Mohamed Isam in ESPNcricinfo, 15 March 2009, where the title is “There’s shooting here, please save us’,”
My day began looking for injury updates on Kane Willliamson, BJ Watling, Tamim Iqbal and Mushfiqur Rahim. There was a Test due to start tomorrow and my mind was focused on who was going to play and who’d be missing out. Eight hours later, I would be at a friend’s house in Christchurch, trying to make sense of the worst terrorist attack in New Zealand’s history. Cricket is farthest from my mind; my thoughts were of home and family, of the players who were metres away from the carnage, and above all of the people who lost their lives while in a house of prayer.
It’s late night now in Christchurch and as I sit and write this, try and put down what happened, the brain is still scrambled. I’m calm, occasionally laughing, but that’s just the nerves showing. It was just a few minutes but it might change my life.
1.00pm: The Bangladesh team arrives at the Hagley Oval for a training session and, though there’s rain about, they plan to first go to a nearby mosque for Friday prayers and then return for the session. There was a plan to train at the indoor facilities at Lincoln University but then it was decided that the team would not travel that far.
1.27pm: Bangladesh captain Mahmudullah completes the pre-match press conference at the Hagley Oval. He is in a rush as the rest of the players are ready to go to the mosque, but he still speaks for nine minutes.
1.35pm: I am at the parking lot as the Bangladesh players board the bus. Seventeen members of the touring party, including manager Khaled Mashud, team analyst Shrinivas Chandrasekaran and masseur Md Sohel, are accompanying the players.
1.52pm: I get a call from Tamim Iqbal, one of the senior-most cricketers in the team, as I’m leaving the Hagley Oval. He’s calling me for help. “There’s shooting here, please save us.” I first think that he is playing a prank but he hangs up and calls again – this time, his voice starts to crack. He says that I should call the police as there’s a shooting going on inside the mosque where they are about to enter.
1.53 pm: My first instinct is to start running towards the mosque. I don’t even stop to think; you can call me an idiot for running towards an active terrorism scene but I knew I just had to go. Partly as a journalist, mainly as a human being.
I start running towards the main road, when a lady, also heading out in her car, asks if I need a ride. I tell her what Tamim has told me, and she tells me to hop in. My fellow Bangladeshi journalists Mazhar Uddin and Utpal Shuvro also come along.
1.56pm: We see the entry to Deans Avenue, where the mosque is located, blocked off by a police car, so we get off in front of the Parkview Hotel on the corner of Deans and Riccarton avenues. I start running towards the mosque when I spot the Bangladesh team bus. There are a few police cars around, and a couple of ambulances. Some people are standing around, wondering what had happened near that intersection.
But when I look to my right, towards the entrance of a motel, it becomes clear: There’s a body on the ground, being attended to by paramedics. There’s blood everywhere.
2.00pm: I see one man running towards me, crying, and holding his arm. There’s definitely blood on his shirt. People nearby are helping another man to escape, shouting instructions at him. I keep walking fast towards the bus when I see a line of Bangladesh players running away from the bus. I cross the road, and as I get close, Ebadot Hossain grabs me by the arm and tells me to run with them. At this point I still have no idea what actually has happened; I don’t even know if the team was the target of the attack.
2.02pm: The players are now on the side of Hagley Park, and someone asks for directions. The ground is to their right, about a 15-minute walk. The players enter the park and start to run, when someone tells them they should walk quickly. Not run.
2.04pm: I am walking with Tamim and then I see the players spreading out, too wide apart. I ask Sohel to get them all together. It is impossible but some of them slow down to walk together.
It’s no more than a kilometer away but it is the longest few minutes of my life. The players are talking about what they’ve seen – the blood, the bodies. One senior player holds on to me and breaks down. There is very little I can say to him.
2.08pm: We reach the Hagley Oval and just run inside. Everyone is taken inside the players’ dressing room where they get to sit finally. They are visibly shaken.
2.10pm: We are taken to the Hadlee Pavilion where the rest of the ground staff, NZC staff, etc are being asked to wait.
2.45pm: The team, after consultation with the two cricket boards, decides to head to their hotel on Cathedral Street. They are escorted there immediately. The journalists stay behind.
3.30pm: While holed up at the Hagley Oval, we keep seeing police cars and ambulances rushing towards the same place I had gone to earlier, near the mosque.
5.00pm: The tour is called off by New Zealand Cricket, after consultation with the Bangladesh Cricket Board and the ICC.
6.30pm: We are finally allowed to leave the ground, and we head to the team hotel.
7pm: Crossing a really quiet Christchurch city centre, we arrive at the hotel in three cars. Manager Khaled Mashud has to take us to their team room where he gives a detailed statement about what had happened, and what the team plans to do next.
7.25pm: We head to his room, where we charge our phones. Tamim Iqbal joins us. He is visibly shaken still, and I apologise for not believing him. He gives me a pat on the back, and smiles.
8pm: The manager Mashud treats us to dinner, after which we head out to our own hotels. Christchurch, at the start of St Patrick’s Day weekend, is absolutely quiet. It was supposed to be a roaring Friday night. It is likely that the city will never be the same again.
10 pm: I’m at a friend’s house for dinner. There’s no appetite, little conversation. The minutes are marked by phone calls updating us with grim news: Another acquaintance gone, the death toll keeps rising
The seventeen Bangladesh cricketers had been planning to perform their Friday prayers and then return to training at the Hagley Oval when all hell broke loose. The wild swing from their calm surroundings at Hagley Park to a near-death experience was too much to take for all the players.
Some cried, and were inconsolable. One player said that he saw a dead body lying on the street.
“He was just in front of me. How can people be this cruel?” he said.
In the 20 minutes it took for them to walk, as briskly but calmly as possible, from the location of the mosque to the Hagley Oval, many of them had tears in their eyes. You couldn’t tell them to be calm. It was unfair on them.
Hours afterwards, back at the team hotel in central Christchurch, everyone was still shaken to their core. The TV was constantly showing live coverage of the attack, and with the death toll rising and new details emerging, the Bangladesh team room and the surrounding areas, normally bustling with activities, became sombre.
Tamim Iqbal, the player who had phoned this reporter when it first became apparent what was unfolding, tried to lighten the mood. “What were you telling me on the phone?” he said. “I was telling you from a bus, while being near such an attack, and you thought I was pranking you? Come on!”
Soumya Sarkar tried to pull the leg of his manager, Khaled Mashud, by asking him what he had been thinking while sitting in the front of the bus. Mashud, always ready with his wit, had said that he was trying to decide whether he should video it, or see it with his own eyes.
But the jokes died quickly. The topic changed back to what had happened earlier in the day, and how incredibly close they had come to the shooter in the mosque. The players ate in silence mostly, none of them really talking a lot.
Md Sohel, the team masseuse, had been sitting on the right side of the bus, and saw almost everything unfold in those 20 minutes, including the sight of two passers-by trying to stop the bus from proceeding any further.
“When the first lady stopped us, we all thought she didn’t know what she was doing. When the second lady stopped us, we knew something had happened because apparently her car was shot at. That’s when we were panicking,” he said.
Mashud, the manager, recalled how he had been sitting in the front of the bus, trying to make sense of what was going on. A usually bubbly character, he looked at his grimmest when he was heading back to Hagley Oval. Later though, he was back to joking around, making sure the mood wasn’t too bad around the team.
By late evening, with confirmation that the tour had been cancelled in the wake of the attack, the focus had shifted to the team’s flight back home, and the players were anxious to know about it.
There were calls from all over the world on Tamim’s phone. He was talking to his son and wife, but after that, he also didn’t want to go to his room alone, so he was planning to be with Mahmudullah for a while. It wasn’t a night to be alone.