Charlie Hebdo survivor: ‘I was of the dead. But I was not dead’ | Philippe Lançon

On 7 January 2015, terrorists burst into the offices of the satirical magazine, killing 12 people. In an extract from his new book, published to huge acclaim in France, here is one survivor’s astonishing story

Late morning, 7 January 2015 

When you’re not expecting it, how long does it take to understand that death is coming? It’s not just imagination that is bypassed by reality, it’s your very senses. I heard dry little noises, nothing like the reverberating detonations in movies, mere firecrackers, echo-less squibs. For a moment, I thought it might have been kids messing about.

I heard a woman cry: “What the… ?” Another woman’s voice cried out. Then a third voice let out a great shout of anger, more strident, more aggressive, a kind of “Aaaaaah.” I know whose voice that was. It was Elsa Cayat. To me, her cry meant purely and simply: “Who the hell are these aaaaaarseholes?” That screeched syllable stretched from one room to the other. It was filled with rage as well as fear – but even more, it was full of liberty. It may have been the first time in my life when that word “liberty” was more than just a word – it was a physical sensation.

The dead were almost holding hands. The foot of one was touching the belly of another, whose fingers lightly grazed the face of a third, who was, in turn, tilted towards a fourth one’s hip, while that one seemed to stare at the ceiling. Like this, in these postures, and for ever after, they had become my comrades. It could have been a pose from some danse macabre, like those I had occasionally seen in the church of La Ferté-Loupière on the way to my grandparents’ house in Nevers in central France. Or it might have been a string of little paper figures cut by a child’s hand or even an unknown and very dark version of Matisse’s The Dance

I was one of them. But I was not dead.

I was lying on my belly, my head turned to the left. I opened my left eye first. I saw a bloodied left hand sticking out of the sleeve of my pea jacket. It took me a moment to understand that this hand was mine. A new hand, lying there, a wound between two metacarpophalangeal joints – those of the index and middle fingers. These were words I learned later. Because I had to learn the names of the injured parts of the body, the treatments they received and the side-effects that could result. To name them was to tame them. And it was also to live more easily or less uncomfortably with everything that the words meant. A hospital is a place where everyone, in word as in deed, has a duty to be precise.

The voice of the man I had always been and still was said to me: “Hey, we got shot in the hand. Yet we didn’t feel a thing.” There were two of us, him and me. The man I had always been up to that moment and the man I was about to become. A metre away I saw a man’s body lying face down. I recognised the check jacket. It was not moving. My eyes glided over him up to his skull, where, amid his hair, I could see the brains of this man, of this colleague, this friend. They were leaking a little from his skull. Bernard was dead, said the man I used to be and the new me replied, yes, he’s dead. We agreed on that, that man I used to be and that man I was becoming, we agreed on this, on him, on the spot from where those brains seeped out (and which I wanted somehow to put back inside the skull). It was in this moment, through this moment, that I at last understood that something irreversible had happened.

Little by little, I turned on my side. Then I sat up on the floor, my back against the wall, facing one of the doors. I brushed my hand across my neck and realised that I still had my scarf but that it had a hole in it. In front me of, almost under the table, Bernard’s body. And just to one side, face up in the doorway, the body of Tignous. But I did not see at that moment what I read 18 months later in the official police report, that there was a pen clamped between the fingers of one of his hands, a pen sticking up in the air, vertically. 

Tignous had been writing or sketching something when they burst in. The investigators made note of this detail. It showed the terrible speed of the massacre and the stupor that preceded the execution of each of us. Tignous died with his pen in his hand like a citizen of Pompeii, seared by the suddenness of the lava. Quicker still indeed, without even knowing that Vesuvius had blown and the lava had arrived.

[Charlie Hebdo legal columnist Sigolène Vinson and cartoonist Coco were among the first to arrive on the scene.]

I handed my mobile to Coco so she could call my mother and it was then, in passing it to her, that I saw my face reflected in the screen of the telephone. The hair, the forehead, the eyes, the nose, the cheeks and the upper lip – all was in order, all was intact. But instead of a chin and the right hand part of the lower lip there was, not a hole exactly but a crater of destroyed and hanging flesh that seemed to have been put there by the painting hand of a child, like a blotch of gouache on a picture. What was left of tooth and gum was nakedly exposed and the whole thing – this amalgamation of a face three-quarters unblemished and one quarter destroyed – had made a monster of me. I had a few seconds of absolute despair. But they did not last. I put my hand under my jaw, to hold it and maybe fix it, as though if I held that flesh, those fleshes against each other, they would knit themselves back together, the hole would disappear and life would continue.

Except, actually, no. Sigolène told me, much later and with certainty, that I was already doing this when she first came to me, holding my jaw together like that. Which meant that I must already have seen my face in the screen of my mobile some minutes before. I had confounded Sigolène and Coco in some kind of confused ceremony that passed out false memories as if they were prizes. I still can’t bear this confusion. Facts were the only luggage I wanted to bring on the journey I had just begun. But facts, just like everything else, warp under pressure. Violence had corrupted that which it had not destroyed.

Near midnight, 7 January

One of the injured is taken to hospital.
One of the injured is taken to hospital. Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP

Arnaud was looking at me. He was strangely pale and thin, as white as the recovery room light out of which he had seemed to appear. He looked so young and so alone. I felt sorry for him and would have put my arms around him but my arms didn’t want to move. We sat there together, two brothers. Two brothers who had come close to never seeing one another again and who the near miss with death had welded tight, one to the other. I didn’t try to talk. I was still unaware of the dressings that held my face together or of the tracheotomy – the “trach”, as I was soon to learn to call it. Nor was I much conscious of the nasal catheter that would soon be unbearably chafing and inflaming my nose and throat. Yet something forewarned me that it would be impossible to speak. The patient can often foresee that which he does not yet know. 

I made a sign. Arnaud understood that I wanted the little whiteboard that the nurse had brought me so I might communicate by writing. With laborious difficulty, I wrote, in capital letters: “It’s all over with Gabriela.” With incredible speed, I had run the numbers on Gabriela and me. She was living in New York, with no money and with shaky residency status. She was going through an ugly divorce, which was making her crazy. Her father was in the Atacama desert, reciting Pablo Neruda poems to the ghosts and himself slowly dying. However strong her love for me might be, there was no chance she could deal with the marathon ordeal that I had evidently just become. What followed would show that I had been wrong, at least partly. 

I had written this sentence on the small plastic whiteboard with my little felt tip neither to ward off this truth nor to help it happen. I had written it to relieve the sadness I could see coming. To write it was a protest but it was also, already, an act of acceptance. So this first sentence written by the new me had this one immediate virtue – it made me understand how much my life had just changed.

I rubbed out the sentence and wrote another one: “This little magazine that never did anyone any harm.” I was talking about Charlie. With a shrill kind of naivety, the naivety of a dismayed child. But with something more than that too. We’re always liberally quoting the dying words of authors based on the notion that they are bound to contain some illuminating, clear-eyed meaning. When Chekhov died murmuring Ich sterbe (I’m dying), it was so wonderfully Chekhov. He said the one thing to say when you’re dying. That laconic tautology rubbed all the literature right out of the moment. Me – no Chekhov and still in some kind of limbo – I wrote my first words rather than my last. And given how pompous and sentimental I am, those words were also pompous and sentimental: “This little magazine…”

But the sentiment of those words was also typical of my maternal grandfather, a nice guy who thought the best of everyone and everything. Born into a poor peasant family in the Pyrenees, near the Spanish border, he was very much the tender-hearted type. He cried easily (maybe because of the huge melted glacier just across from his village). He was an old-school socialist, born of the people and staying that way. Although he’d been gone for more than 30 years, it was he who seemed to take my hand at that moment. He had died just as I had made my beginnings in the career that had ended up bringing me to that hospital recovery room. No one else I knew would have written those words. After taking off his black beret, his cheeks trembling slightly, gently scented by his favourite cheap cigarettes, only he would have written: “This little magazine that never did anyone any harm.”

The first week

A vigil for the Charlie Hebdo victims
A vigil for the Charlie Hebdo victims outside the Newseum in Washington, DC, 7 January 2015. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

My brother came in and said: ‘They got whacked, those scumbags. Nobody’s gonna cry over it.” That was the first time I learned of the existence of the Kouachi brothers. Apparently, the owner of the black-clad legs I had seen that day had a name and there had actually been two pairs of black-clad legs. They had been cornered by the police in some little printing warehouse, outside Paris. They ended up dying there. 

“Whacked”, “scumbags”. I’d never heard my brother talk like that. He wasn’t the type. I understood the emotional ingredients of this sudden dissonance, but I was shocked. I couldn’t bear the least kind of violence entering that hospital room. I wanted it to be a decompression chamber, like those you enter if you have surfaced too quickly from a deep dive. Anything aggressive was an obstacle to this process, this necessary adjustment to what was left of my life. And everything I said and did was subject to that same moral physics. It needed to be placid, decompressed, breathable.

For four days now, I had been unable to speak. Already, I felt two things simultaneously. I felt as though I had never spoken, while also feeling that I deserved some kind of punishment for having talked for so long. You don’t believe in God, I told myself, but something is punishing you for having so endlessly talked and so voluminously and pointlessly written. All your chatter, your articles, your judgments, your pick-up and patter, all the endless noise you’ve made. If you choose, you can keep all that noise on the other side of the door, with all the voices in the corridor, the squawking radios of the police detail and the nurses’ squeaking trolleys. You’ve been punished exactly where you have sinned, even if you believe in neither sin nor redemption, even if the punishers did it for some other reasons of their own. It doesn’t matter. Make the most of the silence that these half-witted killers have imposed upon you. 

In the hospital, everyone seemed horrified. To them, I was the victim of that which had horrified them. Me, a victim? A journalist can be killed or wounded while reporting but a journalist is not truly a victim. A journalist can be a target but he or she is never a subject. We are not preserved from the story we are trying to tell but we cannot be the heart of the story itself. The poor old journalist is a plant that grows in the blind spot of events. This is less a principle than a feeling. This job, I had learned, required discretion. How can you stay discreet when everyone is looking at you?

Early in the afternoon of 11 January, my brother said to me: “Seems there’s already an insanely big crowd at the march. If I wasn’t here with you, I’d be there, with them. Everybody is saying Je suis Charlie. Everybody’s Charlie now. It’s like there’s a tidal wave in the country.” Or, rather, he said something like that. I didn’t make a note of it. I never made notes. Indeed, not taking notes was the one habit I had not lost. The little I wrote, I wrote on the whiteboards before rubbing it out as though it had never been written. For three months, whenever I had to stay silent so that my lower face might heal over, my hands never stopped scrabbling backwards and forwards and side to side over that little plastic slate, my fingers blackened by the felt-tip pens, like those of a particularly sloppy schoolboy. 

My brother went on talking about France’s big day out. Out there, they were demonstrating. In here, it was somehow my childhood all over again. As though we’d got my early years out of the back of the car like a spare wheel and now the journey could continue. But a journey to where?

That day, for the first time, I had heard this refrain – Je suis Charlie. The giant protest and its slogan concerned an event of which I had been part, of which I had been one of the survivors. But for me, this “event” was intimate. I had brought it with me, like some baleful treasure, a secret. I had brought it to this hospital room where no one could really follow me. No one except Chloé, my surgeon (who was to begin a sequence of major operations the next day). It wasn’t just that Chloé could follow me. On the path now before my feet, Chloé would have to lead me.

Je suis Charlie? I wrote for Charlie. I had been shot and wounded in Charlie. I had watched my colleagues die in Charlie. But I was not Charlie that day. That day, I was Chloé.

The nurses come in like slow-motion ballerinas.

“Would you like some music?”

On my nephew’s ghetto blaster, I put on some Bach. The music soothes me like morphine. It does more than soothe me, it removes all temptation to complain, all sense of unfairness, all the body’s deep strangeness. Bach envelops us, me, my bed, the nurses and their trolley. In the bright swell of this music, every movement and gesture becomes abstract and a kind of peace falls upon us. The changing of the dressings can begin.

Bit by bit, they unwrap the bandages on my head, from skull to chin. They free my ears. They remove the stained compresses. They prepare the sterile ones with surgical pliers, soaking some in a saline solution and coating others with Vaseline. Their movements seem as slow as the music. When the face is fully uncovered, one of them asks me: “Do you want to see?”

It has become a ritual, this question. I say yes. She hands me the small, black-rimmed mirror from my night stand. I look at the hole. Right up close. To see how it looks. How it is evolving. Whether it is shrinking or growing. If it has changed since yesterday. Or since the day of the attack. I look at it coldly as the Bach plays on. It’s rather like going down a well. Apart from me, the medical staff and the people who found me that day, no one has seen it. In the midst of the shredded flesh, there is now this little titanium muzzle in which I can see four links, like those of a chain. The lower lip and most of the bottom teeth have gone. It is with masochistic satisfaction that I meet again the familiar monster at the bottom of that almost undamaged face. 

This particular morning, I lift my eyes from the mirror and meet those of Ada, the third of the nurses. While the others are busy, she is staring at me. She’s new. Twenty years old. Her boyfriend is a croupier in a casino. She’s half-French, half-Senegalese. But she looks like an Indian princess with her long hair and her air of light indifference and faint dismay at finding herself there. The older nurses are always saying that the younger ones lack a sense of vocation, that they don’t really care. Me, I like Ada. Bach bores her. All classical music bores her. I look at that perfect face, that petulant and immovable beauty. I look again at the hole and its attendant mess of flesh. Then I look back again at Ada’s face. I am the Beast and she is the Beauty. But in this story, it is she who has the keys to the castle. Her long, wide eyes narrow in a faint smile. I raise my eyebrows as though to say: “It is what it is.” Eloquently, she pouts at me with the clear message: “Yes, it is what it is.”

Two years later

Why is France targeted so often by terrorists? – video explainer

Depressed by unending and painful rehabilitation, I meet Alexandra in a bistro. Alexandra was the nurse with whom I was always closest.

“You have no right to be weak about this,” she tells me. “Anyone but you. If you’d seen what you looked like when you first arrived on the ward! I wasn’t there that day but I saw the photos.”

“What did I look like?”

‘The upper two-thirds of the face were fine. All the way down to here…”

She points to her upper lip.

“From there on down, it was what you could only describe as a beefsteak. You couldn’t tell bone from tissue. It was a pulp, just hanging there.”

There’s a passage in Racine where Athalie dreams of her dead mother, Jezebel:

Her shadow seemed to bend itself, and I
Held out my arms in order to embrace it;
But only found confusion horrible
Of mangled bones and flesh dragged in the mud,
And tatters soaked in gore, of hideous limbs,
That dogs, devouring, fought for with each other.

Since leaving hospital, strangers, particularly shopkeepers, have asked what happened to me. “An accident,” I always reply. This is much too vague for them. Many think they can take a guess. “You were bitten by a dog, weren’t you?” I always say yes. I say yes to every hypothesis they come up with. Saying yes reassures them. But I’ve come to prefer the dog-bite theorists to all the others. All the more because there’s something plausible about it. Devouring dogs indeed.

Nobody yet has guessed right. 

This is an edited extract from Le Lambeau by Philippe Lançon (Gallimard), just published in France; extract translated by Robert McLiam Wilson


Philippe Lançon

The GuardianTramp

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