I feel that too with the two witnesses I’m in touch with.

Our paths have crossed in a day that was full of — a night that was full of hatred and carnage, blood and violence. And, through that, some very deep, intimate friendships have been cast. And I don’t think they will ever break.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Since the attacks, fears of Islamic terrorism have slammed shut Europe’s once open borders and the continent has lurched to the right.

MARK COLCLOUGH: It saddens me entirely that we think that stricter borders and shut borders and Brexit and other events that have happened in Europe will somehow protect nations like this.

It doesn’t work. Europe moving to the right, as it has, will bring us a brittle sense of security, a false sense of security, very false, but it will instantly minimize the true freedom we have in Europe, and that makes me incredibly sad to see.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Despite being in such a tranquil place, Colclough endures flashbacks. The professional in him welcomes them because he says they dilute the memory, but those memories will never vanish.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant in Denmark.

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