Jannah is a petite lady. Now she is 29, back then she was 24. She had just found her new apartment. She had just started her new job. She worked in a large mansion near Forêt.
At 6pm Jannah sat at the bus stop. The first trees began just a few steps to her right. A car stopped. A dark-skinned man got out. He spoke French.
“To the center?” he asked.
“I take you,” he said.
Jannah wrapped her arms around the pole of the bus stop.
The man took a few steps towards her.
“Come,” he said. “It’s not safe here.”
Jannah held tightly onto the metal pole.
“I take you,” he said in French.
Then he said it in Dutch. Then he said it in Arabic. Then he said it in English.
He held his hand towards her. Jannah wrapped her legs around the pole.
He took a step towards her.
When the bus appeared at the top of the hill the man quickly got back into his car. He nodded before he got in. Then he drove off.
I moved here only a year ago. Still I heard far too many stories about Forêt.
It is one of the largest forests in Europe. It looks inviting with its lush green and the wide paths.
In my first week around here I went running in Forêt. I was excited to finally live near nature. The earbuds played reggae and I ran right into the forest.
In theory you can run straight through Forêt. There are cities or villages on all sides. But I never got that far.
There was nothing specific that I could pinpoint, but the deeper I got into Forêt the darker it seemed. Outside the forest it was bright daylight, but between the trees it seemed like a dim evening shortly before sunset.
The path seemed to get narrower with every step.
After about five or six minutes I convinced myself that I was exhausted. I convinced myself to turn around. I ran faster out of the forest than I had run in.
I tried my luck two more times. I badly wanted to enjoy the forest and the promise of silence, lack of cars and distance from the city, but each time I failed. Each time after six or seven or eight minutes I turned around.
In retrospect I would say it was the darkness that disturbed me – with every passing minute it felt more like night than like day. But I’ve run in forests before. I am used to the darkness. I’ve done four years of martial arts. I’m usually not scared of being alone in the forest or alone in the dark. Still, Forêt was different. Forêt made me feel as if the trees were too close and as if something was hiding behind every single one of them.
There are many myths about Forêt. Of course it had its fair participation in the plenty of European wars. French and Germans marched numerous times through the thick bushes.
One of the myths is that in each of the many Franco-Germanic wars whole battalions disappeared in Forêt. Lost, without a trace, without even a single survivor.
More recently I know of at least three girls and one guy that, supposedly, have disappeared from in or near Forêt.
Every few months there is another headline about a missing girl. Usually there are witnesses that claim they saw her entering a car or being pulled into a car or being pulled straight into the forest.
There are not many headlines about missing men, but they exist too. I saw a few older articles about missing men, usually youth that were either drunk or went alone into the forest. A whole bachelor party, twelve men in their twenties, disappeared in 1992. They went into the forest for a few games and never came back out.
But as said most that go missing in Forêt are girls. Usually they don’t even enter Forêt, they are just somehow nearby. In 2010 at three different times a car was found in a ditch near the forest, with the young female driver missing.
One of my local friends says that there are at least twenty or thirty cases per year but that most never make the news.
I could understand most of it. It is a large forest and, to be blunt, even in Western Europe rape is not uncommon. The missing men are harder to explain, but maybe they just got lost or fell into a ditch and couldn’t get back out. Or maybe they were robbed and killed.
Either way, that people go missing could be explained. But there are two things that disturb me more.
Since Jannah told me about her experience I don’t run in Forêt anymore, I don’t even run near Forêt anymore.
From outside the forest looks welcoming and calm. You can hear the birds singing. But I am not the only one that is nervous about what might hide behind the trees.
Another good friend of mine works near the forest and whenever she finishes late I am not the only one that volunteers to pick her up.
One of the largest forests of Europe.
It is no surprise that people go missing. But within weeks of moving to this country I noticed how many people are scared of the forest.
In other places we used to have barbeques or camping nights in the local forests. There are few things more enjoyable than booze with grilled food and loud music that bothers no one else.
In Forêt there are no barbeques or parties.
I think most of the locals are not just nervous about the darkness or worried about getting lost or robbed or raped. The locals seem scared of the forest itself.
As said, I stopped running in the forest, but for the first weeks afterwards I still ran nearby. I run with music in my ears and still a few times I thought I heard screams through the music.
Usually, when I heard something, I stopped running. I ripped the earbuds out of my ears and listened and glared into the woods. It happened at least six or seven times.
Only once i saw something. I don’t want to promote the rumors, but I would swear that I saw a woman in a bright pink shirt lying on the floor. It was in the distance between the trees and the only thing I could really see was her shirt and the fact that she was moving.
When I realized that she was real I grabbed my phone, dialed the emergency number and then ran straight into the forest and towards the woman.
My French is not very good, still I tried my best to explain where I was and what I saw. I had run a few steps into the forest, but the woman still seemed to be in the same distance from me.
The operator spoke a fast and accent-rich French. All I understood was that he ordered me to leave the forest. He said they would send someone and that I had to wait outside. I ran further but he said that without me they would never find the spot.
I ignored him. I ran further inside and looked for the woman, but from one moment to the next she was gone. I didn’t see her, I didn’t hear her. And, even if that might sound strange, all I felt was a sense of wrongness that crept slowly down my spine.
I told the operator that she was gone and he screamed at me. He screamed that I needed to get out.
I ran further inside and to the left and right, but the woman was nowhere to be seen. I just wanted to help. I kept running inside. The forest got darker and darker until, with the operator still screaming in my ears,I finally acknowledged that it was hopeless.
My back felt cold while I ran back out. The way felt longer too. The operator still screamed “Out! Get Out!”
Twice I nearly tripped, but I managed to run on. I looked behind me to see if I would see the woman again, but she was nowhere to be seen. It all just looked incredibly dark.
By the time I stumbled out of the forest I heard the police cars. The moment the trees were behind me the light was back and my body seemed to warm up.
I jumped up and waved and finally they noticed me and my neon shirt.
They sent three cars with a total of eight officers. They brought huge flashlights.
Jointly we went back inside and I showed them where I saw the woman with her purple shirt.
While we were walking inside most of the officers had their flashlights towards the front, but one of them, an older man, kept shining it back, towards the edge of the forest.
When we got to the spot where I thought I saw the woman there was no sign that someone had been there.
I suggested that we should fan out or go in small groups to explore the area. I’m not sure if they understood me correctly, but they all began to argue in French and I didn’t understand a word.
The only one that didn’t argue was the officer that shone his light towards the direction where we had come from. He just stayed quiet and stared back towards the edge of the forest.
I felt uncomfortable but at the same time I was sure I had seen the woman. I couldn’t stand the idea that she could be somewhere near us being violated or raped or killed.
After a few minutes I tried to pull one of the officers with me to go and look deeper in the forest. Instead my attempt to go forward seemed to end their argument. The officer’s hand locked around my arm and he pulled me back towards the edge. Another one pushed me to walk back.
We walked closely to each other. The forest seemed darker again. Two of the lights were directed back towards the edge of the forest, but most of the others were directed inwards.
It was as if they were scared that something would come towards us.
Again the way back out of the forest felt longer. I felt cold and I saw the officers shivering too.
Originally the cars had stopped right where I had come out of the forest. We walked in a straight line into the forest and I was sure that we walked in a straight line back out. Still, when we got out of Forêt we were about five minutes away from where the cars had stopped.
I heard a lot of stories about Forêt. Some claim that they saw monsters or very tall people standing in the distance behind the trees, but those are mostly second hand accounts. Two of my friends, also avid runners, claim that from the distance they saw two girls being pulled inside the forest.
My friends were running outside the forest and saw the girls, both in short running trunks and one in a blue and one in a pink top, standing between the trees in the distance. A moment later the girls screamed and were being pulled deeper into the forest.
My friends ran into the forest and towards the girls, but they say that they were gone too fast. They couldn’t find them anymore and nearly got lost. They ran back outside the forest and called the police – which told them to stay away from the forest.
My friends claim that the police told them that, for about the span of a week, they had received six other calls about the same girls.
I am used to my friends’ jokes, but I heard several similar stories of people that saw girls, or sometimes guys, being pulled into the forest.
There is also the story of a group of cyclists that in either 2011 or 2012 rode along Forêt. They heard a girl screaming for help and jumped off their cycles and ran into the forest to help her. For a moment they saw a girl and ran in her direction.
Somehow they got separated.
Of eight cyclists only six came back out of the woods.
There are many such stories and the longer I stay here the more I seem to hear.
I myself have learned to avoid Forêt. Despite the stairs and bad streets I now always run in the city center and I tell every new expat that arrives to stay away from the forest.
The one thing I realize now, after more than a year, is that I hear a lot of stories of people disappearing in Forêt. They are not just stories either, every few months there articles in the newspapers about missing people and often they have quotes from police officers that it is best to stay away from the forest.
I read a lot of these stories, some in current newspapers and some older ones online. A lot of people went missing in Forêt.
My rational mind tells me that it could all be explained with normal crime – rapes and robberies – or with just drunk people or tourists getting lost in the large woods.
But, after more than a year and quite a bit of research online, I noticed that, even when all these people truly were just victims of crime there is one thing missing:
Despite all the articles about missing men and women, there are no articles about people that have reappeared.
And in more than a year I haven’t seen a single article about bodies being found.