Georgia Institute of Technology sophomore Elianna Paljug had just watched fireworks on the oceanside Promenade des Anglais when a Tunisian man driving a truck plowed through a crowd of Bastille Day revelers. The attack last week in Nice, France killed 84 people.
WESA's Nicole Fallert spoke with Paljug, 19, of Fox Chapel about her experience fleeing the dangerous scene while studying abroad and her use of social media in the aftermath.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
PALJUG: All the sudden, all around us people started sprinting, and we were like, “What is going on?” We thought people were maybe trying to get to their cars. We had no idea what to think, but it was running and it was uncanny and it felt like a movie … and wasn’t like people were running in one direction away from a thing that we could see.
My friend grabbed my hand and we were like, “I don’t know what’s going on, but run.”
I was the only person whose phone had data, so I was frantically trying to search on the internet but there was absolutely nothing.
I kept hearing, “Ce qui se passe? Ce qui se passe? What’s happening? Do you know what’s going on?” Mixes of that and just silence.
I would ask, “Do you guys know what’s happening?” And they’d be like, “No idea, but just keep running.”
The mother of the host family had no idea that anything was going on. She was like, “How was your evening?”
It took a while for us to figure out that everyone was OK. We were just like, maybe it wasn’t a big deal, maybe nothing happened, and you just want to assume the best.
But as we were trying to find all our friends, the host mother turned on the TV and that’s when the news started coming in. They started to explain that a truck drove into a crowd and was shooting, and the death toll just kept going up and up and up.
FALLERT: You immediately went online. What role did Facebook and social media play that night and since the attacks?
PALJUG: I'm so used to that instant communication that I expected, of course it’s going to be online, of course someone’s going to know.
But if you see something you’re not going to post it immediately, you’re going to run. This wasn’t that type of event where people are instantly reporting on social media. My dependence on social media for news and for mental stability wasn’t there that night, and we had to just keep going without knowing what was going on, which was very weird.
I feel like me being there and then posting about it on social media made all the terrorist attacks that have happened more real. I think Facebook has really helped humanize the event in a terrifying way because when you understand that it’s people that suffered, that’s scary.
I’m posting the reality of what happened because I want people to realize what it was like to walk along that gorgeous boardwalk the next day and put flowers there and understand what it was like to be there. I’ve been able to be here and not only just see the devastation.
I’ve seen people going to the beach, people buying flip flops on the corner stores, people walking along the boardwalk in their swim gear and waking up being resilient and say, “We’re Nice, we’re strong.”
FALLERT: I really want to get at the root of you being a student and the student population being both an agent of change and an agent allowing this violence to exist.
PALJUG: We have a duty to empathize with each other as much as we possibly can. When I posted, some people commented that they were planning on studying abroad and this is making them think differently about that possibility.
I definitely want to say that this is an instance of deciding whether we are going to let fear win or not. There’s so much beauty in the world. There’s so much to be explored and discover. I think it’s important to not let the fear overwhelm the narrative.
FALLERT: Is there anything you think the American or Pittsburgh population might be missing about this story?
PALJUG: It’s a very big question and I think that it’s something that I will be coming to terms with for the rest of my life. I think that being here, experiencing this has made me realize how lucky I am. The sun is still shining, the ocean is still beautiful, the city is still incredible, the food is still delicious, the people are still so hospitable.
Nice lives on and beautiful cities can move on.