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Paris remembers unknown Indian soldiers

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Paris: In a moving ceremony, organised here for the first time, martyred Indian soldiers were remembered at the iconic Arc de Triomphe, which is home to the Flame in the Memory of the Unknown Soldier.

The flame has been rekindled by the French army every single day since November 1923, even during the Second World War when Paris was occupied by the Germans. However, so far it had never been done in the memory of Indian soldiers, even though over 10,000 of them laid down their lives in the defence of France and other allied nations in the First World War, which had seen over 130,000 Indian soldiers arrive in France to battle the Germans.

The proof of the valiant Indian soldiers lies in Neuve Chapelle, a small village on the border with Belgium, where 4,200 Indian soldiers were killed in intense fighting that lasted over three days. The Indian armies finally drove out the German occupiers and gained control of this strategic village.

To commemorate these soldiers, the Indian community got together with the Indian embassy here, to organise a ceremony for the first time. The initiative was taken by Rajaram Munuswamy, secretary general of GOPIO International, the organisation that brings together persons of Indian origin in various countries around the world.

“In this centenary year of the World War I, we have organised several events to honour Indian soldiers and that is why we approached the French defence ministry to allow us to commemorate the ceremony at this unique monument. This is the first time in the history of France that the Indian community is remembering its soldiers,” Munuswamy told this correspondent.

For this occasion, GOPIO chose a very auspicious and indeed apt day, December 16, which is also celebrated as the V-Day in 1971 war with Pakistan and which led to the creation of Bangladesh.

The flame was lit by Indian Ambassador Mohan Kumar in the presence of over 400 members of the Indian diaspora, who had gathered not only from France but also from Britain, Guadeloupe and Mauritius, among other countries. Notable among those present was GOPIO International president Diljit Rana GOPIO International chairman Mahen Utchanah.

Before the flame was lit, the diaspora members organised a small march on the Champs Elysées, bearing the Indian tricolour as well as the flags of France and GOPI.

On the occasion, Mohan Kumar thanked the Indian community in France for having taken the initiative and joining in the efforts of the Indian embassy to ensure that a proper recognition is awarded to the valiant efforts and sacrifices made by the Indian soldiers in France over a century ago.

After the brief ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, the event continued in a nearby hotel where the Indian ambassador and prominent GOPIO members shared their thoughts on the unity and cohesion needed among the communities worldwide to combat the terrorism which has no frontiers and affects the humanity. (Ranvir Nair, IANS)

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Short-Circuit Likely The Cause of Notre Dame Fire, Claims Police Investigators

"It's a chance for France to bounce back, a chance to realize what unites us, because we have been too much divided over the past years,''

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firefighters who saved Notre Dame Cathedral
Members of Paris Firefighters' brigade enter the security perimeter to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, April 18, 2019. France paid a daylong tribute Thursday to the Paris firefighters who saved Notre Dame Cathedral from collapse. VOA

Paris police investigators think an electrical short-circuit most likely caused the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, a police official said Thursday, as France paid a daylong tribute to the firefighters who saved the world-renowned landmark.

A judicial police official told The Associated Press that investigators made an initial assessment of the cathedral Wednesday but don’t have a green light to search Notre Dame’s charred interior because of ongoing safety hazards.

The cathedral’s fragile walls were being shored up with wooden planks, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak by name about an ongoing investigation.

Investigators believe the fire was accidental, and are questioning both cathedral staff and workers who were carrying out renovations. Some 40 people had been questioned by Thursday, according to the Paris prosecutor’s office.

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, third left, and other officials listen to cello player Armance Quero during a ceremony in front of the Paris city hall, April 18, 2019.
French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, third left, and other officials listen to cello player Armance Quero during a ceremony in front of the Paris city hall, April 18, 2019. VOA

The police official would not comment on an unsourced report in Le Parisian newspaper that investigators are looking at whether the fire could have been linked to a computer glitch or the temporary elevators used in the renovation work, among other things. The prosecutor’s office said only that “all leads must be explored.”

Temporary structure proposed

Since the cathedral will be closed to the public for years, the rector of the Catholic parish that worships there has proposed building a temporary structure on the plaza in front of the Gothic-era landmark, and City Hall gave its approval Thursday “subject to technical restraints.”

“The rector has no cathedral for the moment. … But I’m going to try to invent something,” Bishop Patrick Chauvet said.

A crypt containing vestiges dating from antiquity is located under the vast esplanade.

President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants Notre Dame to be restored in five years, in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics, which Paris is hosting. Restoration specialists have questioned the ambitious timeline, with some saying it could take three times that long to rebuild the 850-year-old architectural treasure.

Honoring the firefighters

Earlier Thursday, Macron held a ceremony at the Elysee Palace to thank the hundreds of firefighters who battled the fast-moving fire at Notre Dame for nine hours starting Monday evening, preventing the structure’s destruction and rescuing many of the important relics held inside.

Emergency service personnel walk at the Elysee Palace in Paris after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, April 18, 2019.
Emergency service personnel walk at the Elysee Palace in Paris after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, April 18, 2019. VOA

“We’ve seen before our eyes the right things perfectly organized in a few moments, with responsibility, courage, solidarity and a meticulous organization,” Macron said. “The worst has been avoided.”

The cathedral’s lead roof and its soaring spire were destroyed, but Notre Dame’s iconic bell towers, rose windows, organ and precious artworks were saved.

Macron said the firefighters will receive an Honor Medal for their courage and devotion.

Paris City Hall also held a ceremony in the firefighters’ honor Thursday afternoon, with a Bach violin concert, two giant banners strung from the monumental city headquarters and readings from Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Remarkably, no one was killed in the blaze that broke out as the cathedral was in the initial stages of a lengthy restoration.

Securing area, cathedral

A large swath of the island in the Seine River where Notre Dame is located was officially closed Thursday by police, who cited “important risks” of collapse and falling objects. The area had been unofficially blocked off since the fire.

A crane hoists scaffolding past gargoyles outside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, April 18, 2019.
A crane hoists scaffolding past gargoyles outside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, April 18, 2019. VOA

Meanwhile, workers using a crane removed some statues to lessen the weight on the cathedral’s fragile gables, or support walls, to keep them from collapsing since they were no longer supported by the roof and its network of centuries-old timbers that were consumed by the inferno.

They also secured the support structure above one of Notre Dame’s rose windows with wooden planks.

Saving history

Among the firefighters honored Thursday was Paris fire brigade chaplain Jean-Marc Fournier, who told the Le Parisian daily he was able to save the cathedral’s consecrated hosts. The paper said he climbed on altars to remove large paintings, but that he was especially proud “to have removed Jesus” from the Cathedral — a reference to the Catholic belief that consecrated hosts are the body of Christ.

An earlier report credited Fournier with helping salvage the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus at his crucifixion, but Fournier told France Info Thursday he arrived after rescuers had already broken the relic’s protective covering and an official who had the secret code needed to unlock it finished the job. He praised the action that preserved “this extraordinary relic, this patrimony of humanity.”

Chaplain of the Paris Fire Department, Jean-Marc Fournier, center, waits at the Elysee Palace in Paris prior to a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, April 18, 2019.
Chaplain of the Paris Fire Department, Jean-Marc Fournier, center, waits at the Elysee Palace in Paris prior to a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, April 18, 2019. VOA

Among others honored was Myriam Chudzinski, one of the first firefighters to reach the roof as the blaze raged. Loaded with gear, they climbed hundreds of steps up the cathedral’s narrow spiral staircase to the top of one of the two towers.

“We knew that the roof was burning, but we didn’t really know the intensity,” she told reporters. “It was from upstairs that you understood that it was really dramatic. It was very hot and we had to retreat, retreat. It was spreading quickly.”

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Benedicte Contamin, who came to view the damaged cathedral from afar Thursday, said she’s sad but grateful it’s still there.

“It’s a chance for France to bounce back, a chance to realize what unites us, because we have been too much divided over the past years,” she said. (VOA)