The aunt of a French teenager shot dead by police last week has urged the “violence to stop” and her nephew’s death to trigger “real change” peacefully, in a heartfelt interview with The Independent.
Hatifa, who turned 47 on Saturday, the day of her nephew’s funeral, described Nahel Merzouk, 17, as a “loving teddy bear” who had big ambitions, liked to write rap lyrics, and was “dedicated” to his mother.
She said the family – who are of Algerian and Moroccan origin – had been overwhelmed by the national and global response to his killing last week by a police officer during a traffic stop in a west Parisian suburb.
Thousands of people have taken to the streets across the country, calling for an end to police impunity and discrimination after a video of the incident was shared online.
But it has also ignited violence with multiple cities ablaze as looters ransacked dozens of shops and torched thousands of vehicles, according to the interior ministry.
On Sunday morning a group of rioters ram-raided the home of a Paris suburb mayor, set the car alight and launched fireworks at his wife and young children.
“I ask that the violence stop. I don’t want people to get hurt. The family is very much against the violence,” Hatifa, a mother-of-four herself, told The Independent.
“We knew Nahel’s killing would have some impact but not this much. I think there are mass protests because so many mothers, like my sister, have had enough of being scared all the time.”
She said the family were “very grateful” for the global support, which had helped as they dealt with “deep grief”.
“But I hope that Nahel’s death is going to trigger some kind of change that means this never happens again,” she added. “At the end of the day, a grown-up shot a baby.”
Nahel was fired at by a police officer during a traffic stop in the west Parisian suburb. The perpetrator of the shooting justified his action by saying the teenager refused to comply and the police said he was “known” to them.
But the incident was caught on mobile phone footage and showed Nahel driving away from the officers before one fired at him. His family believe he was likely terrified, and so panicked and drove off. France’s human rights ombudsman has opened an inquiry into the killing and the officer involved has been charged with homicide.
Outraged at the murder, and the apparent efforts by the police to paint Nahel as a troubled teenager wanted by the law, has seen thousands take to the streets across the country. But that has spiralled into violence in many areas.
Emmanuel Macron, facing the most severe challenge yet to his presidency, deployed 45,000 officers, including elite anti-terrorism units, in a bid to end the unrest. Police unions, meanwhile, have declared they are “at war” with “savage hordes of vermin”.
More than 3,000 people have now been arrested across the country, with curfews imposed and public transport curtailed as open street battles raged between protesters and police, and looting became rampant.
Hatifa said that the anger in the disenfranchised banlieues – or city suburbs – had been simmering for a while because of the endemic problem of discrimination in the police force.
The youths, including Nahel, are regularly stopped by police, an action that scares them and heightens tensions, she added. “I don’t have all the answers to fix this. Racism and discrimination within the police has to stop. I know policemen are reaching their wit’s end and are taking their frustration out on young people.
“But it has to stop, young people don’t like police, the police should be defending us not killing us,” she added.
Hatifa’s words echo those of Nahel’s grandmother who also called for calm in an interview with French TV channel BFMTV on Sunday. “Don’t break windows, don’t smash up schools, don’t smash up buses. Stop it, they’re mums on buses, they’re mums walking outside”, the grandmother begged.
“Nahel is dead. My daughter had just one child, she’s lost, it’s over, my daughter has no life left. And they made me lose my daughter and my grandson.”
Hatifa said the whole family was concerned about the mental health of Nahel’s mother, Mounia, who has been thrust into the international limelight.
“My sister is focused entirely on the loss of her son, her only son. I am scared that she might make a mistake in her loneliness and solitude when this quietens down,” she added.
The officer who fired at Nahel has been taken into pre-trial custody, which French criminal law professors told The Independent was unprecedented. But many, including the family, fear that he may still be released.
Nahel is the 16th driver to be shot at a traffic stop since the start of 2022, experts have told The Independent. The difference this time is that it was caught on camera.
Hatifa said they were concerned by the impunity in the police force and hoped the officer, who has been detained on charges of homicide, is convicted and jailed.
“It would be a disaster if, after all that has happened, nothing changes and for this person to walk free. Young people in my neighbourhood go to prison for much less,” she said with a shake in her voice.
“We didn’t ask for a policeman to wake up one morning and put a bullet through my nephew’s heart.
“I can’t breathe at night – I have never felt such pain. Nahel never hurt anyone.”
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