In the broad daylight of August 21, 2004, Islamist militants launched a heinous grenade attack on a rally of the then opposition Awami League at Bangabandhu Avenue in Dhaka.
The attack was carried out according to a meticulously designed plan hatched by some high ranking persons of the then BNP-led government who allegedly conspired to annihilate their political rivals, including their prime target AL President Sheikh Hasina.
The plot failed as Sheikh Hasina survived the attack narrowly because some of her party leaders protected her by forming a human shield around her. However, 24 people were killed, including AL Women Affairs Secretary Ivy Rahman, and over 400 were injured in the grisly attack.
How the incident unfolded
The incident took place at around 5:22pm on the day. Hasina had just ended her speech pronouncing “Joy Bangla, Joy Bangabandhu” when a grenade exploded two yards from the makeshift stage on a truck she was standing.
Sheikh Hasina was addressing an AL rally protesting the recent Sylhet blasts with a call “to end the rule of the government that inspires bomb attacks”. Around 25,000 leaders and activists of the party were present there.
A shower of grenades followed in the next one and half minutes, with a total of 13 explosions that ripped through the rally premises. Top AL leaders including Suranjit, Ivy, Zafarullah, Razzak, Rahmatullah and Sultan Mohammad Mansur were caught in the midst of fleeing supporters as the area reverberated with explosions.
Failed attempt to assassinate Hasina
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.
The assailants fired seven bullets at Hasina’s bulletproof SUV. A bullet punctured the rear wheel of the vehicle and there was a large hole on the rear right side of its windshield. At least three bullets hit the right side of the front windshield, just opposite the front seat where the former prime minister sat. The three-layered bulletproof Mercedes Benz saved her life that day.
Sheikh Hasina reached her residence Sudha Sadan at around 6:00pm.
“Whoever be the attackers, it is certain that Sheikh Hasina was their target,” on-duty police officials later said seeking anonymity.
Rescue efforts and outburst after the attack
Around 15 minutes later, some people gathered on the spot, but were first shell shocked to swing into action as they had little idea about what to do. They sat by the dead and the wounded and cried. Some supporters then brought in microbuses, rickshaw-vans and minibuses and picked up the injured leaders and workers.
The premises matched the set for a post-apocalyptic movie following the attack, with blood, human entrails, blood-smeared party-flags, banners and torn sandals scattered around the premises.
Angry protesters around 6:00pm torched and threw stones to vehicles chanting slogans against the attackers. Thick black smoke soon mushroomed from about 20 burnt vehicles in Bijoynagar, Purana Paltan Crossing, Dainik Bangla Intersection, Zero Point, Bangabandhu Avenue, Golap Shah Mazar, General Post Office (GPO) and Gulistan areas. Police fired scores of teargas canisters and charged baton to bring the situation under control.
Another grenade, which did not explode during the attack, went off at 6:27pm amid rescue operations and police presence in the alleyway opposite to the AL office.
Paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (now Border Guard Bangladesh) personnel were deployed in Dhaka city later in the evening at around 7:15pm.
Rescue operations and agitations were going on simultaneously. The activists were chanting “Joy Bangla, Joy Bangabandhu” while rescuing their party comrades.
Ivy Rahman, former president of Bangladesh Mahila Awami League and wife of late President Zillur Rahman, received grievous injuries in the grenade attack. She lost both her legs in the explosion and succumbed to her injuries later on August 24.
The attack also left 23 other AL leaders and activists killed in the blasts, including AL’s Dhaka Metropolitan unit advisor Rafiqul Islam, who was much loved by all as everyone’s favourite Ada Chacha. Sheikh Hasina’s security staff chief Lance Corporal (retd) Mahbubur Rashid also died from bullet injuries while trying to save the AL president.
AL Presidium Members Amir Hossain Amu, Abdur Razzak, Suranjit Sengupta, Kazi Zafarullah, Mohammad Nasim, Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, Sahara Khatun, the then Dhaka City Mayor Mohammad Hanif, Hasina’s security personnel Salim and Nazrul Islam Babu were also seriously wounded in the attack, among others.
Two more live grenades were later found lying amid strewn shoes and clothes opposite to the AL office at Bangabandhu Avenue.
Horror on trauma wards
Thousands of distraught relatives and party activists thronged the city hospitals to see if their near and dear ones were among the dead and injured.
The hospital air turned heavy with people's screams and cry for blood as the authorities struggled to cope with the rush of the injured and their relatives.
People took no more than 10 minutes to rush to Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) after the first injured was taken there.
The relatives, Awami League (AL) activists, law-enforcers and journalists crowded the entrance to the Emergency Ward, as more injured were rushed there.
Over 150 injured were taken first to the DMCH. The authorities moved old patients of Ward No. 32 to other wards and made beds on the floor but still could not manage enough space for the injured.
A long line of people stretched to the mortuary and Ward No. 32 where the injured were being treated, blocking the walkway.
Most of the injured were, however, later moved to other hospitals as DMCH could not accommodate all of them.
People chased the police out of the DMCH after they were deployed there at 6:10pm to control the rush.
Police, however, were deployed again at 6:45pm to clear the walkway to the mortuary and ward No 32 and they clubbed the crowd twice.
Divided into separate groups, activists of the AL and its front organisations were shouting at the top of their voice at the DMCH, urging people to donate blood for the injured.
“Please save our brothers and sisters, donate blood,” a woman was shouting under the stairs, directing people to go to the blood centre on the first floor.
The authorities, however, did not have enough bags for the people who went to donate blood.
BNP-led coalition govt blamed for the attack, asked to quit
Sheikh Hasina blamed the then BNP-led four-party coalition government for the bomb and gun-attacks that she had narrowly escaped and demanded its immediate resignation.
“When the bombs were hurled, my leaders and workers shielded me in such a way that I could escape the attacks,” Hasina, also president of the main opposition Awami League (AL), told the BBC Bangla Service on the night August 21.
“The leaders and workers of my party saved me from the attacks at the cost of their lives,” she said in an emotion-choked voice.
Demanding immediate resignation of the government, the AL chief said such bomb blasts one after another across the country could not be tolerated anymore.
She also alleged that the government was indifferent to the violence, and lambasted the government for its failure to nab the criminals behind the bomb attacks that had been taking place across the country after the BNP-led alliance came to power.
She also condemned police for baton-charging and arresting innocent AL leaders and workers when they rushed forward to rescue the wounded from the place.
“The activities of police prove that the government masterminded the bomb attack to kill Awami League leaders and workers including myself,” Hasina argued.