SAINT-LO, France (Reuters) – As world leaders gathered to celebrate the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion that liberated France from Nazi Germany, some of those who were children in Normandy at the time recalled the fear, the bombs and the destruction.

Thousands of Allied soldiers died on June 6th, 1944, on the beaches of Normandy, but so did French civilians, on the day and during the months-long Battle of Normandy that followed.

Michel Finck, who was seven at the time, cried on Wednesday as he recalled that time, ahead of a ceremony to be led by French President Emmanuel Macron in Saint-Lo, a town in Normandy that was almost entirely destroyed in the D-Day bombardments.

“Our house was destroyed. Families in our street were decimated. The family transport business was also destroyed, and we left for Cherbourg (a town over 80 km away),” Finck, now aged 87, recalls.

He left on foot with his brother. At one point, German soldiers helped them cross a bridge.

“There were planes, bombs … this is not something you forget easily,” he told Reuters, shedding more tears. The family survived, and they later returned to live in Saint-Lo.

“This trauma turned our city into the ‘capital of the ruins’, as playwright Samuel Beckett wrote,” the city’s mayor, Emmanuelle Lejeune, told Reuters. The city of 12,000 people at the time was 90% destroyed. Only two streets were left undamaged.

Colette Poirier, four at the time, was from nearby Belval. She recalls that, with her family, in the early hours of June 6th, they tried to sleep outdoors, to try and hide from all the planes flying over.

She also has happier memories.

“In the following days we saw jeeps with Black soldiers, it was the first time I saw Black men. And the chewing gums (they handed out)! Since we hadn’t had much sugar during the war we were very keen, but we had no idea how to eat them.”

Poirier said German soldiers occupied the family farm, and as a consequence she spoke German as a kid. She was amazed, she said, at the speed of reconciliation between France and Germany at the time.

Fick and Poirier were both waiting for Macron to give a speech in tribute to Saint-Lo’s civilian victims of D-Day.

More ceremonies will take place on Thursday with world leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in attendance.

(Writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by Philippa Fletcher)