Protesters had gathered in the northern suburb near Aulnay-sous-Bois to voice their anger after a man, identified publicly only as Theo, was allegedly sexually assaulted with a baton by a police after an ID check in Aulnay-sous-Bois on February 2.
Emmanuel Toula insists he is no hero. The 16-year-old was protesting for the first time when he spotted a small car being surrounded by young people who had started a fire in a garbage can nearby.
A terrified woman jumped out of the car, taking her young son with her.
“At that moment, I approached the car and I saw a little girl,” Toula said. “She was terrorised. I was afraid because I imagined the car could explode at any moment. I have four little brothers and two little sisters and I thought I could not leave a little girl like that.”
No one seemed to take any notice of the child as the rioters started rocking the car and put the burning garbage next to it, so Toula decided to “take my courage in both hands.”
With the fire creeping up the hood, he approached the car and opened the door. The little girl looked shocked but was not crying. “I tried to remove her belt, my hands and arms still trembling,” Toula said. “Then I took her in my arms and I tried to run.”
That wasn’t the end of it, however, as according to Toula, police started firing tear gas canisters in their direction.
“I started to pick up speed and I felt the tear gas. Deafening grenades fell two meters from us.”
Toula looked for the girl’s mother and watched as the car burned up and exploded. He left the child with a policeman and continued to search for the mother. He never found her, and lost both the policeman and the girl.
Paris police later appeared to claim in a report that they “had to intervene” to help a girl from a burning car, but Toula and three witnesses, including one policeman, confirmed it was the teenager who rescued the child, the Bondy Blog reports.
“It was a young black man who came to help a child who was still in the car while the trash was burning beside it,” a police officer confirmed. “Once the occupants evacuated, the car was turned over by rioters and ended up charred by the flames.”
Police then clarified that the phrase may have been a miscommunication at the time of the report’s publication, saying that at no time had they wished to misrepresent the role of Toula in the drama. A police tweet then saluted Toula’s courage.
— Préfecture de police (@prefpolice) February 12, 2017
The protests, which been flaring up in several suburban Paris communes since February 2, had initially been peaceful but later, several vehicles were set alight and shop windows were smashed as police and protesters clashed. Police fired tear gas at protesters.
“I identified myself with Theo because I thought that what happened to him could have happened to me,” Toula said, explaining his reason for joining the protests. “For me, it was a civic duty to be there, I had to bring my stone to the building.”
One officer has been charged with rape while three others have received aggravated assault charges for the February 2 attack on Theo, who was being treated in hospital for his injuries, which included anal tearing.