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Holey survivor Tahmid describes night of horror

  • Published at 10:02 pm February 9th, 2019
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Tahmid Hasib Khan was among the 13 hostages recovered from the upscale cafe in the morning after the Holey Artisan Bakery terrorist attack File Photo

A survivor’s account of the terrorist attack that shook the nation

Tahmid Hasib Khan, 24-year-old survivor of the Holey Artisan Bakery terrorist attack in Dhaka, has described his ordeal as a hostage.

Tahmid took to the stage in a talk at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus on Saturday, speaking publicly for the first time.

He was among the 13 hostages recovered from the upscale cafe in the morning after the attack.

On July 1, 2016, gunmen stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery in the capital’s Gulshan area and opened fire and took around 40 people, including restaurant staff and guests -- both locals and foreigners – hostage.

They killed 22 people, including 17 foreigners, and held the rest hostage throughout the night.

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At the talk, Tahmid publicly refuted for the first time the rumour that he was a co-conspirator in the attack.

“There was an eerie feeling that night, like something was ominous, something bad was going to happen, but I didn’t fully realize what it was,” Khan said. “We heard noises in the background, but laughed it away, thinking it was fireworks.”

Soon afterwards, a group of armed men stormed into the restaurant, yelling chants “you would never want to hear,” Tahmid said.

“The next 20 minutes were massacre.”

By the end of the night, the terrorists had hacked or stabbed most of the hostages to death.

One of the attackers approached Tahmid and his friends, with a machine gun pointed at them, and asked if they were Muslims.

“The three of us pleaded for our lives, and said that we were,” he said. “Our lives were spared at that point, and he moved on.”

Several terrifying scenarios played out in his mind in those moments, Tahmid said.

“What’s the best escape route? Should I dart through the middle of the field? There’s a fence behind it but it has barbed wire on top of it. Maybe I can climb and escape,” he recalled.

“Maybe? Barely. But can my friends? Did I just escape death or is there more to come?”

He and his friends were ordered by one of the attackers to go inside, and join a group of five others sitting at a table with their heads down.

“Our survival was highly dependent on a group of individuals, a group of young men whose motives were unknown,” said Tahmid, who has been credited by some surviving hostages with saving their lives. Looking back, he described himself as a nuisance, who instead of quietly accepting his fate, “couldn’t stop pleading, reasoning or begging.”

“I had to do what I had to do.”

He recalled how at one point, the terrorists asked the restaurant staff to serve everyone food and water. Despite a lack of appetite, he ate, thinking it might be his last meal. The attackers also asked the waiters to bring large gas cylinders from the kitchen storage room, and place them at the entrances of the building, as a way of ensuring that police who were stationed outside would not fire their way in.

The exchange on the roof

Tahmid believes the turning point of the night came close to dawn.

The attackers called him and another hostage, then North South University teacher Hasnat Karim, to come up to the second floor. There, the attacker pulled out a gun, showed him that it was empty by pulling the trigger, and demanded that he take it. He initially refused.

“But how long can you refuse when there’s someone in front of you with a machine gun around their neck?” he said. He took the gun.

The attacker then demanded that Tahmid step out onto the roof with Hasnat, while holding the gun, and ordered them to check each corner.

“What I realize now is that we were basically assurance that the snipers around us wouldn’t shoot us,” he said.

Later, the attacker joined them, apparently assured that no one would fire. Photos of the three on the roof of the restaurant would later fuel speculations that Tahmnid was involved in the attack.

The terrorist who took them to the roof was later identified as Rohan Imtiaz, an English medium student from Dhaka.

“What can we do now?” he asked Tahmid.

If there was a chance to reason, this was it, Tahmid said. He asked the man what their mission was. It’s obvious, the attacker told him — to target foreigners who were bringing their culture into “our land.”

OK, Tahmid said, but were they ready for a hostage situation? Rohan responded, disappointedly, that they weren’t.

“You’re not going to kill us, neither are you planning to get out of here alive,” Khan recalled telling him. “The police won’t come in until you let us go… how about you let us go, and you get what you want?”

If not them, then at least the women and children, Hasnat added.

“But in my mind, I’m like, ‘I wanna live as well,’” Khan recalled thinking. He asked the attackers if he could go downstairs and tell his friends that they were free to go. No, the attacker responded, he’d told them no such thing.

Tahmid and Hasnat went back downstairs. Another hour passed before the terrorists took any action.

“We start hearing sounds. Zips and clicks,” said Khan. “The attackers come and ask us to stand up. We see that they’re geared up for war, but much more calm than they were last night.”

The attackers then gave the hostages their phones back and told them to go.

It was after this that army commandos moved in, ending the 10-hour standoff.

“Yes, we were photographed there for the world to scrutinize. But to me, that conversation was also the turning point of the night.”

“Has all of this changed the direction of progress in my life?” said Khan, echoing the many questions he’s received since the attack about how it has changed him.

“It was an experience which was supposed to leave a lasting scar, supposed to stop me from looking forward? Absolutely not. Life is about being resilient.”