Quebec City mosque shooting victim hailed as hero for trying to disarm gunman
Azzeddine Soufiane's bravery honoured through survivor testimonials
Azzeddine Soufiane's name has cut through the hushed silence of the Quebec City courtroom several times this week, where his killer is awaiting sentencing on six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder.
Those who knew Soufiane call him Brother Azzeddine or Mr. Azzeddine in respectful tones.
In the hours following the deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque on Jan. 29, 2017, word quickly spread that the cheerful grocery store owner had tried to disarm Alexandre Bissonnette.
Surveillance video played at the start of Bissonnette's sentencing hearing last week showed Soufiane rushing the gunman, nearly managing to knock him down. Bissonnette, however, was able to take out his pistol, and shot Soufiane at close range, repeatedly.
Soufiane died from his injuries.
That courageous act has been recounted in every survivor's testimonial throughout the sentencing hearing, which continues this week.
"When [Bissonnette] reloaded his weapon, I witnessed Azzeddine's bravery," Saïd Akjour said on Tuesday.
He described how he had been quietly reading passages from the Qur'an when Bissonnette stormed into the prayer room that evening.
He remembered seeing Soufiane charging toward Bissonnette, letting out a scream, "as if to tell us 'Let's go together.'"
Akjour said he realized he didn't have time to reach Bissonnette and tried to hide behind a pillar.
He saw Bissonnette's reaction as Soufiane kept on.
"I saw he was afraid; he even stepped back," Akjour said.
'I saw everything'
Mohamed Khabar was in the middle of the room when Soufiane rushed toward the entrance of the mosque, where Bissonnette was reloading his semi-automatic pistol.
The 43-year-old barber started running behind Soufiane, toward the gunfire.
As they moved closer to the doorway where Bissonnette was standing, "[Soufiane] started yelling, 'Stop, stop!'" Khabar said.
"And all of a sudden, Azzeddine fell."
Khabar said he stopped in his tracks when Soufiane was hit by the first bullet.
"I wanted to do something, but when you are unarmed…" he said, his words trailing off, revealing the helplessness many men present in the mosque that night have described feeling.
Mohamed Khabar says “something was broken (night of shooting) that can never be repaired... I am not the same husband, son or father. I am no longer the same person.”—@CatouCBC
Saïd El-Amari sobbed as he told the court he was the last person to speak with Soufiane that night. They were chatting in the prayer room seconds before Bissonnette started shooting.
"I'm speaking to his wife: forgive us for not having been able to help him," El-Amari told the court, saying he has been haunted by guilt since the shooting.
He said when his wife found out there had been an attack that night, she rushed to the mosque to find him. When she was told by friends Soufiane had died, she imagined the worst for her husband, who was always by Soufiane's side.
El-Amari said his wife thought: "If Azzeddine is dead, it's certain he was with him; it's certain he is dead."
Before adjourning, Huot tried to comfort the father of four, telling him the instinct to survive would have pushed anyone to react the same way.
"Gestures of the nature of Mr. Soufiane's are larger than us, and exceptional, and that is why we call these people heroes," Huot said.
"That does not mean you should feel any remorse."
'He sacrificed himself'
Hakim Chambaz was not hit by any bullets that night, but he testified that he has felt empty and cold ever since.
Chambaz met Soufiane in 1993, when they were both working with the province's scientific research institute, INRS.
Soufiane, a geologist, was someone who helped anyone in need, Chambaz told the courtroom.
He still has a very clear image of his friend's last moments.
"Azzeddine did his best to save the other brothers," said Chambaz.
"He sacrificed himself for others."