That August afternoon 10 years ago could have brought Sheikh Hasina’s life to an end.
Many of those, who witnessed the grisly grenade attack, say it was because of the instant “human shield” put up around her right after the first wave of blasts that actually made sure that she escaped the mayhem mostly unharmed.
They also question the role of police, who were “mysteriously” absent from the area when the grenades went off; but they arrived in the area later and charged batons and hurled teargas canisters in the middle of the chaos.
Witnesses said around 5:20pm on Saturday, August 21, 2004, nine grenades were blasted in a matter of two minutes on an Awami League rally organised in front of the party office on Bangabandhu Avenue in the capital.
The then opposition leader in parliament Sheikh Hasina was addressing the rally from a makeshift stage built on a truck. The BNP-led administration at that time did not allow the Awami League to put up a fixed stage.
Journalists from the print media were sitting on the staircase of the Awami League office while those from the electronic media were standing on the ground in front of the truck, holding up their microphones and cameras.
Photojournalist SM Gorky, now the chief photographer of daily Jugantor, witnessed the grisly attack and was badly hit in the blast. He still has more than 50 splinters in his body and feels pain in a knee sometimes.
“She [Hasina] just concluded her speech, saying ‘Joy Bangla, Joy Bangabandhu,’ and all hell broke loose. Suddenly, something hit the truck and fell on the ground. Within a second or maybe less, there was a loud bang and the entire area was covered in a blanket of dense smoke. Before I could see anything, I heard hundreds of people screaming in agony and pain. Soon, there were many more blasts. I actually lost count. When the smoke cleared a bit, I saw hundreds of people lying on the ground in the middle of a pool of blood,” Gorky said.
“Sheikh Hasina was standing in the centre of the stage with Zillur Rahman and Abdul Jalil on her left. [Former Dhaka] mayor [Mohammad] Hanif and [Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury] Maya were on her right. Sheikh Hasina’s security staff Mamun, Mahbub and Maj (retd) Shoeb were also there.
“Within a second after the first bombs exploded, mayor Hanif first surrounded her. Soon, others joined in to form a human shield around her. They maintained the circle around Sheikh Hasina and took her to her car standing some 5-10 yards from the truck. On their way, Mahbub got shot and died on spot. But Sheikh Hasina safely got on the car and it left the area,” Gorky said.
Witnesses said senior leaders Hanif, Maya, and Sheikh Salim and Hasina’s security staff Mamun, Mahbub and Maj (retd) Shoeb, who formed the shield, literally took splinter shots in their bodies to keep their leader safe.
Bayezid Milky, then a reporter of private satellite television channel NTV and now the chief news editor of another private broadcaster Ekattor TV, was covering the event. He, along with his videographer Tareq, had gone up on to the first floor of the adjacent Ramna Bhaban for a better view of the rally.
Milky said: “When the first grenades went off, Sheikh Hasina had just finished her speech and we had already stopped recording the event and been preparing to come down. By the time we opened our camera again, three grenades had already been exploded.”
He continued: “The first thing we did was trying to find out where the grenades were coming from. We found out that some were coming from the Bata building opposite where we were. But, we could not wait to shoot any more because the situation on the ground was indescribable and horrifying. Soaked in blood, hundreds of people were lying on the ground and crying out in agony. So, we decided to come down.
“As we came down, we met – or should I say found – Ashraful Alam Khokan. He was badly hurt. He asked for help and I, along with some other people, sent him to Dhaka Medical College Hospital on a rickshaw van.”
Khokan, now the prime minister’s deputy press secretary, was a reporter of private broadcaster Channel i then.
Khokan said: “I was standing in front of the truck. When the first grenades went off, I fell on the ground. Then I crawled under the truck and saw an unexploded grenade there. I could have died if that had exploded. At that point, police started hurling teargas canisters.
“I do not remember who took me to DMCH. I still have at least 100 splinters in my body. Doctors could operate only 14 out. I cannot sit still in one position for too long. I have difficulties in running as well.”
Bayezid Milky said: “When we were taking some footage of the situation on the ground, police started charging batons indiscriminately and hurling teargas canisters. I then started running for safety. I ran through the Osmani Park and came in front of the Secretariat...A little later I saw Sheikh Hasina’s car speeding away.
“We later heard from other sources that some gunshots were fired at Sheikh Hasina’s car near the Zero Point area. But because her car was bulletproof, no harm was done.”
None of the witnesses have reported seeing any law enforcer at the rally venue for ensuring the then opposition leader’s safety. They came only after the attack, in which nine grenades were exploded in three phases.
They have alleged that the policemen did not help any of the victims. Most of the police members kept standing near the Bangabandhu National Stadium on one side of the rally venue and the Pir Yameni Market on the other side even after the blasts.
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