In a weekend of tragedy, the deeds of Lassana Bathily are a symbol of hope that the human spirit and compassion can unite people and overcome cultural and religious conflicts.
Bathily, 24, is a Mali-born French Muslim, who for the past four years has worked at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in eastern Paris. He was there when terrorist Amdey Coulibaly stormed in on Friday. Without hesitation, knowing that if caught his own life would be in danger, Bathily led six customers down to the freezer rooms, out of the sight of the gunman.
"I am a devout Muslim, I even pray in the store. We get on excellently, the Jews and I, and the terror attack has hurt me," Bathily says in an exclusive interview with Ynet's sister publication, Yedioth Ahronoth. "I have been in shock since it happened."
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When the gunman first opened fire, Bathily was arranging stock. "We opened the supermarket at 8am and we prepared for a busy day, because on Fridays everyone comes to buy for Shabbat," he says.
"Shortly after 12:30 I went down to the bottom floor, in order to organize the stock, and after a few minutes I suddenly heard gunshots. Seconds later, customers and other staff began to run down the stairs, and I asked them what had happened. They told me that there was a man armed with a Kalashnikov upstairs."
Bathily kept his cool and tried to calm the terrified customers.
"I told them that the terrorist must not hear them, so that he would not come down," he recalls. "Then I showed them that we had two freezer rooms on the bottom floor – one for meat and one for dairy products – that could be locked with a key. I opened the two rooms, and put about five people inside each one, and I asked them to be calm and turn off their phones so that they would not make a noise. Then I turned off the light on the floor, I locked the dairy freezer room and I got into the meat room."
There in the freezers, while the gunman was killing hostages upstairs, Bathily and the others managed to keep their nerve.
"We were relatively calm," he says. "I wasn't familiar with the people I was hiding with – they were customers and staff that I didn’t know so well. After a while, one of the cashiers knocked on the door of the freezer room and said that the gunman had demanded that everyone go upstairs – and if we didn’t, he would kill everyone on the upper floor and then come down and kill us all."
The demand left the people hiding in a dilemma.
"We talked about it between us and we couldn't decide what to do," Bathily recalls. "Some thought that we had to go up, and some said that it was better to remain downstairs. In the end, two people went up – a customer and an employee."
At that stage, Bathily decided to take action. "I suggested that the hostages escape out of the emergency exit," he says.
"They didn’t want to go, and preferred to stay and wait for the police, but I was scared that the police outside did not know that there were people hiding on the lower level too and wouldn’t know that they had to rescue us. So I decided to take a chance – and I went out."
The employee stepped out of the store, and discovered a heavy police presence surrounding the supermarket.
"When I went out, I quickly reached the police waiting outside," he says. "When they realized that I had come from inside, they asked me to draw the layout of the store, so I tried to help them as much as I could and drew the Hyper Cacher to the best of my abilities. I stayed with them until the end, to help, and I left only after all the wounded had been evacuated to hospital."
A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk on the record, explained that Bathily gave police a key that allowed them to storm the supermarket without having to punch their way through the shutters that had been brought down by the terrorist at the start of the attack.
Hailed as the hero of the hour, Bathily has only been able to think about one thing since the attack - his slain workmate and friend Yohan Cohen, who was shot dead by the terrorist after he stole one of his guns in an effort to end the siege.
"He was a wonderful guy, I am so sad about him," he says.
Bathily "was so courageous," said Mohammed Amine, a 33-year-old friend and former coworker at Hyper Cacher. Amine also paid tribute to Yohan Cohen, whom Amine called "someone amazing, friendly, who likes (and) who respects people."
"I'm Muslim and he's Jewish," said Amine, an immigrant from Morocco. "But there's such respect between us. We're like brothers. They took my best friend."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.