Malian Muslim hero from France who saved lives in attack on kosher store | News France

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Plougasnou, France – Almost six years after saving the lives of customers in the deadly attack on the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher in Paris, Lassana Bathily still refuses to call herself a hero.
“It’s my modesty,” he said.

On January 9, 2015, then 24, was working in the supermarket storage area when a gunman stormed in.

“You are the two things I hate most in this world,” supermarket striker Amedy Coulibaly told shoppers before taking them hostage. “You are Jewish and French.”

Bathily, a Muslim employee, quickly led around 15 clients to the basement where he hid them in a cold room during the four-hour siege.

During the attack, four people were killed, five including the gunman.

Two days earlier, the attack on Charlie Hebdo had taken place.

People look at flowers and messages to pay tribute to the victims of the January 2015 attacks on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket with eulogies, commemorative plaques and another cartoon religion [File: Charles Platiau/Reuters]

Bathily has been hailed as a “hero,” receiving congratulations from world leaders, including then-US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bathily, born in Mali and arrived in France as an undocumented migrant child at the age of 16, immediately obtained French nationality and was hired by the mayor of Paris where he still works, in the youth and sports department.

He also regularly visits schools across France to talk to students about the importance of interfaith dialogue.

Al Jazeera met Bathily in the small town of Plougasnou, in Brittany.

The interview took place as France reeling from two attacks – the murder of teacher Samuel Paty and the attack on the church in Nice – and as the country prepares for trial over the 2015 attacks , in which 14 people are accused of aiding the attackers who committed the violence that killed 17 people.

Bathily was one of the key witnesses.

Al Jazeera: The verdict is near. How do you feel about this?

Lassana Bathily: We are all waiting for justice to be served.

It was really difficult for me to testify in front of the accused. But it was also very important to get out what I had to say. I asked the presiding judge to let me talk about my background, my journey and how I got here.

Al Jazeera: Why did you share your story?

Bathily: My trip was not easy. I arrived in France when I was only 16 without any working document. The integration was not easy for me at the beginning. There were a lot of steps to take to move forward and get to where I am today. I think it’s important to hear the whole story, so that they really know who I am and where I’m from.

Al Jazeera: Are you still in contact with the other victims?

Bathily: Yes. Some I haven’t seen for five years because they moved to Israel, but we are still in touch on social media. For those of us in France, we have all been brought together again for this trial, which has brought us even closer. There will always be a special bond between us. We have become a family.

Al Jazeera: There have been reports of your lawyer receiving death threats in recent weeks for her involvement in the trial. Can you tell us more?

Bathily: She began to receive threats from people attacking her for supporting Charlie Hebdo and defending the magazine’s cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad. The point is, she is not representing Charlie Hebdo in this trial. She represents me – she has nothing to do with Charlie Hebdo. I don’t understand and this whole ordeal has certainly put me on my guard.

Al Jazeera: The assassination of Samuel Paty has sparked a new debate on freedom of expression in France. Where are you in this debate?

Bathily: We must defend freedom of expression. Whether you are for or against freedom of expression, you must respect it. It is a fundamental part of [secularism] and French republican values. At the same time, I believe that freedom of expression must be respected. Religion is sacred.

Al Jazeera: Many Muslims say the magazine crosses the line of respect …

Bathily: They abuse [freedom of expression] a bit too much. I am not Charlie. I always said that. But I condemn those who kill Charlie because the magazine chooses to use his freedom of speech. No one has the right to kill anyone for drawing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

Al Jazeera: Yohan Cohen, your former colleague and friend, was killed in the attack. You must have been thinking about him a lot lately …

Bathily: He was more like a brother to me. He could sense my mood without me having to say anything. We loved the same music and often played some of our favorite rap artists while we stocked shelves. We teased each other to support different football teams. I am a Lyon fan, he was a Marseille fan. I am still in contact with his father, who lives in Israel but returned to France for the trial.

Al Jazeera: You never accepted the title of “hero”. Why is that?

Bathily: I would call myself a good citizen. But I don’t like the word “hero”. I guess that’s my modesty. If people want to call me a hero, they can, but I don’t see myself as such. I am just a good citizen who acted quickly at the time.

Al Jazeera: People had pointed out that you and Amedy Coulibaly (the perpetrator of the Hyper Cacher supermarket attack) came from two villages in Mali less than 16 km away …

Bathily: Yeah. You know, I would love to meet Ammy Coulibaly’s mother.

Al Jazeera: What would you like to tell him?

Bathily: I have the impression that she must be in pain. You know, when your kid becomes successful, everyone can share it and feel good about it. But if your child becomes an adult who does something terrible, he comes back to the family. Whether the family is for or against everything their child has done is up to them.

I want to know more about Coulibaly’s relationship with his mother, because I think you can learn a lot about a person by understanding what their relationship is with their mother.



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