Since 1987 hundreds of millions of people have come and gone at Charles de Gaulle Airport, but one person has not managed to leave.
Ismaël Nohu is not a quirky film character trapped in the arrivals lounge by a bureaucratic blunder. His 26 years spent living in hidden corners, eating scraps and engaging in occasional petty theft at the airport which sees 60 million travellers each year are decidedly less amusing.
Nohu's tragic story, unearthed by Le Parisien newspaper, hit headlines across the French press in recent weeks. He was due to appear in court on Tuesday to face charges he again stole from a flyer’s vehicle parked in one of the meandering airport’s car parks. This time it was an Apple music player and he faces prison.
But his lawyer, Azia Mumtaz Taj, said Nohu is mentally ill and needs treatment saying he lives mostly underground, scrounging food from trash bins. She noted his spoken vocabulary is limited to three words: “Yes, no and I don’t know”.
“He speaks like five-year-old child,” she told newspaper Le Parisien. “If you offer him a cigarette he’ll accept readily, the rest of the time he wanders alone underground, muttering inaudible words.”
According to Le Parisien Nohu's path to a secret life among a sea of travellers can be traced back to a fight with his parents when he was 17. They’d brought him to France three years earlier from his native Comoros Islands.
Things didn’t always go well and so he and his parents fought, but the reasons are long gone.
He ended up in a shelter, then did his mandatory military service, where he learned the basics of being a mechanic. After the service he drifted, couldn’t find work and one day ended up at the airport.
He had been arrested 11 times at Charles de Gaulle, going back a dozen years, but an evaluation prepared by lawyers says he’d lived in the shadows of Europe’s second busiest airport for 26 years. According to social workers familiar with him, Nohu rarely came above ground.
“Everyone at least recognizes him, with his dark skin, his long hair and eyes that blink constantly,” social worker Christopher told Le Parisien. “He is a person unlike others.”
It was November 25th, 2013, the day before his 46th birthday, that border police allegedly came upon him in an underground car park at the airport. The police say they caught him trying to force open car doors and ended up finding the Apple music player on him.
Nohu was locked up and now faces his 12th trip through the justice system.
“He doesn’t belong in prison,” said Taj, his lawyer. “Today, apart from a psychiatric hospital, Ismaël has no future.”