Before They Were Monsters, They Were Children

France’s press has little explored the hard growing-up of the Kouachi brothers, apart from vague references to being orphaned. Here, an account by a former neighbor in the Paris ghetto where they lived their early lives, from Reporterre:

She had dreamed of the day she would get it, that place in a public housing project. A four-bedroom apartment at 156 Aubervilliers Street, in Paris, where she moved in with her kids, her husband, and her furniture. Evelyne had an accounting degree, and every morning she went to work, right in the heart of the 19th Arrondissement, not far from home. At the time, in the 1980s, the concept of mixed-income housing was an obscure new theory.

“We, the poor, lived here by ourselves,” she says. “And really, most people would just spend a few years here before they moved on. The neighborhood was really awful. So we, the tenants of number 156, decided to stick around and change things ourselves. We wanted to save our neighborhood.”

Evelyne started several neighborhood organizations. One of them, called “Young Tenants,” which she created in the 1990s took children for field trips outside the ghetto. She succeeded in obtaining a bit of public funding for Young Tenants. It was one of the rare local organizations that lasted for more than a decade; she would take the children by the hand, and bring them for little trips outside of the neighborhood. Sometimes they would just go have a snack in a public park, or take a walk in one of Paris’s wealthy neighborhoods; once she even took a group to EuroDisney.

On that trip, a few of the other parents warned her that one of the kids she was bringing was a bit of a rascal, verging on a troublemaker. His name was Cherif. He always wandered around with his older brother Said, who was more reserved; it was as if the little brother were the elder. Said was weepy most of the time, and mostly followed his younger brother around. Evelyne decided to keep a close eye on Cherif during the outing.

“I loved that kid,” she says. “All he needed was a cuddle, a hug, and he would immediately calm down. It was touching for me, really, the way he and all the other kids would gasp with admiration at Mickey Mouse and his friends.”

A kid like any other, then, swept up by the magic of Disney, and who just needed some adult attention to calm down. “We took them to the movies too,” she says. “Cherif loved that so much.”

Their mother didn’t have enough money to pay for lunches at the school cafeteria. She wasn’t the type to ask for help, though. Evelyne, who helped any and all with their immigration paperwork, never saw her at the office. As for the father, no one knew anything about him; it was even possible that the boys had different fathers. The family had always lived in the neighborhood, since the boys were born in 1980 and 1982. When Evelyne got to know Cherif and Said, two of the five siblings had already been taken away and placed in foster care by social services.

A few months after the trip to Eurodisney, Cherif came home from school at lunchtime as usual to find his mother dead in the apartment. Dead of what? Probably an overdose of pills. More than likely it was suicide, the neighborhood concluded.

In truth, everybody in the neighborhood had known what this single mother did to scrape up a living. People talked about it. She had been unable to take care of her five children and so she had ended up prostituting herself to make ends meet. According to the woman who guarded the building, the only person she’d been close enough with to really talk to, the mother had died pregnant with a sixth child.

So the boys were orphaned, Said at 12 and Cherif at 10. They left number 156 to spend the rest of their adolescent years at a foster center belonging to the Claude Pompidou Foundation in Corezze, in the country’s southwest.

Evelyne recognized Cherif on TV on Wednesday, January 7th. “I called my son-in-law who also grew up in the neighborhood,” she says. “He confirmed that it was Cherif. I cried. I felt responsible. I should have helped the mother. We should never have taken the kids to Eurodisney. We should have used that money to help the mother. Cherif was barely ten years old. The truth is that because we never really opened our eyes, we killed the mother, and couldn’t save the children.”

Sitting in front of her TV, Evelyne is inconsolable. “Cherif was just a kid like any other,” she says. “He just didn’t get any love. In religious fanaticism, he found the family he never had. They brainwashed him. It is so easy to lash the blame on kids who were so fragile and so isolated. Nobody was there to bring him onto the right path.”

Evelyne holds the city’s policymakers responsible for what the boys became. “All they wanted to do was coop us up, all the poor people, together. Nobody was going to bring any improvements to the neighborhood. Social workers resigned, one after the other. The amount of work around here was too much for them, so they kept asking to be transferred elsewhere. Every month, we’d have a new one show up and take over all of our files, that’s why there was never any progress.”

She also talks about how the children were left to basically fend for themselves. “It wasn’t unusual for children aged only 5 or 6 to hang out outside the building until past midnight. Cherif looked like he had been abandoned by his parents. I remember one day when we were preparing a snack for the kids. We didn’t have our own space, so we served the snacks in the basements of the buildings. I had to go get some cups, so I left the basement and went outside. And there I found Cherif with the guard, who had made the skinny little boy get down on his knees to apologize for some stupid thing he’d done. Since Cherif didn’t have a father, he became kind of a scapegoat for everyone. I don’t want you to think I am defending what he ended up doing, but what I am trying to say is: if he had had a happy childhood, do you think he would have turned into a terrorist?”

Evelyne finally brings up the story of another boy who ended up in the juvenile justice system, a story that sheds further light on the dire helplessness in which the children there lived. This boy was frequently beaten by his mother, and Evelyne sometimes resorted to bringing him to spend the night at her place. Once, he ran away from home and spent the first nights sleeping on the roof of the building. Evelyne found him there and brought him to her apartment where he spent the night in her son’s bed. In the morning, she drove him to the police station, where he was already known; he’d been there four times, the last time with a third degree burn from a hot iron. Evelyne, furious, asked the policeman “How many times do I need to bring him back here before you’ll take custody away from his mother?”

But the policeman insisted that he would need to know what the boy had been doing during his eight days on the run. The boy started talking, about a certain adult man, and that was when the policemen understood everything. Today, Evelyne says that the kids there were so neglected that number 156 ended up becoming an infamous pedophile hangout. They would come in the evenings when the kids were by themselves out in the parking lot. The parents did not look for them…”

[…]

Retired now, Evelyne has moved out of the neighborhood, settling in another part of the country. “I should not say something like this, you are going to think I am insane,” she says, “but those boys, somehow I feel bad for them…”

Eloïse Lebourg Translated from French by International Boulevard