A man who escaped with his life from the restaurant was himself a kitchen staff. He was working when he heard gunshots. He ran off from the kitchen and was hiding on the second floor of the restaurant before he managed to escape. Inside, there were 50 to 60 restaurant staffs and another 25 to 30 customers dining, he said. That’s a lot of people held hostage but there was no way to verify except sources like him who were direct witnesses.
I walk a little further and find an anxious guardian who has a nephew-in-law among the hostages. The nephew went there with his girlfriend. His girlfriend had communicated with her father saying they were safe inside the restaurant but advised him not to call them. Since then they have been incommunicado.
The uncle tells me that he is also a friend of the owner of the restaurant and that they also have a clinic adjacent to the restaurant in the same premise. He is a resident in the neighbourhood and visited the restaurant with his daughter often.
Given the current political situation in the country, the uncle said, he predicted something like this could happen to his wife in 2015. We talk a little more as he shared his political understanding of the country and afterwards I went back to observing the situation.
There are layers of security forces standing in formation approaching the Road 79 in Gulshan-2. The last tier of the formation is the Border Guard Bangladesh. Immediately before them stands the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), then the Rapid Action Battalion and on the front lines are the Police in uniform with bulletproof vests. They are armed and waiting for instructions. I am also told that Navy’s commando force Special Warfare Diving and Salvage has moved in as well.
As I walk into the site, still many steps away from the hostage line, a member of the police stops me saying that they are getting ready for operation. The number of hostages inside the Holey Artisan Bakery is still not clear.
It was past 3:00am at night of Ramadan’s last few days. I sat down on the pavement, updating my office with the feel on the ground and whatever I gathered. My phone’s battery is running low and, to add to that, it starts drizzling.
Coincidentally, I came across a former colleague during my trip to United Hospital who shared that he lived very close by. With my phone battery running low, night giving into drizzles, and only minutes left before the last meal or Sehri before fasting, I resorted to visiting his house.
That gave me a little longer life on phone as the Guardian kept sharing a lot of the insights from the ground before many others. It is one of the heaviest nights for Bangladesh with tension mounting as hours passed without an understanding of how to end the hostage crisis.
No negotiation tactics from the police had worked throughout the night. Terrorists posted pictures on the social media of some of the hostages they killed using phones and accounts of other hostages. They were bloody and brutal, sights that would numb people’s senses and haunt them for the next few days. Those with the closest proximity would feel the shocks more. For Bangladeshis, an attack of such scale and brutality is the first time.
Night had slipped into morning and army was called into the site. The armoured personnel vehicles of the army are being rolled into the diplomatic Gulshan alley. It is about 6 o’clock in the morning and not many options were left after negotiations failed.
What followed was a 13-minute ‘Operation Thunderbolt’ beginning at 7:40 in the morning in which the commando forces of Bangladesh army heavily stormed into the bakery that had been a place for calm and relaxed conversation for two years since it was opened in the Dhaka diplomatic zone in June 2014. At least 22 people were killed including 17 foreigners in the deadly hostage situation.
Islamic State had released pictures of five of its members who were killed in that operation that had scarred lives of families and brought the Bangladeshi society into a dreaded reality.