Human Rights Voices

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France, January 16, 2014

The Paris Jewish Market Attack: Eyewitnesses to Murder

Original source

Israel Hayom

"For three hours, Yohan Cohen was screaming in excruciating pain. When I went to the window to close the blinds, I was afraid to get near him because I saw the hollow expression in his cheekbones. After a short while, during which he writhed in agony, the terrorist turned to us and asked whether Yohan was bothering us and if perhaps we wanted him to kill him and end it. We thought he was alright, he was wounded for so long that we thought he would hold out and stay alive, so we didn't want him to kill him. He asked and we all yelled back in unison, 'No, don't kill him.' Thirty minutes later, his head was leaning sideways, and he had stopped screaming."

It's Wednesday evening at Cafe Rimon in Jerusalem. Two young friends, Zari Siboni and Andrea Shamak, are sitting next to each other. For the first time in five days, they are reliving the events that took place inside the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris. They speak in animated tones in French, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together in their mind, recalling what they witnessed during those fateful five hours. They describe what can only be called the most nightmarish scenario that the human brain can conceive of -- being held hostage by an armed terrorist.

They try to recall as many details as they can. The speed at which they talk is so great, that even Sarah Even Zur, their childhood friend from school who is now helping to translate what they are saying, has difficulty keeping up. Despite the horrific scene which included shooting, bloodshed and threats to their lives, they are resilient enough to describe the events to journalists.

By the end of the conversation, as tears begin to well up in Siboni's eyes, she slowly bows her head, saying: "There were moments when I thought this was all my fault. If Philippe [Braham] wasn't hadn't been standing in front of me, then maybe I would've been shot myself, and if Yohan hadn't been organizing the shopping carts, then maybe things would have turned out differently."

"I feel guilty for not helping him," she said. "He was hurt, and he suffered for three hours, and we were there and nothing happened to us, and we couldn't do anything. I have thoughts as to why him and not us; why we were spared and he wasn't."

"He killed, and waited, and then shot again"

Siboni and Shamak landed in Israel shortly after surviving the Paris attack. They asked to attend Yohan Cohen's funeral. Cohen, only 22 years old, was killed in the attack.

Siboni is the more loquacious of the two. For four years, she lived and studied in Israel, which explains her fluent Hebrew. She was working at the cash register of the kosher supermarket when the terrorist entered the store. The gunman ordered her to close the window blinds and to call the people who were hiding downstairs in the cellar. The terrorist repeatedly ordered her to perform various tasks, which initially raised suspicion that she was the gunman's companion.

Born in France, Siboni lived there until she was 18. Then she relocated to Jerusalem to pursue her studies at a seminar. She officially immigrated to Israel and continued her studies at a college for ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem, where she earned a bachelor's degree. She recently returned to France to celebrate the Jewish holidays, taking a sabbatical from her studies.

She wishes to keep the details of her place of residence, her family, and her appearance concealed for fear of harassment. Siboni says that anti-Semitic incidents in France have become almost routine.

"In recent years, the situation has gotten progressively worse," she says. "We live in an area of Paris that is filled with Arabs and Muslims. They sit in large groups outside and do nothing. They spit, curse, sometimes they get into fights. There was a huge ruckus not far from where Andrea lives, particularly during Operation Protective Edge. They burned trash bins, broke restaurant windows, and even locked some Jews inside a supermarket and didn't let them leave. These were minor incidents, though."

For the past three months, Siboni has worked at the Hyper Cacher, a chain with a number of franchises that service a relatively large population. She says that one day prior to the attack, supermarket employees noticed a suspicious individual riding around on his motorcycle just outside, prompting them to call the police.

"The deputy manager said that the previous day they saw someone who was a bit suspicious looking riding around on his bike," she says. "They called the police, but the police refused to address it. Now it's hard to speak to the manager because he's in the hospital getting treatment for two bullet wounds in his hand."

"When I gave my statement to the police after the incident, I said to them, 'Do you understand what you did? You refused to follow up on our complaint. Where's the accountability?' They said it was impossible to send someone because if they had assigned an officer to the store they then would have had to assign officers to non-kosher markets. Otherwise it would be discriminatory."

On that Friday, Siboni says, she didn't even want to go to work. "I worked a double shift the day before, so I was tired," she says. "The other cashier was on sick leave, and I didn't want to leave Andrea by herself because Friday is a day when there are a lot of customers."

Siboni was manning the register, while Shamak was rearranging the products on the shelves. They remember that the terrorist, clad in a bulletproof vest, black shirt, open sweater, and military boots, entered the store at 1:00 p.m. He was carrying a bag that had a bomb inside.

"He showed us the bomb," Siboni says. "He then brandished it and two Kalashnikov rifles, threatening us with them."

"Just as he walked in, a father and his two-year-old daughter were standing at the checkout counter, as was Phillippe Braham. At the other checkout counter was a woman whose shopping cart was put back by Yohan. That's when there was a loud 'boom.' It was so loud the entire store shook. There was ringing in my ears, it was that powerful. It turns out that this was the sound of gunshots."

"Yohan had his back to the doorway," she says. "It is likely that he turned around to see where the noise was coming from, and that's when he was shot in the cheek. He fell, and then sat up with his back leaning on the shopping cart, his hand pressed against his cheek while screaming from the pain and asking Patrice, the store manager, to help him. He said, 'Help me, it hurts.' The manager ran to Yohan's aide, mentioned something about calling the police. Before he could finish his sentence, he was shot in the hand. In the few hours that followed, we didn't know where Patrice was. In all likelihood, he managed to run away through the door."

The whistling sound that buzzed by Siboni's ear was a bullet that ended up piercing Braham's head. "There were only three customers at the checkout counter," she says. "The terrorist didn't fire that many shots. He killed, and then waited before shooting again. He fired in the direction of the cash register, and the person standing in front of me took the bullet. I didn't see Braham fall to the ground. It was only after the terrorist told me to move to another spot that I saw the body on the floor."

"I hadn't yet processed the fact that these were deadly bullets," she says. "I thought maybe he was shooting blanks, just to scare us. When Yohan fell to the ground, I realized that something had happened, and I hid under the cash register. I saw him suffer so much, I thought that if I left I would also be in pain. I didn't think beyond this. I still don't understand how I managed to get underneath the cash register because the whole area was filled with boxes. I hid under there and folded my arms over my body, but my leg was sticking out. The gunman noticed this, and said, 'You're still not dead. You don't want to die.' Then he fired another shot."

"His eyes were hollow"

Siboni and Shamak seem overcome with confusion as they recall the turn of events. They try to retrace the exact steps of the hostages and the terrorist.

"He had everyone huddled together in an open space," she says. "There were a lot of people in the store, but when we were put together there was only one-fifth of the total. One of the women pretended to be dead, but eventually the terrorist caught on and added her to our group. The terrorist then sent me to get the people who were hiding in the cellar and the storage room downstairs. There's a huge freezer there and a lot of boxes. He told me, 'If you don't come back within 10 seconds, I'm going to shoot her,' pointing at Andrea."

Shamak says that the shock and the speed at which the events unfolded prevented her from properly grasping the fact that her life was in immediate danger.

"I didn't have time to think," she says. "I wasn't afraid that Zari wouldn't come back. I trusted her. He also said that he didn't kill women, and I believed him."

The women recall that during the ordeal the terrorist mentioned that he had nine sisters, which they say added credibility to his claim that he had no intention of killing women.

Siboni found close to 20 people hiding in the large freezer. She relayed to them what the terrorist had said. An elderly couple and Yoav Hattab were the only ones who complied with her plea the first time. A bit later on, Siboni was once again sent downstairs to get people out of hiding. This was when all the rest emerged from the cellar and joined the others on the main floor. The gunman demanded that all of the hostages relinquish their mobile phones and identification.

There was one particularly traumatic moment that occurred when the terrorist asked Siboni to approach the window and shutter the blinds.

"At that moment, Francois-Michel Saada came to the shop," she said. "He thought I was closing the blinds because it was time to close the store. I gestured to him, 'No, no, don't come in here,' but he was so fixated on buying challah bread for Shabbat that he didn't even realize what was going on. When he walked in, he saw someone with a gun, and that's when he turned around and tried to escape. The terrorist shot him in the back with one bullet. He fell with his face turned upwards. His eyes were hollow, without any sign of life. His hands were shaking for a few seconds, as if he received an electric shock. He was the only person who didn't have blood near him afterward."

"The terrorist had asked us for our telephones and he wanted to connect to Wi-Fi in order to watch the news," she says. "In the meantime, he also spoke with the hostages. He told us that he had come there as a victim, he had come to sacrifice himself for Allah, that he came to die no matter the circumstances

, for jihad, to sacrifice himself in order to restore the honor of the Prophet Muhammad." "Then he said something that I've thought of a lot since then. He said, 'The difference between us Muslims and you Jews is that you sanctify life. For you, life is too important. We sanctify death.' He repeated this twice, 'You love life too much."

Shamak recalls that the next few hours came and went in relative tranquility. "After the first 20 minutes, in which he killed people, we had a few hours to talk," she said. "We could eat and drink. He made himself a sandwich. He even let us make phone calls on the condition that the conversations were on speaker phone. We almost started to trust him, thinking that perhaps he had a heart despite the fact that this was illogical, that this didn't square with what he said earlier. On the one hand, he spoke about injustice, how he believed in fundamental principles while at the same time he killed people. So we couldn't understand who he was."

One of the people who came upstairs was Hattab, who was killed after confronting the terrorist.

"He had two weapons, one of them was laid down next to him," Shamak said. "Yoav started talking to him, trying to draw his attention, and at the same time he tried to take the weapon from him. It all happened so fast. Yoav barely managed to grab the gun that was by the terrorist's side, and the terrorist responded instinctively and shot the gun he was holding. He shot Yoav in the head twice." The girls say their emotions were in flux throughout the entire ordeal.

"You say to yourself, 'This is a nightmare. It will all be over. It is inconceivable that there are really dead people and hostages here,'" Siboni says. "We just had trouble grasping that we were hostages."

The conversation with the terrorist continued. "I didn't have faith," Siboni says. "The entire time I was telling him, 'I will do whatever you ask of me, just stop killing people.'"

"'I'm not a liar,' he said. 'If I promised that I won't kill anyone, then I won't kill anyone.' He was true to his word. On the other hand, he always spoke of justice, but he had just killed four people."

"The father that was there was quite heroic in his actions," she says. "He managed to calm his two-year-old son as he sat on the lap of another female hostage. The child was given candy, but he was crying that he wanted to go home, and everyone was trying to reassure him that he would get to go home soon. The father was the one who spoke to the terrorist, telling him, 'You are the ones cooperating with the government because you pay taxes, so you are giving strength to the French army.'"

"One of the women got up and said, 'We are not collaborators,' but the terrorist then asked, 'Don't you all ever travel to Israel?.' Nobody answered."

The girls recall that for hours on end, the telephone in the office did not cease ringing. "He asked that I answer," Siboni says. "These were people who wanted to see if we were okay. Journalists were also calling. One of the callers was a Muslim who uttered profanities against the terrorist. He said that because of him, people will think that he is like him. I was fearful of repeating what he said because the gunman asked that I repeat exactly what the callers were saying, and I was afraid that the terrorist would shoot me if I repeated the epithets, so I just told him that it was a wrong number."

Siboni managed to contact her parents. "I texted my mother," she says. "I also texted my father, told him I was alright but there was a lot of blood, and that the terrorist had killed people, and I wanted to get out of there, and that I was scared. He told me, 'Don't worry. It'll be alright.' He also said there were rabbis praying for me and saying that everything would work out."

The denouement was quite horrifying. "The gunman began telling us how he spent four years in jail because of terrorist activities," she says. "He said that he was caught in possession of 24 bullets. In his conversations with police, he demanded the release of the terrorists from the Charlie Hebdo attack, that all French forces be withdrawn from whichever foreign country they were deployed in, and that the news broadcasts footage of what was happening in the supermarket. They were saying that there were just four people inside and that there were no deaths, and then he laughed."

The final moments leading up to the end of the siege were dramatic. "He went to pray in the corner of the store," she says. "The talk amongst ourselves was that this was apparently the point at which he was going to kill all of us, after prayer, and there was a lot of hysteria and crying. There were knocks on the door. He screamed that if they continued to try to get into the store, he would kill all of us. Suddenly we heard four gunshots, a huge explosion, and then quiet."

"I don't understand how he didn't kill us in that long minute when the police tried to get in," she says. "The officers came in through two doors. There were at least 30 shots. I hid under the table until the police was inside, and then we burst out of there running. I couldn't believe the terrorist was dead. I thought he was still behind us. I even asked to see a picture of him dead just to make sure."

They finally reunited with their families three hours after the ordeal was over. "My mother was in tears," she says. "This was not a normal Shabbat. The table wasn't set, but my mother kept repeating, 'Thank God.'"

The girls take deep breaths before embracing one another. "We still haven't processed this fully," Siboni says. "I've told the story many times, but only Andrea and the people who were there can truly understand."

"It's still difficult for us," she says. "There are four people dead for no reason, four innocent people. Why does a person who comes to buy challah bread have that happen to him? The entire time I prayed that Yoav would be the last one killed. I can't get angry at God and say, 'You didn't do anything,' because I prayed and it worked. We came out alive. I still say thank you to God for saving me, but others weren't saved, and that's hard."

"For a few days now we've been surrounded by people, but at night the bodies come back, the blood comes back," she said. "I remember all the dead bodies, how every body was positioned. We take sleeping pills and we see psychologists. It was only after the funerals that I managed to get seven straight hours of sleep, perhaps because of the closure."

When asked about the possibility of making aliyah and moving to Israel, Siboni says: "Our first reaction was that within a month everyone was going to make aliyah. I very much hope that my family does make aliyah, because we have really been hurt."