Paris attacks: Hostage recalls thinking 'we're all going to die'

A survivor from the Paris hostage standoff last week says in an exclusive interview with CBC's Nahlah Ayed that she witnessed the gunman kill at least two of his four victims, and was certain she would be next.

Hostage's husband relieved after seeing TV footage of police carrying her to safety

Francis, right, with wife Nhung, says he realized she had survived the Paris hostage-taking after seeing her on TV being carried by a police officer away from the Hypercacher kosher supermarket. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

A survivor from the Paris hostage standoff is too afraid to take the Paris Métro and can't go anywhere near a store. Worse, she dreams daily of the man she saw killed right in front of her during last week's hostage-taking at a kosher supermarket.

"Every day I see this man on the ground in a pool of blood," said Nhung, who is only being identified by her first name out of concerns for her safety. The woman, who is in her 70s, gave CBC News an exclusive interview at her home in Saint Mandé, just a few hundred metres away from the supermarket where she and others were held hostage Friday.

She was one of some 20 people who spent more than four hours holed up in the market with Amedy Coulibaly, a French citizen believed to have been radicalized in prison and connected to the Charlie Hebdo attackers, both in intentions and ideology.

It's also believed he was linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) after a video surfaced of him pledging allegiance to the extremist group.

Nhung told CBC News that Coulibaly demanded to know the religion of his hostages and where they were born. He killed four Jewish men, one of them immediately after he revealed his last name, in view of the rest of the group.

Nhung, who had never before seen a rifle up close, told the gunman she was born in Vietnam — half-Catholic and half-Buddhist.

She was certain she would be killed.

"I thought, we're all going to die," she said. "I thought I'll never see the people I love again. And for what reason?"

An officer with the French police special forces had to carry Nhung, who is in her 70s, over his shoulder after police ordered hostages to run to safety. (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

She said Coulibaly, who was eventually shot dead by police during a day of mayhem in two parts of Paris, complained that the world seemed to care far more about a dozen Parisians killed than the many more Muslims killed elsewhere. He threatened to kill more hostages if the Charlie Hebdo gunmen — the Kouachi brothers — holed up north of Paris with one hostage were harmed.

“If I saw him in the street, I would never think he’s a terrorist,” Nhung said of Coulibaly.

Despite the circumstances, Coulibaly took a few minutes to pray. That was when Nhung got the courage to call her husband, Francis, to explain why she was late.

He had heard about the hostage-taking and concluded his wife must be inside the market. He was beside himself.

There were bullets everywhere. We thought we were done for.- Paris hostage 

"I was very anxious about everything," he said. "I dressed up and went to down the avenue here to see what's happening outside. I could not see anything. Police were everywhere."

As night fell, police moved in with enough bodies and bullets to overwhelm any gunman.

"There were bullets everywhere. We thought we were done for," Nhung said. 

Among the hostages was a small boy.

Hostage-taker a 'deviance' of Muslim faith

Police ordered them all to run. But Nhung, weak with trembling legs, simply could not. A policeman lifted her up and threw her over his shoulder and ran off.

"I saw this assault [on] TV and said, 'Ah, she’s there.' And I recognized her!" her husband said. 

"I recognized her because of her coat and her face. Ah yes. She’s alive."

Nhung said that for Coulibaly, "Everything was about being Muslim." But he doesn’t represent the faith, she said.

"I have Muslim friends and I appreciate them. That's deviance. Crazies. They have chosen Islam to create something crazy.

"The lesson is really that extremist religion is fatal. It's almost like we can't believe anymore in religion if it has to be practised like that."

Nhung said she, like Paris, has irrevocably changed.

"But in my head I tell myself, I will go back to this store. Maybe not now, but sometime."

Her husband finished her thought. "Because if we don't return, he wins."

Watch Nahlah Ayed's full report Wednesday on The National at 10 p.m. ET on CBC-TV, or at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.