A Hostage's Terrifying Eyewitness Account
The cashier of the kosher supermarket attacked in Paris recounts her 5-hour nightmare. An Aish.com exclusive.
Zarie is the 22 year old cashier at the kosher supermarket in Paris that was attacked last week. In an exclusive interview with Aish.fr, Aish.com's French site, she recounts the nightmare of being held hostage, her terrifying encounter with the terrorist and the steadfast faith that enabled her to get through this tragedy. Here is her riveting and moving interview.
Aish.fr: Zarie, you work as a cashier at the Hypercacher store in Paris. How did the attack begin?
Zarie: It was between 1 PM and 1:30 PM. A father with his two-year- old child was at my counter when I heard the first gunshot. Yohann Cohen, the young man who works with me, was the first to be hit. He shouted our manager’s name who, wounded, managed to leave the store. I did not realize immediately that this was a real gunshot.
Aish.fr: Were you hurt?
Zarie: No. I heard gunshots and screams then footsteps coming closer. I heard the killer’s voice telling me: "What about you? You're not dead yet? "And then a gunshot towards me.
Aish.fr: How many were you in the supermarket?
Zarie: We were 25 at first, but after the shooting started, only six people were next to me. I realized then that the others were hiding somewhere. The terrorist ordered me to help him and I begged him to stop killing people. He took all of us to the office and there I saw a man lying in a pool of blood (this was Philip Braham, ed. note). I could see for the first time the face of the terrorist and the weapons he had.
"The difference between us is that you Jews think life is the most important thing, while for us it is death."
Aish.fr: What did he tell you?
Zarie: He shared his plans. "I want to die as a martyr and avenge the name of Allah. The difference between us is that you Jews think life is the most important thing, while for us it is death. "
Then he asked us to empty our pocket and place our personal possessions on the desk as well as our I.D. He ordered me to shut the door of the store. I was about to do it when I saw a man about to enter. I begged him to leave in a panicked voice. He thought that I was just closing my store. He said, "I only need a challah for Shabbat!" I did not manage to stop him or warn him about the killer’s presence just behind me.
Aish.fr: This was François-Michel Saada?
Zarie: Yes. He headed towards the challahs and without knowing it, towards the terrorist. When he realized that there was an armed man, he turned to leave, but the killer shot him in the back.
Aish.fr: So there were already two deaths at this point?
"He gave me 20 seconds to get the others, threatening to kill two women that he designated."
Zarie: Yes, Yohann suffered terribly before he died. He moaned and we could not do anything for him. He was shot in the cheek and his face was completely ripped open. He was in agony for 45 minutes. It was awful, terrible. He died, bleeding to death.
Aish.fr: Did the terrorist try to do anything?
Zarie: He wanted to finish him off because of his moans but we did not allow him to do so. We thought he could survive. The terrorist was carrying two Kalashnikovs and a shoulder gun, explosives, tons of ammunition and a knife. He ordered me to go downstairs to bring back the others, giving me 20 seconds to do so, threatening to kill two women that he designated.
Aish.fr: Did you go down to the freezer rooms?
Zarie: Yes, some customers were hiding there but did not want to come up. I went back upstairs to tell the terrorist that and he told me to call the police on speakerphone. We dialed the emergency number for the police and waited several long minutes for someone to answer. It was crazy, given the situation. Finally, he was able to talk to someone and explained that it was a hostage-taking situation to the female officer on the line. She answered that she had to refer the matter to her superiors. The customers started coming up and he ended the conversation.
Aish.fr: Did the killer try to explain his actions?
Zarie: Yes, he said his team had split in two: the Kouachi brothers to liquidate Charlie Hebdo, and himself to take care of the police and us.
He sent another person to look for more customers hidden downstairs and two or three people came back up including Yoav Hattab who began to size up the situation in order to take action. He did not see the dead people and did not really realize what was happening. Yoav started to talk to the killer who had put one of the two Kalashnikovs down, and he tried to grab it. But the terrorist was faster and shot him twice in the head. I was a few meters away and someone told me to lift up the metal shutter of the store, something that takes at least several minutes. The terrorist began screaming in my direction. Yoav fell on the floor, totally folded up and there was a lot of blood, I have never seen so much blood. I thought that the terrorist was going to kill me, but he asked me to follow him into the office. In order to do that, I had to push away the shopping cart on which Yoav fell when he collapsed.
Aish.fr: How many hostages were you?
"Everyone was Jewish except for one woman who was a Catholic, and an elderly woman who said she was not Jewish."
Zarie: We were then 18 people. I know this because he asked me to count us. He spoke to the police and reported that there were three dead and one injured. We all sat down on shopping carts that lay further deep in the store. The terrorist sat down and started to talk to us. He asked us to declare our names and religions. Everyone was Jewish except for one woman who was a Catholic, and an elderly woman who said she was not Jewish. He made fun of her by saying, "If you're not Jewish why do you shop at Hypercacher? I am a Malian of Muslim origin. I came to avenge my brothers on the French state that you support by paying your taxes." While loading his weapons, he told us that the French army was killing people in his country but nobody talked about it. We thought we were living our last moments. He wanted in fact to find media cover to his hostage taking. He called BFM TV and gave us enough freedom to let me call my father who reassured me and told me to pray. I then spoke to my mother and I started to cry. She told me to be strong with my faith in God.
Next to us, a woman was quite calm. She told us that everything was in God's hands and always for the best. I recited the first psalm that came to my mind: "I look up to the mountains, to see whence cometh my help. My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth" (Psalm 121).
Aish.fr: Did the terrorist leave you alone?
Zarie: Actually, the hostage taking lasted nearly five hours and in a strange way we started to feel somewhat more confident. He left us relatively free of our movements and he let us drink after he asked someone to break all cameras in the store. He started another speech on the geopolitical situation and we were going along with him in an effort to calm him down. At one point, he pointed his gun at Andrea, the other cashier, who placed her hands in front of her for protection. But he reassured her by saying, "I am not going to shoot you!" He had killed four people in cold blood but he was still surprised to see us scared. Fortunately, we were not alone. We supported each other every time one of us was losing it. I encouraged the hostages to make resolutions to grow spiritually and strengthen themselves in their Jewish observance.
Aish.fr: Was he violent with you?
Zarie: His attitude was very strange, somewhere between ruthless and reassuring behavior. He kept repeating that if he got what he wanted, he would not kill us. He wanted to make an announcement to the media so that the French army withdrew from all countries where it operates and demanded the release of the Kouachi brothers, from their hidden place, a printing factory. I thought we would never get out alive, given the nature of its claims. He said that if he were able to make his statement on TV, he would free the two year old.
Meanwhile, the store security manager Aviel, who was not among the hostages, kept updating the police on the situation. Aviel has called the police and he had given them a map of the store with the location of exits. Patrice, the manager, had managed to escape at the beginning and was taken to the hospital in serious condition.
The terrorist spoke at length of the media, of Bin Laden, and he told us his story: he was sent to prison for terrorism and came out after serving four years out of his five-year conviction.
We started to pass around drinks to everyone. He watched us while making himself a sandwich. He made jokes about how everything was free in the store.
"We were afraid that this meant our last moments. Then we heard a knock on the emergency door."
The phone was ringing non-stop. When we were answering, people asked us about the situation. At one point, we received a phone call from a man who got angry at such a terrorist who were showing Muslims as murderers. After that, we turned off the phone. There was nothing to do but wait. There was blood everywhere in the store.
Aish.fr: Was the police there outside?
Zarie: We did not know what was going on outside. Initially, the terrorist had asked me where the emergency door was and ordered someone to block it. After his speech, he decided it was time for him to pray. We were afraid that this meant our last moments. Then we heard a knock on the emergency door. We took refuge on the other side, behind Andrea’s counter. No one knew what to do. It was total panic. We were all down on the floor, hands on our heads. We heard four gunshots and then another knock on the door.
"We realized that we have been blessed by a miracle because we were alive."
There was a loud explosion and the police forces opened the metal shutter of the store with a key. This lasted several minutes that seemed to us like an eternity knowing that the terrorist could finish us off in few seconds. It is a miracle that he did not kill us. The police came in with armored shields. We heard about 50 gunshots, a deafening sound. We heard "he's dead!" And everyone went out. I knew there were still people downstairs and they saw the carnage when they came up. We embarked in a bus, thinking of the victims. We realized that we have been blessed by a miracle because we were alive.
Aish.fr: Is there a message you would like to tell people after this terrifying attack?
Zarie: For me, the main message is to have emunah, faith in God. The terrorist was armed to the teeth and yet we escaped. Only our faith allowed us to keep a semblance of normality, to speak, to move, to act. I managed to pray during the entire hostage taking. My plan is to live in Israel and I pray that my family can come very quickly to Israel. Everything happened before Shabbat and we were released within an hour after Shabbat started. Our freedom is connected in my mind to the light of Shabbat. I suggest that people should light their Shabbat candles earlier, with all the fervor they can muster. I have no doubt that the power of Shabbat saved us.