‘I’m not the guilty one’: Charlie Hebdo survivor recalls horror of attacks

The French cartoonist who was forced by the attackers of the Charlie Hebdo weekly to let them into its offices said Tuesday that she had been traumatised by feelings of guilt as she recalled the horror of the January 2015 massacre.

'I'm not the guilty one': Charlie Hebdo survivor recalls horror of attacks
A woman takes a photo outside the headquarters of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris on February 7, 2015, as she stands near flowers layed in memory of victims one month after a deadly jih

Corinne Rey, 38, known as Coco, had gone outside on January 7, 2015, for a cigarette when the brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi approached her and forced her to tap in the entry code for the office as they brandished a Kalashnikov.

“I had a sense of dread,” she said, her voice shaking with emotion.

“I was in distress, I could not think anymore,” she told the trial of 14 suspected accomplices in the January 7-9 attacks on the magazine and a Jewish supermarket that left claimed 17 lives.

“I knew it was a Kalashnikov,” she said, recalling the long climb up the stairs before entering the offices of Charlie Hebdo, with the Kouachi brothers “armed to the teeth”. 

“I was devastated, as if dispossessed of myself, I could no longer do anything. I moved towards the code keypad and I typed it in,” she recalled. “I felt that the terrorists were approaching their goal, I felt them growing 
excited next to me.” 

French cartoonist Corinne Rey, also known as 'Coco', who appeared as a witness, leaves the courtroom at the Paris courthouse, on September 8, 2020. AFP

'Silence of death'

Entering the offices, the attackers shot at Simon Fieschi, the administrator of the weekly's website. Rey said she ran to hide under a desk.

“After the shots, there was silence, a silence of death… I thought they were going to finish off the job with all the ones they hadn't killed.”

But after killing 10 people inside the office, the attackers left, leaving behind a vision of “horror.”

“I saw the legs of Cabu. Wolinski was not moving. I saw Charb — the side of his face was extremely pale. Riss was wounded and he told me, 'Coco, don't worry'.”

Jean Cabut, known as Cabu, 76, Georges Wolinski, 80, and Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, 47, were among France's most celebrated cartoonists. All lost their lives in the massacre.

Laurent Sourisseau, known as Riss, was shot and wounded but survived. He is now Charlie Hebdo's director. 

“This is the talent that was killed that day, they were models for me,” Rey said. “They were extremely kind people, who had a talent for being funny … It's not easy to be funny, but they were able to do it very well.”

'I am not the guilty one'

Five years later, Rey said she still struggled with the memories of the attacks as well as sensations of impotence and even guilt.

“It took me a long time to understand that I am not the guilty one. The only culprits are the Islamist terrorists. The Kouachis and those who helped them,” she told the court.

Sigolene Vinson, a former lawyer turned legal correspondent for the newspaper was in the newsroom on the day of the attack.

She told the court how when they heard the first two shots, she exchanged looks with Charb. “I think that Charb understood,” she said.

She recalled the terrible silence after the gunfire, and then the sound of steps coming towards her, where she had taken refuge against a wall.

“I understood the killer had seen me and the he was following me. I thought 'It's my turn'.”

But Cherif Kouachi told her he was sparing her because he did not kill women.

She described the carnage around her in graphic detail.

Then, as she stepped over bodies, she said: “A finger rose up from the back of the room: 'No, me, I'm not dead'. It was Riss,” she said.

Investigative journalist Laurent Leger told the court it was only because he had thrown himself under a table that he survived.

“I was incredibly lucky,” he said.

The trial, which began on September 2, is expected to continue until November, reopening one of the post painful chapters in France's history even if those on trial are only suspected accomplices of the attackers, who were killed by police in the aftermath of the massacre.

Defiant as ever, Charlie Hebdo last week republished cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that had sparked anger across the Islamic world, drawing new condemnation from states including Iran, Pakistan and Turkey.

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US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks

US Vice President Kamala Harris and French Prime Minister Jean Castex laid wreaths at a Paris cafe and France's national football stadium Saturday six years since deadly terror attacks that left 130 people dead.

US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks
US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff lay flowers after ceremonies at Le Carillon bar and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, at which 130 people were killed during the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/POOL/AFP

The attacks by three separate teams of Islamic State group jihadists on the night of November 13, 2015 were the worst in France since World War II.

Gunmen mowed down 129 people in front of cafes and at a concert hall in the capital, while a bus driver was killed after suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of the stadium in its suburbs.

Harris, wrapping up a four-day trip to France, placed a bouquet of white flowers in front of a plaque honouring the victims outside a Paris cafe.

Castex attended a minute of silence at the Stade de France football stadium, along with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, before laying wreaths at the sites of the other attacks inside Paris.

In front of the Bataclan concert hall, survivors and relatives of the victims listened to someone read out the names of each of the 90 people killed during a concert there six years ago.

Public commemorations of the tragedy were called off last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last year we weren’t allowed to come and we all found it really tough,” said Bruno Poncet, who made it out alive of the Bataclan.

But he said the start of a trial over the attacks in September meant that those attending the commemoration this year felt more united.

‘Overcome it all’

“We’ve really bonded thanks to the trial,” he said. “During previous commemorations, we’d spot each other from afar without really daring to speak to each other. We were really shy. But standing up in court has really changed everything.”

The marathon trial, the biggest in France’s modern legal history, is expected to last until May 2022.

Twenty defendants are facing sentences of up to life in prison, including the sole attacker who was not gunned down by police, Salah Abdeslam, a French-Moroccan national who was captured in Brussels. Six of the defendants are being tried in absentia.

Poncet said he felt it was crucial that he attend the hearings. “I can’t possibly not. It’s our lives that are being discussed in that room, and it’s important to come to support the others and to try to overcome it all.”

Survivors have taken to the witness stand to recount the horror of the attacks, but also to describe life afterwards.

Several said they had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, grappling with survivor’s guilt, or even feeling alienated from the rest of society.

Saturday’s commemorations are to wrap up with a minute of silence at the Stade de France in the evening before the kick-off for a game between France and Kazakhstan.

It was during a football match between France and Germany that three suicide bombers blew themselves up in 2015.

Then-French president Francois Hollande was one of the 80,000 people in the crowd, before he was discreetly whisked away to avoid triggering mass panic.