AS FRANCE remembers the horrific attacks of January 2016 at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and at the Hyper Cacher store, we look back to an interview we published last year with the young man of Malian origin who was praised for his brave actions during the Hyper Cacher siege.
A ceremony was held yesterday in front of the store in Paris 20th arrondissement to the east of the city, to commemorate the events when two years ago a gunman took hostages and killed four Jewish people, two days after the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
Emily Commander spoke to the modest hero of the Hyper Cacher attack, Lassana Bathily for Connexion's March edition last year.
LASSANA Bathily is just 25 years’ old, but this young Malian immigrant has already shaken the hand of President Hollande, been lauded by US president Barack Obama, and just published his first book, Je ne suis pas un héros (I am not a hero – Flammarion).
Known for his courage during the terror attack on the Jewish supermarket in Paris 15 months ago, he carries his fame lightly, and is relaxed, affable and, above all, modest.
On January 9, 2015, he was working in the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes as a shelf-stacker but his quick-thinking enabled him to conceal in a basement freezer some of the Jewish customers who had been taken hostage on the shop floor by gunman Amedy Coulibaly.
He then escaped and helped police by giving information on the shop layout and where Coulibaly was.
Stated simply, it is a tale of courage under fire – but the police initially mistook him for a terrorist, and he was held for about 90 minutes.
“They did not believe me. It was very upsetting to be held like that for so long,” he says.
Not only was he mistaken for a terrorist but, following the media storm which declared him a hero, he has had to endure stories which claim his role was limited to saving his own skin. Clearly hurt, he would only say: “I prefer to treat this type of remark with contempt.”
He is angrier about the theory that his heroism was dreamt up by the media, romanced by the idea of a black, Muslim hero.
In his book he says such hypotheses are “utterly racist” because they treat him “not as an ordinary individual reacting like a man, but first and foremost a black man and a Muslim”.
To think he ran away is to overlook the difficulty he faced in getting out of the supermarket after helping the customers to hide. There were only two ways out of the basement: back up the spiral staircase down which the customers had fled from Coulibaly only moments earlier, or via a slow and noisy goods lift, which gave on to a ground-level fire exit.
Other hostages ruled out the goods lift as too risky: they feared Coulibaly would have heard its ascent, would meet it on the ground floor, and that all its passengers would have died.
Mr Bathily, who “just wanted everyone in there to live,” decided to risk it, but could not persuade any of the others to join him and went up alone: “I was terrified, inside I was screaming,” he said.
Once outside, and once he had persuaded police who he was, he detailed the layout of the shop and the location of the hostages, without which the police assault would have been further delayed and fraught with uncertainty.
When asked if he would change anything in his actions that day, he said: “I don’t regret anything that I did. It was natural. You have to help people, or at least try.”
Is there anything that he would say to Amedy Coulibaly, given the chance? “He was a mad man, without a conscience. He was not someone who would have listened to reason.”
As the book title suggests, he is reticent on the subject of heroism. When asked about where he found the courage to put his life on the line for the Jewish customers, he says simply: “I didn’t hide Jews in the basement, I hid human beings, like you and me. I am no more interesting, and no stronger than anyone else”.
Unfortunately, that was not his last encounter with Islamist terrorism. By autumn 2015, he had moved to the 11th arrondissement and while returning home on the evening of November 13 he passed by the Bataclan concert hall. A few moments later he heard what he thought were firecrackers, only to realise that it was the sound of guns being fired.
Less than a week later, terrorists killed 20 hostages in an attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in the capital of Marli, Bamako, where Mr Bathily had met Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta after his experience at the Hyper Cacher.
He said: “I feel as if these events are following me around. I have the feeling that it won’t stop. At Bataclan I witnessed the flight of the wounded. It forced me to relive the events of the Hyper Cacher”.
He has used these traumatising experiences to give his daily life purpose and drive. In his book he says: “God did not create us to kill each other. It’s only when people realise this that we can advance. […] That is the goal to which I would like to dedicate my life”.
There is no doubt Mr Bathily’s life has been transformed by the events at the Hyper Cacher. Given French citizenship, he received a passport, personally expedited by François Hollande, after eight years of having lived in France; firstly with only a short travel visa and then with only a temporary residence permit.
After his travel visa ran out he struggled to legitimise his status but through determination got himself enrolled at a technical lycée in the 19th arrondissement, to learn tiling, painting and decorating.
In 2007, helped by the Ligue des droits de l’Homme, he was assigned a ‘republican godfather’ called Denis
Mercier who he describes as “a second father” and who helped him obtain his temporary residence permit, first granted to him in 2011.
If he thought this would solve his problems, he was wrong. Cheated of his pay by one employer, he struggled to find legitimate, paid work. In his book he notes: “life is strange: I had papers and a trade, two trades even, but even so it was impossible to get a job”.
His French citizenship is a matter of great pride but, more fundamentally, it is the passport to a full working life.
His dream is to work with young people. Now he is being trained by, and working for, the Mairie of Paris.
He says he is still occasionally stopped by the police, but these days he does not feel the urge to run, because he has a valid identity card to show them.
He can travel much more freely too, and said: “When you want to travel to certain countries, it is difficult to get a visa on a Malian passport, but my French passport makes it possible”.
Now he has seized the chance of being in the public eye to found the Association Lassana Bathily to provide humanitarian aid to Africa.
Its first projects are centred on his home village, Samba Dramané, where accessible drinking water, electricity, and decent school and dispensary facilities are priorities. He leads by example, sending most of his salary back to the village each month.
One day Mr Bathily hopes to return to Mali, which he still misses. In particular he misses his mother, to whom he is very close, and who is even more attached to him after the death of his younger brother, just two days after the Hyper Cacher attack.
He hopes soon she will visit France so she can “better understand my life here, and in particular, the aspects of it that are not very easy”.
For now, though, he is not thinking of a permanent return to Mali: “I have so much work to do, particularly youth work. I am driven to share my experiences, of my life in Africa, and in France, to help form bonds between people, irrespective of race and religion”.