Survivor of 'Charlie Hebdo' attack recalls 'horror'

Cartoonist Corinne Rey was forced at gunpoint by killers to enter building's security code

Cartoonist Corinne Rey, also known as 'Coco', who appeared as a witness, leaves the courtroom at the Paris courthouse, on September 8, 2020, after a hearing of several witnesses in the trial of 14 suspected accomplices in the Charlie Hebdo, Montrouge and Hyper Cacher jihadist killings.
 Fourteen people accused of helping jihadist gunmen attack the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket are on trial, five years after days of terror that sent shockwaves through France. / AFP / Thomas SAMSON

The French cartoonist who was forced at gunpoint to open the doors of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper office to two Al-Qaeda extremists has described the feelings of guilt and powerlessness she endured long after the 2015 massacre.

Corinne Rey testified on Tuesday at the trial of 14 people accused of helping three men plot the attacks in Paris. Seventeen people, including 12 in and around Charlie Hebdo's offices, four at a kosher supermarket and a policewoman, were killed. All three attackers were killed in subsequent police raids.

The caricaturist, 38, known as Coco, had left an editorial meeting to go outside 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 and tears in her eyes.

"I was in distress, I could not think anymore," she told the trial.

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

"I was devastated, as if dispossessed of myself. 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."

The brothers targeted Charlie Hebdo because they believed the newspaper blasphemed Islam by publishing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. They opened fire on the group seated around the offices as soon as they entered, but told Rey they were sparing her life as a woman.

“This is something I will live with the rest of my life. I felt so powerless, felt so guilty,” she said.

Now, she said, “I expect justice to be done here. It is the law of men that rules, and not the law of God, as the terrorists would have it.”

Rey described how the attackers first 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”.

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.

Rey said: "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'."

Five years later, Rey said she still struggles 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 and legal correspondent for the newspaper was, in the newsroom on the day of the attack.

She told the court how she exchanged looks with Charb after hearing the first two shots. "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 that he was following me. I thought 'It's my turn'."

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 most painful chapters in France's history.

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

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