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The eight who hid in an airport toilet and survived

Updated June 13, 2014
Fire illuminates the sky above Karachi airport terminal where security forces are fighting with attackers. - Photo by AP
Fire illuminates the sky above Karachi airport terminal where security forces are fighting with attackers. - Photo by AP

KARACHI: Ali Raza, 26, would have dashed towards the cold-storage facility, where at least seven people were later found burnt to death, when militants attacked Karachi airport on Sunday night. But instead he and his seven colleagues chose to run towards a toilet at the back of their office. Though the odds were heavily against them, the eight workers survived.

Having done with his shift at the Pak Aviation Cargo, Ali Raza was on his way home when he met a friend outside his office. As they were chatting, Raza heard gunshots from a distance. “It started slowly but gradually seemed like whoever it was, was getting nearer us. I’ve been working there for two years now and believed that the airport was the last place where a terror attack could take place,” he said. His office, situated next to the cold-storage facility, was partially blocked by a large shipment of mobile phones, chemicals, spare parts of motor vehicles, etc that had landed that night, while it completely blocked the cold room, he said.

“As I and my colleagues ran towards the toilet, we could hear rockets being fired, while I saw two militants taking position on our office’s rooftop,” he said while speaking to Dawn by telephone. Scared of being surrounded by militants, all the eight of them got inside a dingy toilet, “with just enough space to fit four people”.

From 11pm till 4:30am, they were listening intently to the gun battle outside from inside the dark toilet room. “The first thing we did was to switch off our mobile phones. We were waiting for a chance to get out, but the shooting just wouldn’t stop. And so incessant was it that some of us couldn’t help but cry. We felt so helpless.”

The toilet is located in the middle with the Isphahani Hangar (aircraft maintenance area) on its left, a canteen right opposite it, and the ‘Paan’ Gate (Paan is mostly brought in through it) on its right.

‘We were waiting for a chance to get out, but the shooting just wouldn’t stop’

It has the least security, just two guards to protect it at a time. That is where the militants entered from.

“It was just a matter of timing, if I had left five minutes early, I would have bumped into them on the same gate while they were making their way inside,” he says.

The men could hear militants taking the canteen owner hostage. “We heard them bickering, someone yelping after being hit, and then complete silence. There’s an old man who everyone says is the oldest serving security guard near the Paan Gate. He fought the militants. He managed to scare some of them away.”

As the men listened to the development outside, which got intense by the minute, they got more confused. “I heard a man asking another, ‘Haan kitnay maar girayay?’ (So how many did you kill?) And couldn’t make out whether it was someone from the law-enforcers or a militant. Or whether I should or shouldn’t call for help.”

By 12:30am, the Rangers and police were inside the airport and were fighting the militants. “I thought of calling out to someone. The stench in the toilet was getting on my nerves. We managed to sit on the floor and honestly the only thought in my mind was that we’ll die.” But the only thought that kept him going was to be identified by his family in case he was harmed. “Even as the militants were firing and lobbing hand-grenades, or whatever it was, they had with them, I thought of protecting at least my face in case the roof fell. I wanted my family to identify me in the mortuary.”

By 1am, the Special Services Group entered and Raza and others could hear more firing and shouts of ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ (God is Great). As the place grew silent for a few minutes again, Raza says he heard a man pleading for his life. From whom he didn’t know. “He just kept on begging. There was silence on the other end and then we heard six rounds of fire. And probably the man fell with a thump. And I thought if the militants found us, I won’t beg for my life. I’ll let them shoot me,” he says quietly.

By then Raza and his colleagues had been crammed in that toilet for two hours now. “I thought of calling out to someone again, but the ones who had planned to attack the airport and those who were protecting us were calling out to God while shooting down one another. It was difficult to trust any voice coming from outside.”

As the battle continued outside, Raza and others lay on the toilet floor as they thought the roof would come down any minute. After two more hours passed, there was a loud explosion. “Cement from the toilet’s ceiling fell on our faces while a pungent smell made its way inside the toilet. I later got to know that it was Gerry D’Nata’s office where a suicide bomber had killed himself. Half an hour later, I heard fire brigade sirens, followed by a loud knock on the toilet door,” says Raza.

By 3:45am, Rangers and police personnel had found out from other survivors that some of their colleagues were hiding in the toilet. He heard one of his friends calling out to him as well. “I thought it was a militant. One of our colleagues said that they might have one of our friends as hostage and were trying to trick us into getting out so that they could shoot all of us,” he says.

But a firm voice of a Rangers’ personnel ordered them to come out, with their arms and shirts raised. The officers outside also wanted to be sure that the ones hiding inside the toilet were not suicide bombers.

Raza and his colleagues came out one by one with their arms raised, and shirts on their faces. “We were then taken towards the runway and told to sit down. We sat there for two hours. I wanted to call up my family but we were told to keep our phones switched off for a while,” he says.

The security forces received information then that some people were hiding inside a small cooler room near the Gerry D’Nata’s office. “One of our colleagues was asked to call them up and tell them to come outside as the entire structure on that side was up in flames,” says Raza. It took an hour to persuade the men hiding inside the cooler room to come out.

Finally by 5:45am, Raza and his colleagues were allowed to call up their families and leave. Most of them cried from relief, Raza recalls. As Raza contacted his family, he learnt that his father had gone to the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre’s mortuary to collect his body. “I called him up and informed him that I’m alive and coming home,” he adds.

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2014