PARIS—Harrowing testimonies from the survivors of the Charlie Hebdo attack were heard at the long-awaited terror trial this week. A true panorama of horrors unfolded in the court room, as their stories and shocking security camera footage evoked the carnage of war.
Calm footsteps pass through the hallway of the Charlie Hebdo offices. A big man in black fatigues appears, his frame filling the doorway as he walks into the newsroom. “Tack-tack-tack,” shots are fired, methodical, lethal, then the footsteps move away, calmly. He leaves behind a deafening silence. Sigolène Vinson described the “strong smell of gunpowder and blood,” that filled the air as the Kouachi brothers unloaded on the satirical magazine’s offices on Jan. 7, 2015.
One minute and forty-nine seconds, that's all it took to murder 12 and injure 11 of the Charlie Hebdo staffers, on that cold winter morning. When the Kouachi brothers were done, they left behind their footprints in the blood and a choir of unanswered mobile phones interrupting the terrible silence. Thirty-six bullet cases were found at the scene, the editors were murdered execution-style from a distance of less than five inches.
Fourteen survivors in total gave their testimonies at the courthouse this week.
When investigating bloodbaths, the numbers count. But numbers can also obscure, they anonymize.
Judge Régis de Jorna has taken great care to name the victims individually, to try and bring them to life however briefly in this courtroom. Seventeen people were murdered in the attacks at Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket. This case is as much about remembering them, about acknowledgment of trauma, as it is about apportioning guilt.
“What are your expectations of this court case, of justice?” The judge asks each witness. Their answers vary, several people say they want to pay “homage to those who died,” but the meaning of this trial remains hard to define. “Repeating the stories is an ordeal,” the magazine’s then investigative reporter Laurent Léger admits, “I hope it can shed light on those behind the attacks. I hope you can find them among the people on trial here. But where is Peter Cherif, on paper he’s the man behind the Kouachis? I’m a little disappointed he wasn’t included in this trial.”
Of the women who attended the first Charlie Hebdo editorial meeting of 2015, only four survived. Elsa Cayat did not, her end was witnessed at close quarters by Vinson, a former lawyer and the magazine’s legal correspondent. From behind a face mask and long dark curls, she was visibly shaken. Her voice broke, as she relived each moment. One after the other she saw them fall; next to her, on top of her. Her description is detailed, gruesome, too graphic to write down.
Vinson recalls how she caught Cherif Kouachi’s eye and saw him moving toward her. “…he looks at me, as if he wants to put me at ease. ‘I’m going to let you live,’ he says. ‘We don’t kill women’ then louder, as if to command someone else: ‘We don't kill women!’”
Vinson recalled that he had taken time to give her advice, his voice was soft, she said.
The soundless footage from the security cameras tells a different story. Cherif Kouachi looks threatening when he tells her to read the Quran and pray five times a day, all the while brandishing an automatic weapon in front of her.
Judge De Jorna said to Vinson: “His demeanor in the images is menacing, not kind, and he just executed your friends. Do you understand that you may have thought it was advice because that is what you needed to believe in order to survive?”
Vinson agreed, speaking quietly. “I needed him to be soft,” she said. “Because he could take that bullet and put it in my head.”
Several cameras caught the plight of the Charlie Hebdo staff that morning. They were installed after previous attacks. In 2011, the office was firebombed and two years after Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier, aka ‘Charb,’ was put on a death list published in Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. “Wanted, dead or alive, for crimes against Islam,” the entry read. It was published in May 2013, entitled “Yes, we can, a bullet a day keeps the infidel away.” Charlie Hebdo unleashed the wrath of scores of fanatics with its Mohammed cartoons. Cartoonist Charb was not the only name on Inspire’s death list. Twelve names are on it, including the Danish authors of the Mohammed cartoons published in the Jyllands-Posten by Lars Vilks and Kurt Westergaard, Dutch right-wing anti-Islam populist politician Geert Wilders and the British author of The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie.
The editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, Laurent Sourisseau, was hiding underneath the editorial desk listening to the attackers. “‘Charb, Charb where is Charb?’ he heard them say. “He was next to me. It was the last two shots fired. I don’t know who was hit by them and I don’t want to know.” Léger, who was also in the newsroom, also heard the terrorists looking for Charb.
This trial is about the suspects, their victims, but also about freedom of speech. Is there a limit? Is there a right to offend? Charlie Hebdo is often criticized for ridiculing everything and anything, and not stopping short for religion. “The right to blaspheme is very important in France.” Physician and Charlie Hebdo reporter Patrick Pelloux tells the court. To understand Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that is consciously, and systematically contrary, it is important to understand something of its background, and maybe even of that of France. Charlie Hebdo represents a segment of French society that is elementally secular, a part strongly rooted in the secularism of the French Republic.
Sourisseau used his time on the stand to describe what he calls “the imperative to question.” Freedom is not ordinary, he says, it is exceptional and it should be fought for. According to Sourisseau, the magazine battles against what it considers the totalitarianism of thought. “We know we operate on the fringes of the acceptable, we consciously look for it,” he said. Some argue they were asking for trouble, by ridiculing religious figures and holy concepts. Sourisseau said the critics don’t understand what the magazine is about: “We have done the forbidden, not because we don’t respect religious rules, but because they don’t apply to us, because we are not religious.”
By republishing the Mohammed cartoons, Charlie Hebdo is putting itself at risk once more. Is it really worth dying for, one defense lawyer asked? “It’s not the risk to die that is at stake here, it is the risk to live,” said Sourisseau. “The alternative is (submitting to) an ideology of death, an ideology that kills you if it disagrees with you.”