The Dhaka attack happened in my uncle’s restaurant
I was with a friend five blocks from the restaurant and three people I knew were killed
Suhani was deciding where to have dinner one Friday night when she found out something was wrong at her uncle’s restaurant nearby.
The Berkeley sophomore and her friend Ali were in the Gulshan district of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Ali’s mother said the roads had been blocked off. Something was happening outside.
Soon the news got worse. There was a hostage situation at Suhani’s uncle’s restaurant, called the Holey Artisan Bakery. A friend’s home overlooked the restaurant and was feeding back information.
There were gunmen on the scene and no one was being allowed in or out. Then Suhani realized she and Ali had friends inside.
Ali’s close friend from high school Faraaz Hossain, Abinta Kabir and Suhani’s Berkeley classmate, Tarishi Jain were all in the restaurant while it was being raided by gunmen.
The next bit of concrete news they heard came from a picture – shared by the attackers on Twitter – showing Faraaz, Abinta and Tarishi’s blood-drenched bodies on the restaurant floor.
The attack in Dhaka killed 20 people after a 12 hour siege. It began at around 9:20pm when a group of armed men burst into the bakery and opened fire. According to eye witnesses, they ran in shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great), and tortured anyone who was unable to recite the Koran. The attack was particularly shocking as it took place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, leading Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina to say: “What kind of Muslims are these people? They don’t have any religion”.
The Holey Artisan Bakery was known for being a popular cafe. It was frequented by wealthy locals and tourists, and in all the bustle of lively Dhaka it was a place of serenity. Built onto the water, it was known for having Gulshan’s best food and service. IS’s Amaq news agency later released a statement saying the restaurant attacked by the militants was ‘frequented by foreigners’, with the selective targeting of victims cited by hostages who escaped.
Bangladesh’s Daily Star said they provided meals for only the Bangladeshi captives. It has been reported that Faraaz was offered safe passage from the restaurant, but stayed behind with his two friends dressed in Western clothing.
This is Suhani’s account of the night, as told to The Tab.
‘Everything was normal’
The day of the attack was a normal day in Bangladesh.
My cousin had come over to play soccer during the day. We had made plans to go to the Holey Artisan Bakery the next morning, owned by my Uncle. I had a calendar invite in my phone.
Later Friday evening, I went over to my friend Ali’s house around 9 o’clock. We hadn’t eaten dinner so we were planning on going out. I remember he went out to speak to his mom, who told him something was happening. She’d told him that the streets were blocked off and that it wasn’t safe to go out, but there was nothing on the news yet. None of us knew what was going on.
‘They’re holding people hostage’
Our friend’s home looks over Holey and she could see and hear everything that was happening. She was updating us on everything that was going down before the actual news picked it up. She said, “Apparently there are gunmen who have entered and they’re holding people hostage inside.”
We didn’t realize the scale of it. Ali tried to take me home then but we found all of the roads were blocked, you literally couldn’t get anywhere. We knew it wasn’t safe to be on the streets so we turned back to his house.
By that time it was finally on the news.
At around 10.30 Ali found out three of our friends were in the restaurant. One of them was Tarishi, my friend from Berkeley.
A fourth friend of Ali’s had been late to meet them told us that when he’d tried to get in, the bakery had already been shut down. He kept saying to the police, “Our friends are in there, I was supposed to meet them” but he couldn’t get in.
We didn’t hear anything from that point onwards.
‘We assumed they were alive’
Ali’s house was about 5 blocks from the restaurant. We might have even heard the shots when the police opened fire but the TV was turned up so we could hear the news.
We found out two police men had been killed early on. Until 5am, me and Ali’s family were glued to the television trying to work out what was going on inside.
At around 1am we knew the gunmen had started to demand things. In a ‘typical’ hostage crisis you assume the hostages are released safely if the demands are met. I think that’s why the police didn’t storm the place sooner.
I’m optimistic. I thought it was going to be okay in the end if they agreed to what the gunmen were asking. We were obviously freaking out about our friends – we knew they were inside – but in our heads we had assumed they were still alive.
One of the last things I remember before drifting off to sleep in front of the TV was a text from a friend in America saying, ‘What if they die, Su?’
That’s when I realized it was possible.
‘I couldn’t stop looking at the photo’
I woke up the next morning to Ali and his mom crying.
The stand-off had just finished. According to the hospital the bodies of our three friends hadn’t come in, either as hostages who had been released or injured people.
It wasn’t confirmed yet, but at that point there was a really high chance that our three friends weren’t going to make it out.
The dreaded confirmation came after seeing the graphic photos released by the attackers on Twitter. The photos had been tweeted at some point in the middle of the night. There was a photo of a boy and two girls.
In that photo we could recognize two of the three friends by their hair and their shoes. Seeing it was a indescribable blow.
To see people you know, literally lifeless on a floor that was covered in blood – to know that was their own blood, with chairs knocked over and food on the table…
I couldn’t stop looking at the photo even though it was so painful. It felt like that was the last thing you had to hold onto, and I just couldn’t look away.
‘We read their names’
The rest of Saturday was spent waiting on news, waiting on numbers, waiting on names and watching the body count go up.
Finally the news confirmed what we knew and listed the names of the people who had died.
Even though we knew they had been killed it was tough to actually see the names and the photos put out on the internet.
Dhaka is one of the best communities I’ve ever seen in my life because literally everyone knows everyone. Everyone in Dhaka knew those people, so even though only 20 people died, every citizen had a connection to one of those people.
My uncle’s restaurant – the Holey Artisan Bakery – was actually converted from the house where my two Aunts grew up and my mom spent time when she was younger.
For them it was incredibly hard seeing their childhood home literally covered in blood.
I was planning to be in Dhaka until August but in light of everything, I don’t think I can stay here anymore. I would’ve seen Tarishi last week and would have gone back to Cal with her.
Both my parents were born and raised here, and I’m so proud to be Bangladeshi. I came here to understand this country, but I don’t think this is the place I came to get to know anymore. Now something as simple as going to dinner with your friends on a Friday night is shrouded in fear and sadness.
When I looked at returning home early, I saw that every single seat on every single Singapore Air flight leaving Dhaka was booked for the next 6 weeks. But the mass exodus includes more than just foreigners like us. People who have lived here for 20, 40, even 60 years are considering leaving the place they call home, knowing that the attack was more than a tragedy, it was a symbol of a quickly declining economy, government, and nation.
Dhaka is unlike any community I’ve seen and this isn’t going to be a tragedy that the families of 20 will mourn. The entire city will mourn. There’s no family like this city, and you can feel them pulling together – it’s a tangible thing.
This is what it feels like when a CNN Breaking News headline suddenly jumps off the television screen and into your lap. This is what it feels like when “another distant tragedy” becomes your real life. For too many people in this city, this is what it felt like on July 1 st , 2016.
To the 22 innocent lives lost that day, to the families who are ruined forever, and to every single person around the world affected by this, Dhaka’s heart goes out to you. There is no way to describe the incredible community that this city cultivates, other than that it is unlike anything in the world. This city of 20 million, the fastest growing in the world, united as one family to support each other in the face of a horrific tragedy, something I don’t think I’ll ever experience anywhere else.
Even scarier is the fact that these Ramadan attacks, in Bangladesh, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, will push Islamophobia even further. All of these attacks took place in predominantly Muslim countries, leaving people crying out asking how these extremists claim to be Muslim and saying that their only religion is terror. However, for many people around the world, these attacks strengthen the belief that the word “terrorist” is interchangeable with “Islam.”
ISIS/ISIL and other Islamist extremists do not represent Islam. This fight against terrorism belongs to everyone, Muslims included, and will only be won when we can come together as a global community, united by the desire to protect our citizens and to honor the innocent lives lost.
This attack will not blow over – the people of Dhaka will not forget this. They will make sure this event is given the respect it deserves.