The brutal grenade attack of August 21, 2004 -- which targeted an Awami League rally -- shook Bangladesh to its core. The then opposition leader, incumbent Prime Minister and party chief Sheikh Hasina narrowly survived, but 24 people lost their lives.
Official photographer for Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) Raton Alfred Gomes, who was then serving as a contractual photographer for The Daily Ittefaq at the ill-fated venue, recounts his harrowing experience in an exclusive interview with The Business Standard.
How was the venue when you arrived?
I arrived at the Bangabandhu Avenue -- the designated venue for the Awami League rally -- in the afternoon of August 21 with my camera to cover the event. The truck used as a makeshift podium for the rally was not there yet.
After the truck arrived and the podium was built on it, I took up position as the VIPs, guests and people started pouring in. It was just another day at work.
Ivy Rahman, former president of Bangladesh Mahila Awami League - women wing of the ruling party - arrived with her husband senior AL leader Zillur Rahman. As she got out of the car, I snapped a photo of Ivy, telling her that apa (sister) you look very photogenic today.
Little did I knew that the photo would go on to capture one of her life’s defining moments. In the meantime, Zillur was taken to the podium by his peers. Ivy apa stood with other party leaders in front of the truck.
One by one Awami League heavyweights such as Abdus Samad Azad, Razzak bhai, Mohammad Hanif, Obaidul Quader, Suranjit Sengupta, Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim and Abdul Jalil arrived at the venue and the rally started. The podium built on the truck was filled to the brim.
The crowd went ecstatic as Sheikh Hasina began delivering her speech.
How did the events unfolded?
A grenade exploded just in front of the makeshift podium as soon as Sheikh Hasina ended her speech saying “Joy Bangla, Joy Bangabandhu.”
In the next few minutes, grenades rained down on the rally. Thick smoke covered the stage and the surrounding area. In the corner of my eye, I saw several party leaders and security personnel creating a human shield surrounding Sheikh Hasina on the truck, as the grenades exploded around us.
Shocked and surprised, I nearly went deaf because of the roaring explosions. I also heard multiple gunshots on the rally premises.
Within the next minute, Sheikh Hasina was taken to her bulletproof sports utility vehicle (SUV) by her security personnel and promptly driven off the scene of the massacre. One of her bodyguards died while protecting her.
I was hit by more than ten splinters from multiple grenades. They embedded into my skin as I scurried away from the truck fearing for life.
Ivy Rahman was lying down in front of the podium and a young man was on his knees beside her, crying. I had lost track of Zillur Rahman amid the thick smoke.
A bit further from the venue, I found the blood-soaked body of Ada Chacha near a Bata shoe store. He was a beloved Awami League supporter who gave away ginger-flavored snacks to supporters at party programmes.
I continued to take photos as I ran for safety amid the chaos.
Can you tell us about the aftermath of the attack?
As I tried to get away from the scene of the attack, I found former ward commissioner Asma Jerin Jhumu on the streets with serious injuries. Heavily injured former ward commissioner Syeda Tareq Dipti was also nearby.
Awami League leader Nasrin Akter had received grievous injuries on her leg and was lying down. All three of them survived the attack that day.
Inside the party office, I found blood-soaked Obaidul Quader lying on a table with serious injuries. He was in shock and multiple splinters were embedded to his skin.
Senior party leaders, including Saber Hossain Chowdhury, and a few others left with Obaidul Quader for a hospital.
Photographer Sohan, who was with the Ittefaq at that time, took away Suranjit Sengupta for treatment. Meanwhile, Sheikh Selim too was taken by photographer Sanaul on a motorbike to hospital.
I saw many bodies littering the streets. I met with the then Ittefaq chief photographer Nantu and personally delivered two roles of films containing the photographs of the grisly incident.
My colleague Alom and I headed towards the emergency department of Holy Family Hospital for treatment. We wanted to get admitted, but the nurse who was the wife of an acquaintance, advised us to go home amid safety concerns.
She had heard rumours that survivors of the grenade attack were being tracked down by a certain quarter.
Later, I had learned that a total of 24 people died in the attack and more than 300 got injured that day.
This harrowing experience will forever be etched into my mind.