The world was waiting with bated breath for all kinds of catastrophes to befall humanity as the decade of the 90s, the century of the 1900s, and the millennium drew to a close. But there was a different kind of disaster in store in Kathmandu.
It was on Christmas Eve of 24 December 1999, and an Airbus300 of Indian Airlines had just taken off from Kathmandu for New Delhi.
Twenty minutes into the flight five gunmen stormed the cockpit and forced the plane to divert first to Amritsar. It was refused landing in Lahore by turning off runway lights, then to Dubai, and on to Kandahar in Afghanistan. The gunmen demanded the release of fellow-militants, including Maulana Masood Azhar, in an Indian jail.
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Among the 171 passengers was Sanjay Dhital, who had just got married to Rosina, and worked with Afghan refugees for AMDA (Association of Medical Doctor of Asia) based in Peshawar in Pakistan and ran clinics in Afghanistan. The couple spent eight harrowing days inside the plane, not knowing whether they would get out of the ordeal alive.
“The worst part of life is the long wait to die,” Dhital recalls, 20 years later in his Bhaisepati home where he lives with his parents, wife and two children. “But time heals, and many of the details get blurred with the passage of the years.”
However, he does remember a few things he had not revealed during his first interview with Nepali Times on the first anniversary of the hijacking in 2000. He had come to Nepal on a month’s leave to get married, and the newly married couple were going to fly out on Pakistan International Airlines. But due to the new year rush they did not get ticket, so the travel agent routed them to Peshawar via Delhi and Lahore.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYEY9xjzcxo&feature=youtu.be
“There were many other Indian honeymooners on the flight,” Dhital remembers, “The flight attendants had just started serving food when someone shouted ‘head down, don’t move’. There was commotion on the plane.”
There were masked men with knives and pistols threatening passengers in English and Hindi. The pilot then announced that the plane was being hijacked. Night fell, and the passengers felt the plane circling, landing and taking off, they did not know they were already in Kandahar.
The hijackers announced that they were Kashmiris, and if the Indian government did not release their friends, they would kill all the passengers one by one. But passengers were relieved to hear that a UN team was flying in from Islamabad to negotiate.
“One of the passengers was a large man named Gajendra Tamrakar, and the hijackers would make him imitate Bollywood hero Amjad Khan, and make us all laugh, and we would for a moment forget our own predicament,” Dhital remembers.
The negotiations failed, and the hijackers asked all passengers to raise their hands for their last meal because they were all going to be killed. No one raised their hand, Dhital recalls, only Tamrakar did, and he ate an entire chicken. A Japanese passenger was so stressed she kept smoking and taking pictures, and the hijackers confiscated all cameras.
Dhital went to the business class area to deposit his camera, when the hijackers found Pakistani money in his bag. They asked him if he was Pakistani, and when they found out he had an Afghan visa, he was taken to the head hijacker in the cockpit. Dhital’s wife was convinced he was being led off to be executed, and started crying. But all the hijacker wanted to do was to talk to him, and thank him for his service in Pakistan. He told his comrades to treat the Nepali passenger well.
“Human beings can go without food, but they cannot do without water. We were always thirsty in the plane. Fellow passengers would ask me what I would do once I was released, and I remember thinking I will drink an entire bottle of water,” Dhital says.
The five hijackers all had code names: Manager, Shankar, Bhola, Burger and Doctor. Of the lot, Doctor seemed the nicest, but his job was to lecture to us about the inevitability of death, and to be prepared for it.
On the seventh day, there was panic. The hijackers went through the cabin and said the talks had failed and the Indian government did not want to save the lives of their nationals on board. “We will now start executing you one by one, no one should cry, just take Allah’s name,” he said.
Two of the hijackers appeared with AK-47s. Dhital wondered whether they would start killing the passengers from the front or back, and when their turn would come because they were in the middle. The newly-wed couple hugged each other and wept, waiting for certain death. The hijackers stabbed an Indian passenger with a knife.
But soon, it was announced that the talks had been successful, and the passengers were to be released. The hijackers asked for forgiveness. They also asked for a memento and passengers raised Rs71,000 for a model of an Airbus300, and Dhital was asked to donate the rest to the hospital in Kandahar.
The couple returned to Kathmandu with the other Nepali passengers to a tumultuous welcome. After two weeks the couple flew on PIA to Peshawar, and Dhital had a model of an Airbus made in Lahore and gave it to his staff to pass it on to the Taliban, and he gave the Rs23,000 to the Peshawar Hospital.
“I am often asked what did it feellike. I cannot put it in words, you have to live it yourself to know,” says Dhital, who is now 52 and his wife is 41. “I was convinced we were not going to make it out alive. But the experience made me less selfish, less ambitious. After that I decided to return to Nepal and work here.”