‘Don’t call me a hero’: Recalling the Paris kosher market attack
On January 9, 2015, a Malian immigrant named Lassana Bathily helped a group of shoppers hide from a gunman who stormed the kosher supermarket where he worked. Almost a year later, he tells FRANCE 24 about the psychological strain of the attack.
Bathily’s tale of everyday heroism helped hearten a shell-shocked nation in the wake of the attack on the Hyper Cacher store, which followed two days after an even deadlier rampage by jihadist gunmen at the offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
The Muslim shop assistant, then 24, was working in the supermarket’s underground stockroom when gunman Amedy Coulibaly burst in upstairs, firing a Kalashnikov rifle and killing four people.
Bathily led a group of customers into a cold storage room to shield them from the Coulibaly before slipping out of the building using a goods lift.
As he ran towards police outside the building he was mistaken for an assailant, forced to the ground and handcuffed.
Once police realised their mistake, he provided them with valuable information that helped them mount an assault in which Coulibaly, a self-proclaimed affiliate of the Islamic State group, was killed.
When Bathily’s story got picked up by the press, Bathily was personally thanked by French President François Hollande for his role in thwarting the anti-Semitic attack.
Following a social media campaign, the undocumented migrant was made a French citizen in recognition of his bravery.
‘Not a hero’
As France prepares to mark the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo killings and the deaths at the Hyper Cacher, Bathily spoke of that tragic day and its aftermath in an interview with FRANCE 24’s Nicolas Germain.
“I don’t want people to call me a hero,” he said at once, echoing the title of his new book, published on Wednesday and titled: “I am not a hero.”
Bathily said he had struggled to cope with the media attention that followed the Paris shootings. “It was too much all at once,” he said.
And he appears to have been dogged by reminders of the terrorist threat. Just two months after the attacks, Bathily was in Bamako, the capital of his native Mali, when a shooting broke out at a popular nightspot, killing three Malians, a Frenchman and a Belgian.
“At that point I wondered whether I was being pursued. I couldn’t sleep for a week,” he said.
That chilling feeling returned on November 13, back in Paris, when Bathily was just a few hundred metres away from the bars and a concert hall where Islamist gunmen slaughtered 130 people in France’s worst-ever terrorist attacks.
“People were running, yelling, ‘There’s a terrorist attack’,” he said. “We stayed inside a café until 5am.”
After Hyper Cacher
Some have questioned Bathily's actual role in the kosher store attack, suggesting it may have been inflated by the media and by officials eager for a positive story of a Muslim saving Jews from jihadist gunmen.
Yohann Dorai, one of the hostages held at the Hyper Cacher, has published a book in which he states that "at no time did [he] witness Lassana Bathily perform a heroic act".
Bathily has sought to steer clear of the debate. Instead he settles a number of scores in his own book, including with the Malian authorities.
He recalled the triumphant welcome he received in Bamako on January 29, when President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita told him: “Coulibaly (who was also of Malian origin) dragged the Malian flag in the dirt; you raised it up again.”
But when Bathily later returned to Mali with a plan to set up a charity in his native village, he said Malian officials had already forgotten about him.
The book also takes a dig at the managers of the Hyper Cacher, which reopened two months after the January attacks but without its “hero” shop assistant.
Bathily, who had worked on a temporary contract, said he chose to look elsewhere for work after the supermarket refused to offer him better terms of employment.
With a new job at Paris city hall, and his charity up and running – albeit in France, not Mali – Bathily now hopes he can finally put the ghosts of last year’s attacks behind him.
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