PARIS, France (AFP) — It was a Friday afternoon, and Zarie Sibony was at her checkout counter at the Hyper Cacher supermarket on the eastern edge of Paris when a man wielding two Kalashnikov rifles burst through the doors.
“I heard a shot on my right, and that was when the terrorist killed Mr. Braham, who was waiting in my line,” Sibony said, recalling the debut of “the most horrible four hours of my life.”
Five years after the attacks against the Jewish supermarket and the Charlie Hebdo newspaper, Sibony will testify Tuesday in the trial of 14 people suspected of helping the three gunmen.
“I remember thinking that I had only one goal: to survive, to get out of there alive. I was going to do whatever it took,” she said.
Amedy Coulibaly had already killed a police agent the day before he stormed the supermarket on January 9, where he took hostages after shooting dead three people — Francois-Michel Saada, Yoav Hattab and Philippe Braham.
Sibony’s co-worker Yohan Cohen was shot as well, and would die of his wounds before the nightmare afternoon was over.
“He said, ‘Do you want me to finish him off, so he’ll stop making all this noise?’ And of course we all said no, leave him alone,” she told AFP in an interview.
“Afterwards I blamed myself a bit, because I thought maybe it would have been better to end his suffering, because he lay there dying for more than three and a half hours.”
Sibony, now 28, said she almost did not make it to Paris for the trial from her new home in Israel, having had to wait for COVID-19 test results and missing her original flight before finding another plane.
Testifying is her chance to “represent the voices” of the victims, she said, though reliving the trauma will not be easy.
“I was trying to ignore the moans, the bodies around us, the bodies I had to step over each time he told me to do something,” she said of Coulibaly, who initially tried to kill her as well.
“He told me, and I’ll never forget it: ‘You’re not dead yet, you must not want to die.’ And then he pulled the trigger.
“And then I turned and saw the hole in the checkout and realized I had nearly died… I still don’t understand why he missed me.”
Yet after that Sibony said she was basically the only one Coulibaly spoke to, ordering her to block up the emergency exit or lower the metal grill over the front doors — “I felt as if I was burying us all alive.”
Coulibaly castigated his hostages for ignoring the alleged “horrors” committed by the French military against his “brothers and sisters” in Syria, which they tacitly supported by paying taxes.
An offshoot of Al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility for the assaults by both Coulibaly and Cherif and Said Kouachi, who massacred 12 people in their attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices.
“He told me that he and the Kouachi brothers were part of the same team,” Sibony said.
“He said, ‘You Jews, you’re wrong, because you think life is the most important thing, when it’s death that is most important.’ And he said, ‘I’m here to avenge the Prophet Mohammad, and I’ve come to die as a martyr.'”
Even though police managed to kill Coulibaly after a raid to free the hostages, and the Kouachi brothers were also tracked down and killed that afternoon, Sibony is hoping the trial will nonetheless provide some answers.
“Obviously I still have tons of questions… How could such a terrible act be thought up and carried out,” she said.
“It’s important that these people, even if they didn’t carry it out, be held accountable for their actions,” she said.
After growing up in a French suburb, Sibony moved to Israel a year ago, where she now works as a child care professional and recently obtained her nursing license.
“I’m doing better now,” she said, though she wonders how it will feel to see the families of the Hyper Cacher victims.
“I feel so guilty when I think of how I was held for four hours and managed to get out,” when the others were killed after just two minutes.
And despite the passage of time, Sibony said there are still situations, in a crowded building for example, when she is gripped by fears of another attack.
“I always have in mind the idea that it might happen again,” she said, “but that this time I won’t get out alive.”