Survivors of mosque shooting overwhelmed by anxiety, constant fear, court hears

Those who witnessed the deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque and survived say they lost all sense of peace when Alexandre Bissonnette entered their place of worship, killing six men and wounding many more.

Alexandre Bissonnette terrorized an entire nation, Quebec City mosque leaders testify at sentencing hearing

Ahmed Cheddadi, who was injured in last year's Quebec City mosque shooting, described the deep psychological distress he has been coping with since Jan. 29, 2017, during the sentencing hearing for Alexandre Bissonnette. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

There's a common thread in the dozens of victim impact statements Quebec Superior Court Justice François Huot heard this week at the sentencing hearing for the shooter who killed six men at a Quebec City mosque.

The widows and children of those men, the men who were injured and other survivors of the attack have all described their struggle to carry on and their overwhelming fear they will fall victim to another attack.

Bissonnette has pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder for his shooting rampage on Jan. 29, 2017.​

That night, Selma Yahiaoui was praying on the second floor of the mosque, a section reserved for women. She described the mosque as tranquil, a place where friendships were made.

"We were never scared here," she told Quebec Superior Court Justice François Huot on the seventh day of Bissonnette's sentencing hearing.

Moments after the end of prayers, Yahiaoui, 34, said she heard gunshots ring out beneath her, and that sense of peace was forever shattered.

Yahiaoui said she watched what was happening on the floor below her through a small screen in the women's prayer room.

"I saw everything," she said, her voice breaking as she recounted the events.
Selma Yahiaoui, who agreed to be featured in a Radio-Canada documentary for the anniversary commemorating the tragedy at the mosque, does not want to show her face, out of fear. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

Yahiaoui rushed downstairs, desperately searching for her husband, who she later found out had not been injured.

Despite the fact they both walked away unharmed, she said her trust in people has evaporated.

"Every person who smiles at me, each moment, I have doubts," she said, fighting tears.

Yahiyaoui said simply walking down the aisles of a grocery store, she now has the unshakeable impression she is being stalked.

'Don't go'

Ahmed Cheddadi, too, said that feeling of despair has completely overwhelmed his life.

"Since the tragedy, I am no longer the same person," said Cheddadi, 47, who is originally from Morocco.

Cheddadi abandoned a career in business management in 2000, moving to Quebec City to do his MBA at Université Laval.

Even after graduating with an honourable mention in 2004, he said he was only able to find work as a taxi driver, and later as a city bus driver.

That's the job he held at the time of the attack, but he has only been able to return to it part-time.

"There is this fear, this feeling of being threatened everywhere," Cheddadi told Huot in his emotionally charged testimony.

He described how he spent most of the past year confined to his home, constantly checking to see if his doors were locked.

Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre president Boufeldja Benabdallah, left, stands by mosque shooting victim Ahmed Cheddadi as they leave the Quebec City courthouse on April 11, 2018. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Cheddadi said his wife and children share that fear, asking him not to go back to the mosque, where people might try to hurt him.

"We still need you here. Don't go," he said his young daughter told him.

Entire community shaken

Two of the men who were at the centre of the chaos following the shooting said Bissonnette's act struck fear in the hearts of all Muslims by targeting their place of worship.

The former president of the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre, Mohamed Labidi, testified that "it is all Canadian Muslims who tasted this feeling of insecurity, of being targeted because of their religion."

Reading from a letter presented as evidence at the hearing, Labidi, 60, said the weeks and months that followed the shooting plunged the cultural centre's small team of volunteers into a whirlwind of government meetings, media requests and efforts to support the women left widowed by the attack and other victims.

Labidi said for some volunteers, the pressure became too much to bear.

Several members of the board of directors quit their duties, while the cultural centre's president at the time of the shooting, Mohamed Yangui, had to be hospitalized several times.
Testifying at Alexandre Bissonnette's sentencing hearing, Mohamed Labidi, the former president of the Quebec City mosque, said the killer's 'act of hatred' left members of the Muslim community feeling helpless and intimidated. (Jean-Simon Fabien/Radio-Canada)

Labidi said "an act of hatred" left members of the Muslim community feeling helpless.

Bissonnette "unfortunately, was able to intimidate members of the Muslim community. Some even decided to leave the province after this tragedy," Labidi told the court.

Boufeldja Benabdallah co-founded the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre in 1985, and he was recently re-elected as president, replacing Labidi.

He spoke of the impact the tragedy left on the site itself, once a place of gathering and peace.

"May I remind you you have killed these moments of brotherhood," Benabdallah said, addressing Bissonnette directly.

He said many worshippers no longer attend the mosque, out of fear.

"There was a fracture, one that we are trying to heal," he said.

About the Author

Julia Page

Journalist

Julia Page is an online journalist with CBC News, based in Quebec City.