When ISIS terrorists stormed the Bataclan theatre in Paris and opened fire on a rock concert audience, Georges Salines lost a daughter, Azdyne Amimour a son. Both were 28.
As they came to terms with their grief, the two fathers met and decided to write a book together as a simple, therapeutic project. What made it exceptional was that Mr Amimour’s son, Samy, was one of the three gunmen who murdered Lola Salines and 89 other people inside the hall. He was also killed, shot by police before detonating his suicide vest.
Their book, Il Nous Reste Les Mots (We Still Have Words), resulted from a dozen or more meetings at which they exchanged their thoughts and experiences and the histories of two families devastated by an act of barbarity that represented the most deadly part of a co-ordinated series of ISIS attacks in the French capital on November 13 2015. It was Paris's worst disaster since the Second World War and claimed 130 lives, the official toll rising to 131 when a survivor committed suicide two years later.
Mr Salines, 62, retired director of environmental health services for Paris city hall, has faced online criticism — “mainly right wing websites and blogs,” he says — from those who regard the families of ISIS killers as “proxy terrorists” however strongly they may condemn crimes committed by relatives.
The idea for the book grew from contact initiated by Mr Amimour, a French-Algerian who worked in film and music before retirement, after he became aware of Mr Salines's role as president of a victims' association. Mr Salines had previously published The Indescribable, from A to Z, a compilation of the words that came to him daily when thinking of his daughter.
“I found it difficult at first,” said Mr Salines, whose daughter was a successful editor in publishing, specialising in books for children and young adults.
“But I was also puzzled because he had not explained in precise terms his reasons for wanting to meet. I had already met the mothers of sons who had gone to Syria as Jihadists and knew that relatives could also suffer. I devote my life to fighting terrorism but only through dialogue can we understand the mechanism by which violence is used to pursue political or ideological aims.
“So I was curious and wanted to hear about his family even though it could not give me the answer to the question I have asked myself every day since 2015: what makes a young man my daughter’s age decide to kill her?”
Samy Amimour was well behaved as a child and was a promising law student before drifting into extremism and dropping out of college to work as a bus driver. His father says he was “easy prey” for radical elements at a mosque he attended in the north-eastern Paris suburb of Drancy.
“We never had a suspicion,” said Mr Amimour, 72. “He was nice, warm, intelligent boy who had everything. When he became more attracted to prayer, I tried to show support by stopping drinking alcohol and becoming more religious. But I am a Muslim who believes in peace and tolerance whereas Samy was too easy to indoctrinate. From one day to the next, he seems to have flipped.
“What he did was terrible and I condemn it without hesitation. I’ve known wars in my lifetime, including the six-day Middle East war when I was living in Egypt. As a boy of 11 in Algeria, I was detained by the French, slapped and kicked and kept inside for a week because I was caught handing out pro-independence leaflets.
“I have experienced racism, humiliation and contempt. But never for a second have I supported terrorism. I found another way, using my own maturity to live my life. I condemn what my son did but cannot stop loving him and will always believe he was a victim, too, a victim of manipulation who made victims of others.”
Mr Amimour says he felt he could reach out to Lola’s father “because we shared the pain, the sadness and the torment. I think a lot about Lola — her name is also that of my younger sister.”
In the book, Mr Salines, whose work also took him to Egypt, refers to the questions to which he still seeks answers. He acknowledges the sorrow of militants’ families while stressing that this is "difficult for the relatives of victims to hear". Mr Amimour reflects on whether his frequent absences from home for work contributed to his son’s ultimate descent into extremism.
After it became clear his son had become radicalised and gone to Syria in 2013 and not, as he initially claimed, as a volunteer for humanitarian work, Mr Amimour travelled there and begged him in vain to return. He was allowed only a short meeting with a minder present and found his son “like a zombie”. He had no idea his son had slipped back into France and take part in the attacks until police broke down his door two days later.
Mr Salines recognises Mr Amimour as a good man, rejecting his attempts to apologise because “he has nothing to apologise for and is not responsible for terrible things his son did”.
Lola, who had a thirst for travel, adventure and roller derby skating, is remembered by her father as dynamic, joyous and caring. “Not a day goes by without me thinking of her,” he says.
There is no evidence that Samy Amimour was the terrorist who killed Lola, who had accepted a last-minute ticket to join 1,500 other fans at a concert by the US band Eagles of Death Metal. But her father says this is of no importance since in his eyes, as in the eyes of the law, “the three assailants were equally guilty”.
On his relationship with Mr Amimour, he says they are friendly but not friends. “I introduce this nuance because I do not use the word friend lightly. My relationship with Azdyne never went beyond our interviews on the common points of our respective stories. We have never gone on holiday together, played bridge or attended a football match. In short, we have never done the things you do with friends. But our relations are very cordial, even marked by a certain mutual affection.
“In some ways, he is in denial and tends to emphasise the responsibility of his son’s handlers. But I, too, was in denial after the attack, convincing myself Lola was alive when we couldn’t get answer on her mobile home before it was confirmed she had died.”
The book reproduces a series of discussions between the two men during their half-day and full-day meetings. It ends with letters from each man to the other’s lost child. To Lola, Mr Amimour talks of the “murderous ideology” that cut short her life and, far from serving Islam, defiled the religion.
“I’m sorry, 1,000 times over,” he writes. Mr Salines challenges Samy Amimour’s interpretation of the Quran, reminding him of its judgment that anyone who murders an innocent person has acted “as if he had killed all men”.
Apart from criticism Mr Salines received in right-wing online forums, the media and public response to the book — subtitled “a lesson intolerance and resilience” — has been broadly positive.
Mr Amimour says he has met with nothing but support from others, including imams. Aware that some victims’ relatives might be hostile to the project, Mr Salines took a co-founder of his victims’ association, herself a Bataclan survivor, to one of his meetings with Mr Amimour. Friends, including others affected by the Paris attacks, have told him they could not have collaborated with a killer’s father as he did, but nevertheless gave their blessing.
Seven attackers were killed in the attacks, two more in a shoot-out five days later. Only one of the so-called "commandos" survived, Salah Abdeslam, a Belgium-born French national of Moroccan parentage, has already been jailed for 20 years in Brussels for the attempted murder of the police officers who arrested him. He, and several others accused of playing some part in organising the Paris attacks, face trial next year.