In the wake of the heinous grenade blasts launched by Islamist militants on the then opposition Awami League's rally on August 21, 2004 that left 24 people killed and over 400 others injured, witnesses and survivors shared their accounts of the day, narrating the horror they experienced as the attack unfolded.
Sheikh Hasina, the target of the attack
The attack was launched targeting Awami League President Sheikh Hasina, the then opposition leader at the parliament.
However, the plot failed as scores of party leaders and security personnel created a shield over Hasina as she ducked on the truck while the grenades missed the truck and landed on either side. She was then immediately huddled into her bulletproof sports utility vehicle (SUV), as her security personnel fired blanks to clear the way, and wheeled her away through gunfire and thick smokes.
At her residence, Sudha Sadan, Sheikh Hasina described to the reporters on August 22, 2004, what she witnessed on that fateful day.
"I had barely completed my speech and was going to get down from the truck when I heard a big bang and the next moment blood splashed on my body."
"Mamun, a security guard, helped me sit on the truck while the other grenades started to explode one after another," she continued.
"In a few moments, leaders and security personnel formed a human shield around me and helped me get into my car. Then came bullets hitting my car one after another."
The grenades hurled at Saturday's rally are usually used by the army, the then opposition leader observed.
Hasina said, "The plan was obviously designed to kill me. Gunshots aiming at my vehicle say so. The grace of Almighty Allah saved me, but 18 people are dead so far."
The AL chief voiced her suspicion on the motives of police action against her party activists who were charged with baton and were hurled tear gas canisters by the law enforcers when they went to rescue the injured immediately after the blasts.
Anisur Rahman, a photojournalist covering the event
Anisur Rahman, deputy chief photographer of The Daily Star, was covering the AL rally that day, and was one of the eyewitnesses of the attack.
He was right behind AL Women Affairs Secretary Ivy Rahman when grenades were hurled on the truck-turned-dais at the rally on Bangabandhu Avenue in Dhaka.
The photojournalist revisited the fateful afternoon later after having narrowly escaped the bloodbath.
"I was standing a few feet away from Ivy Rahman. But I didn't know when I was swept along by the crowd and discovered myself standing right behind her."
"I wanted to get on the truck that Sheikh Hasina would use to address the rally. I figured that's where I would get the best shot of Hasina. But the place was packed like sardines- and I could not move."
"I drew attention of Sheikh Hasina's bodyguard standing on the truck bed… and indicated that I too wanted to get on the truck. 'Don't come here. The truck is too full.' he yelled back," Anisur Rahman said.
"I still tried to squirm forward through the crowd and Ivy Apa turned at me and yelled loudly, 'Why are you trying to move? Stay put. Can't you see this place is packed? Don't try to push through the women crowd,' she said."
"I was standing in the midst of the women AL supporters. Matia Chowdhury was beside Ivy Rahman."
"By now Sheikh Hasina had started her speech. I raised my camera and started clicking over Ivy Apa's head."
"Hasina's speech was short, about 10 to 12 minutes long. She concluded with 'Joy Bangla, Joy Bangabandhu!' as I took the last shot, but before she could finish her slogan, I heard a loud explosion from the side of the truck."
"I was not alarmed that much because crackers often are blasted from rallies. I glanced in the direction of the sound but could not see anything because of the people standing in front of me."
"Just then I heard another big bang from the back of the truck about six feet from me. This time I saw the women who were standing there suddenly sit down. I was baffled. Why did they sit down so suddenly with the sound? I thought they were taking cover from the blast," Anisur continued.
He continued saying that another explosion took place in the back side and he turned his head.
"What I saw froze my heart."
"Men and women were lying on the street in pools of blood. Their limbs were torn apart. The impact of the grenade had shredded their clothes.
My heart was beating so fast that I could hardly breathe. I went numb. My knees felt weak. Then I felt something moist on my leg. I looked down and found a glob of flesh mixed with red blood, sticking to my foot.
I shuddered and quickly shook it away. And then I noticed a blood-stained Ivy Apa slumped in a heap on the road in front of me."
The veteran photojournalist did not forget to carry out his duty, despite being horrified and shell shocked as the events unfolded.
"Unthinking, like a robot, I raised my camera and took a snap of Ivy apa's crumpled figure. My head was blank and I don't know how I did that, probably that is how I am trained – to take photographs even when not thinking. Then I started to run, my feet slipping on thick blood flowing on the tarmac."
"Thousands were running to escape just like me as more grenades were raining down on the crowd. I don't know how many grenades were hurled that day but I can recall at least five blasts. The last one was near the AL office entrance where among others Suranjit Sengupta was standing with a stunned look. His body was soaked in blood streaming down his face..
The rally space was now left only with the dead and the hundreds of injured men and women. There were people lying in front of the AL office. Their blood soaked bodies shredded by grenade splinters."
"The injured were silently trying to say something; they had no voice. They just opened and closed their mouths but no words came out. They were clutching at the air with their hands, calling for help," he recalled.
"I thought it was the last day of my life. I felt a jolt of fear almost paralyzing me. I felt a tightness in the chest as if something very heavy had been piled on me. I wanted to do something, anything to save myself."
"I looked at the truck and saw Mohammad Hanif (former mayor of Dhaka) and others kneeling down on the truck, creating a shield around Sheikh Hasina."
"Then I started running towards Ramna Bhaban. As I crossed the road I saw Ada Chacha, the old tea vendor who used to sell raw tea mixed with Ada (ginger, hence his name), sitting dazed by the truck. Then some running feet struck him and he just rolled over onto the street, dead."
"As I reached Ramna Bhaban, another grenade exploded about 20 feet from me. It was then that I gave up all hope for my life. And that brought a sudden transformation in me. I knew I would die. Death no more mattered now. I raised my camera and started capturing the mayhem," Anisur said.
"I saw a man in a bright orange shirt come out of an alley and run towards Ivy Rahman. He tried to lift her. A mortician of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, who I knew from before, also joined him. They sat her up. Ivy Rahman had a blank look. She was in shock. She looked down at her legs which were missing from above her knees. Then she collapsed."
By then he had run out of films. He did not have digital camera back then. Exhausted and numb, he walked to his motorcycle parked near the Zero Point and went straight to a relative's house.
"First thing I did there was to get a shower. My legs were all smeared with blood and I felt as if I could still sense that glob of flesh on my feet. I washed for an hour before I headed for my office with the pictures of the carnage that day."
A brother's nightmare
Nizamuddin feels certain that the world would not seem so bleak and desolate, so colourless and cruel, had a doctor seen his brother Billal at least for once.
For four hours, Nizamuddin left no stones unturned as he searched for a little room for his dear brother virtually in every hospital in the city, but to no avail. Billal died untreated of profuse bleeding.
"Who on earth is more unfortunate than me? Whose pain is heavier than mine? I could do nothing as I watched my little brother die right in my hands," Nizam said wailing, sometimes in anguish and sometimes out of despair in front of Dhaka Medical College morgue on August 22, 2004.
Billal Hossain, vice president of Awami League's youth wing Jubo League Ward No. 69 unit, came to the rally with his brothers Nizamuddin and Murad. Billal was critically injured in the grenade blasts while Nizam and Murad sustained small injuries.
"As the mayhem ended, we found him groaning, lying in a pool of blood right next to the dais. There were splinters, too many to count, all over his body," Nizam told The Daily Star.
The brothers rushed Billal first to Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) by a hired ambulance. Finding no accommodation there, they took him to the Mitford Hospital.
"But the Mitford Hospital authorities declined to admit him and we took him to the adjacent Dhaka Clinic, but that too denied us a little room."
"We rushed him later to Bangladesh Medical College Hospital, where doctors asked us to take him to Chest Diseases Hospital."
As they arrived at Chest Diseases Hospital, the authorities said there was not enough doctors to attend anymore patient. The distraught brothers then started for Metropolitan Hospital. But Billal had succumbed to his injuries by the time they reached in front of the hospital.
At around midnight, Billal's body was taken to DMCH.
"His injuries were not serious, he died of bleeding," Nizam said with his eyes stained with tears, adding,"If a doctor saw him at least for a few minutes, we could have saved him."
AL Presidium Member Kazi Zafarullah
The grenade attack on Awami League (AL) rally on August 21, 2004 started with at least two youths throwing the first two grenades from the pavement between Ramna Bhaban and City Bhaban, AL Presidium Member Kazi Zafarullah, who was injured in the blasts, said on August 30, 2004.
"I was standing on the rear left of the truck and saw a dark, tall youth throw something at the truck from the footpath between Ramna Bhaban and City Bhaban", Kazi Zafarullah said as he recalled the terrible scene.
Zafarullah received severe wounds in his left hand in the blasts.
"The first one bounced against the wooden railings of the truck and slid back on the street and I heard a loud explosion," said the senior AL leader.
His first impression, however, was that it was a handmade bomb.
"Right after the first blast I started shouting 'catch the man ... catch the man... bomb ... bomb', pointing at the spot where the attacker was standing."
He said, "In a second I saw another youth standing on the same spot hurl the second one, aiming at the truck yet again. But it too went bang on the street."
"I only caught a glimpse of the attackers. I may not be able to describe what they were wearing but I think I could still recognise them," the AL leader said replying to a query while talking to The Daily Star at his Gulshan residence.
He said soon after the second blast, Sheikh Hasina's security personnel, along with the AL leaders on the truck, in a flash formed a human shield around the opposition leader to save her from the blasts. They also forced her to duck down on the floor of the truck.
"I was standing at the same place till the third blast. But I was so scared that I couldn't figure out what to do at that moment. The third one came from the right side, from the Awami League central office end and it too was thrown from the crowd," Zafarullah continued.
"After the third blast, someone forced me to kneel down on the truck floor. Then I heard another three or four blasts followed by a brief pause."
He recalled that he saw one of the members of Hasina's security personnel, Tareq Siddique, firing blanks from his pistol, adding that as soon as Hasina was huddled into her car, the next string of attacks resumed.
"As far as I could see lying on the truck, Maya, Major General (retired) Tareq, Major (retired) Mamun and Nazir got into the back seats of Hasina's car," he said. "I heard a number of gunshots as the car sped away from the spot."
He said he did not see any grenade coming from the rooftops of the adjacent buildings. "There might be other teams of the attackers on the rooftops, but I didn't see them. What I saw was attacks came from four to five directions and from both the footpaths."
After the attack that lasted not more than two or three minutes, some AL activists rescued him from the truck and took him inside the party office.
He added that police lobbed teargas five or six minutes after the grenade blasts. Bleeding bodies littered the street when air was filled with groans of pain, making it a ghastly scene.
Nazib Ahmed, Sheikh Hasina's cousin
"Stay quiet and don't move now. Recite Doa Yunus... If we're to die, we'll die here; if we're to survive, we'll survive this way," murmured Sheikh Hasina to those who created a human shield around her as grenades rained down on the fateful afternoon of August 21, 2004.
Amid all those pain and grief, chaos and confusion, she asked them to hold still.
The explosions went on one after another, with black plumes of smoke covering the area.
"We were on the truck. Hanif bhai, Maya bhai and Squadron Leader Mamun shielded apa [Hasina] from three sides. I covered her from the front. Moving her to safety was the only thing we had in our mind," Nazib Ahmed said in one breath.
"Even in that situation, apa wanted to see around, but we didn't let her," he told The Daily Star at his Banani office on August 11 2015, as he recalled how they saved Hasina, now prime minister, on that day.
Mohammad Hanif, late Dhaka mayor, was himself hit. Still he covered Hasina from the left side and Squadron Leader (retd) Abdullah Al Mamun, a member of Hasina's personal security team, from the right, he said.
Maj (retd) Shoyeb Mohammad Tariqullah, another security staff, and Maj Gen (retd) Tarique Ahmed Siddique were also there, said Nazib, himself a member of Hasina's personal security team.
Together, they decided to get Hasina to the SUV, parked around 50 yards from the truck, at any cost. As they took only a few steps, another grenade went off near the truck. Nazib and Tarique sustained splinter injuries.
"We moved back," recounted Nazib, sitting. "We stopped on the truck for a few seconds."
Just then Shoyeb gave them the dangerous news.
"He told us that we shouldn't stay on the truck any longer as the fuel tank got leaked when hit by splinters, and fuel was dripping. The truck might go in flame any moment."
Immediately, they got down from the truck and managed to take Hasina to the SUV. Maj Mamun ran to the vehicle and opened its left door. Hasina huddled inside it. Nazib, Tarique, Shoyeb, Mamun and Maya followed.
Just then they saw the ghastly scenes. Some of the injured lay on the street, bleeding profusely, while some groaned sitting on congealed blood and some motionless bodies lay scattered.
"I saw Ivy chachi (Ivy Rahman) lying in a pool of blood, motionless. I also saw my cousin Bahauddin Nasim trying to stand up amid blood, but failed," said Nazib.
As driver Abdul Matin started the vehicle, it came under gun attack. Two bullets hit the left window, by which Hasina was sitting.
Undeterred, Matin sped away but the assailants pursued the vehicle and attacked it from behind as it reached near Purnima restaurant, creating a large hole on the rear window. The front and rear wheels in the left side got punctured by bullets. Still the vehicle moved a while, took a left turn to Zero Point and sped away.
Matin drove straight to Dowel Chattar via Nawab Abdul Gani Road and then took the road in front of the Central Shaheed Minar. The vehicle reached Nilkhet intersection through Jagannath Hall, Palashi intersection and Azimpur.
"But we all were still apprehensive of further attacks," Nazib said.
"Apa [Hasina] was shell-shocked and suddenly asked, 'whose blood is this on my sari?'"
"We replied nothing happened. She again asked whether we all are okay. We replied that we all are fine."
Nazib said it was mainly Mohammad Hanif's blood that splashed on Hasina's sari.
From Nilkhet intersection, the vehicle took a left turn and reached the BDR (now BGB) Gate, leaving New Market and Bangladesh-Kuwait Maitree Hall behind. It went directly through the BDR gate in Jigatola and then reached Sudha Sadan on Road-5.
It was a journey from death's doorstep to life, he said.
"Our driver Matin kept his cool amid this terrifying situation. It took around 15 minutes to reach Sudha Sadan."
Getting off the car, Hasina gave some money to her party men and asked them to go to the spot immediately.
"Move...move...move now. Make arrangements for treatment of my party men with whatever possible means you have. No one should be left out," Nazib quoted Hasina as saying.
Md Jahangir Alam, personal assistant to Sheikh Hasina
The clock had struck 3 in the afternoon of August 21, 2004 when preparations were underway at Sudha Sadan, the residence of Awami League President Sheikh Hasina, to head for Bangabandhu Avenue where the party was holding an anti-militancy rally.
"Apa asked us to offer Asr prayers before we left for the rally near the party central office," recalled Md Jahangir Alam, personal assistant to Hasina, now prime minister.
He could never imagine that the quiet afternoon would turn into a horrific and bloody one.
"I've never seen a war in my life. But what I saw on the August 21 afternoon was a bloody carnage. I'll not forget it as long as I live," Jahangir told The Daily Star in 2017, recounting the gruesome grenade attack on the AL rally.
Moments before the attack, the scene on the AL central office premises was totally different, he said.
Jahangir, who reached the venue by a jeep, was waiting beside Hasina's bullet-proof sport utility vehicle (SUV), parked a few yards from a makeshift podium on a truck.
Defying the scorching heat and humidity, a large number of party leaders and activists were listening to Hasina's speech with senior leaders and security personnel around her on the truck.
Around 5:15pm, she ended her speech and was about to step down from the podium. But two photojournalists requested her to wait there for a while for their taking snaps.
Within moments, Jahangir saw a black object flying towards the truck.
"At first, I thought it was a bird… It hit the ground with a loud bang and plumes of smoke blanketed the area," he said.
"In no time, grenades rained down on the venue. Loud explosions, smoke, chaos and screams were all around," said the 48-year-old man, who has been with Hasina for the last 27 years.
Senior AL leaders and Hasina's security personnel formed a human shield around her as they tried to escort Hasina to her SUV. But as they took a few steps towards the SUV, another grenade went off near the truck, said Jahangir.
"I heard Apa [Hasina] recite doa aloud… Frightened, people were running for cover."
The rally venue had been turned into a ghastly scene of blood and gore. with the wounded party leaders and workers crying for help.
Stained with blood, many lay on the ground, groaning in pain. Some of those who were unhurt took the injured to hospitals by rickshaws and motorbikes.
"Blood was all over the body of Ada chacha," said Jahangir, adding "Only yards away, Ivy chachi [the then AL women's affairs secretary Ivy Rahman] was lying motionless in a pool of blood."
Those encircling Hasina finally managed to get down from the truck and take her to the SUV. She got into the vehicle. Without sparing a moment, the driver, Abdul Matin, sped towards Sudha Sadan.
Jahangir couldn't find the vehicle by which he arrived at the venue. But there was a police vehicle nearby. Luckily, the car was unlocked and the key was inside. He then boarded the vehicle, switched on the engine and followed Hasina's SUV to Sudha Sadan.
With bated breath, Hasina's younger sister Sheikh Rehana was waiting there. As she arrived at the house, Rehana ran towards her crying and hugged her, said Jahangir.
"Then I noticed blood on Apa's sari. She was in a state of shock. We asked her whether she was hurt but she didn't reply," Jahangir mentioned.
"After a while, Apa asked us to go back immediately to the scene of the carnage to help the injured."
Jahangir went back there, and till 3:00am the next morning he shuttled between hospitals where the wounded were being treated.
"Rehana Apa called me on the phone repeatedly, and Apa [Hasina] inquired about the party men," he said.
Jahangir thinks it was sheer luck that he survived the gruesome attack.
Some other witnesses
"All hell broke loose there, they made it look like doomsday," recalled Motaher Hossain, general secretary of Krishak League, who was standing barely a yard from the dais raised on a truck when indiscriminate bomb blasts and gunshots rocked the area.
"I scanned the area and saw some people on the rooftop of Ramna Hotel and adjacent buildings hurling bombs," he said on August 21, 2004 sitting on a bed in ward No. 32 of Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) with splinters in his whole body.
"Bombs, from probably under (Hasina's) truck, went off one after another and my only thought was to get out of this hell," he said.
"It was a few seconds before we were to take out a procession after the meeting when a number of grenades exploded near the dais," said Kazi Mustak Elen, city Awami League (AL) organising secretary.
Ajay Kor Khokon, former general secretary of Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), AL's student wing, said, "The way the bombs were hurled, it is clear to me our netri (leader) was the target."
"The grenades were powerful and I think only the army uses those," he said as he was being taken to the DMCH after the attack.
AL activists Hafiz and Saidul of Hazaribagh had no idea about how the incident took place.
"What I can remember is the sudden start of continuous firing and bomb blasts and that I tried to escape," Hafiz told The Daly Star, adding, "It was like a movie scene."
BCL activists Monir and Dollar said they saw two men in khakis standing a few yards away from the dais. They were speaking in low voice and looking up to Ramna Hotel nervously minutes before the attack.
"But I did not see them after the first grenade blasted," Monir said.
"It was not more than three seconds after Hasina finished her speech when a grenade went off within two yards of the dais and a 'grenade rain' followed that," said Sub-Inspector Mosharraf Hossain, leader of a six-member security team of Hasina.
"I saw seven to eight people throwing grenades from the roof of the building opposite to the AL office. The grenades were red in colour," he said.
"As I fired at them, constable Rokon of my team was hit by splinters and he turned over his arms to me."
The assailants later fired on the people running for cover, Mosharraf said. "All we heard is continuous sounds of gunshots and grenade blasts and people screaming," he continued.
"I heard a bang and saw a thing coming down from City Bhaban that also went off, while something hit my right leg. Lying on the road, I saw policemen firing at the building," victim Monir Hossain, also a freedom fighter, told an enquiry commission at Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) on August 30, 2004.