Writer and editor

When my brother's death led to France's 2005 riots

Added on by Anealla Safdar.

Clichy-sous-Bois, France - On October 27, 2005, 15-year-old Bouna Traore, Zyed Benna and Muhittin Altun, both 17, were playing football with a group of friends.

It was Ramadan and the time to break fast was approaching in Clichy-sous-Bois, an isolated suburb 15 kilometres from Paris.

Police had been called to investigate a possible break-in at a construction site nearby.

A little after 5pm, when the boys playing football spotted the police patrol, they ran away, fearing lengthy interrogations.

Stop-and-searches are frequent in the "banlieues". They are sometimes carried out more than once a day, often with aggression, and usually target non-white citizens and immigrants, according to several residents Al Jazeera spoke to in the impoverished suburbs.

Traore, Benna and Altun, of Mauritanian, Tunisian and Turkish Kurdish origin respectively, and known in the neighbourhood for their good behaviour, ran in the direction of a high-voltage electrical power substation, and hid in the transformer.

According to accounts and transcripts of police radio exchanges, surrounding officers discussed the fleeing boys.

Sebastien Gaillemin was heard saying over the police radio: "If they enter the site, there's not much hope they'll make it alive."

The officer was not heard, however, attempting to stop the teenagers from entering.

Gaillemin and his colleague Stephanie Klein faced charges of failing to prevent the deaths of Traore and Benna, who were killed by an electrocution so powerful that it plunged the neighbourhood into a blackout.

Altun, the only survivor, suffered 10 percent burns.

Ten years after the two boys' deaths, which ignited a three-week uprising leading to a state of emergency, Gaillemin and Klein were acquitted in a final ruling that could not be appealed against.

"Bouna is always in our thoughts, we are hostage to our minds," says Siyakha Traore, Bouna's older brother, in an interview with Al Jazeera. "But we are believers and our prayers give us strength. Sometimes when we think a lot, our feelings overcome us. Life carries on, we live with it. We don't have a choice but to accept it."

Traore is a well-built and softly spoken man. He picks nervously at the skin around his nails when talking about his brother's final moments.

During the interview, Traore also discusses the rise of the far right in France: "In a country like ours, a democratic country which is the birthplace of human rights, to see the far right rising is unacceptable."

He explains why he encourages people to vote: "We are lucky to have civil rights and be able to vote. In some countries you cannot vote. It's important. And if you don't agree with any of the candidates, you have to make a tactical vote or abstain. But in this current context, you can't afford to abstain."

And he makes suggestions about how to tackle police brutality: "I don't paint all police with the same brush, and they should not do the same with us. I wanted to launch workshop sessions between the people here and police, so the community learns more about the officers serving them, and vice versa."

When asked to reflect on the night his brother's death led to the largest riots France had seen in 40 years, this is what he says:

"All of a sudden, there was a power cut in the house. I thought it was a local failure, a blown fuse, but in fact the whole city went dark. I left the house and noticed the neighbours had the same issue. I walked to the shop to get some bread. It was Ramadan and almost time to open the fast.

Muhittin Altun ran into the shop. He was in a state of shock. He kept saying, 'Bouna, Zyed, Bouna, Zyed.'

I could feel the heat coming from him. He was hot. He was red. His jeans were all messed up, melted against his skin.

I went with him in a car to find my brother and Zyed.

'Where is he, where is he?' I kept asking.

Muhittin was lost, he was out of it and couldn't direct us. After going around for some time, we came across the power station.

'They're in there,' Muhittin said.

He pointed towards a field. Behind a barrier, there was the power station.

As we ran closer to the power station, it became hotter. We took off our watches because they were burning us.

I ran over a piece of wood and a stray nail stabbed my foot. I took off my trainers. I was bleeding.

We went past the barrier and inside the power station. There was a transformer.

'Where are they?' I asked Muhittin.

He cried. 'They are inside the transformer,' he said.

We saw the fire brigade coming. The firemen came in to the central area where the boys were hidden.

One fireman climbed up, looked inside the generator where the boys were, and said: 'One of them is unconscious.'

I was slightly relieved, thinking, 'At least one of them is probably still alive.'

Another group of firemen came and cut the metal to free the boys.

He managed to open a door, and then hesitated a bit.

All the while I still had the shopping in my hand.

They took Muhittin to one of the many ambulances that had arrived by that time.

The emergency services were blocking people from entering.

I told them that my brother was inside. Police asked me for my name, my ID, and my brother's name. They told me to stay away.

Everyone in the neighbourhood knew by this point that something had happened, and they were starting to arrive at the scene. It became crowded very quickly.

Tensions started to rise. Police officers were telling everyone to go away.

By this time, the time to open the fast had already passed. My parents called me and asked me where I was.

I noticed our neighbour was standing close by, so I gave him the shopping and instructed him to take it to my parents, and tell them there was an issue with Bouna.

We were being kept in the dark and the animosity between the youngsters around and police kept growing. Everyone was there - the whole neighbourhood.

My parents soon arrived there too, but because of the crowds, I hadn't seen them. I rushed over to them.

Word had spread so quickly that our relatives in Mauritania called us up, and asked which of the sons had died.

Zyed's parents were there. His father had been in Paris, not Clichy, and friends had gone to pick him up from the city.

My father was sitting on the floor and holding his head. Deep down he knew what had happened, but he still hoped that Bouna was still alive.

From people abroad to people in jail, everyone was calling us for updates, to find out what had happened.

We were still waiting.

I couldn't tell you how many hours we spent there waiting.

The police called a high-ranking officer to take care of the situation. He came and told us to leave.

'You cannot come in until we ourselves see the bodies,' he said.

We told them we were not going anywhere, and so tensions rose once again.

Soon after, a woman from the interior ministry came.

'Calm down, you'll be able to see the bodies, but just calm down,' she told us.

We were with Claude Dilain, the previous mayor. He was a great guy who brought a lot to the town.

Claude asked a senior fireman what had happened.

'With that level of vault, there is no way to survive,' the fireman said.

That's when the everyone understood Bouna and Zyed had died.

Fights broke out between police and the youth.

I heard the messages being sent over the officers' walkie-talkies. 'We need reinforcements!' they kept repeating. 

My father, me and Zyed's father were still waiting.

The medics were treating their disfigured bodies so they wouldn't look too bad when we saw them.

Zyed's father went first.

He cried: 'That's my son!' and fell to the floor.

Then it was my father's turn.
There was a white policeman behind him and I heard him sniffling. I think he was crying.

I told the policeman I wanted to see my brother.

'You have to be strong for your family,' the policeman said to me.

Several people held my father's hands and took him back home.

My mother was also worried about me. I was in shock and denial. I didn't accept what was happening. I was the last to leave.

I was still holding my trainers in my hands. I remember holding them and looking at the power station entrance until my best friend came to take me away, and told me I should stay at his house that night.

The revolt was in full force by then.

It's possible that a similar uprising will come again.

Previous generations had to deal with the skinheads. My father says as a black man that when he arrived in France, he couldn't even walk down the street once without being harassed.

We didn't go through what our parents went through, but we will have our own struggles.

Racism is not so much in your face as it used to be. We can't say it's worse or better. Did you see what happened to Theo? Politicians may have visited him. They also visited us to convey their condolences. That is all just publicity.

People should respect each other. No one should abuse their power."

Published on Al Jazeera on 23rd May, 2017