March issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Sports | Published 15 years ago

Pakistanis have long believed that sport was exempt from the country’s problems. That myth was shattered on the morning of March 3, 2009, as 12 heavily-armed men staged an audacious attack on the visiting Sri Lankan team as it made its way to the Gaddafi Stadium.

The attacks claimed the lives of six security officials and two civilians, while injuring five members of the Sri Lankan squad and the reserve umpire, Ahsan Raza. The most immediate impact of the incident will be the death of international cricket in Pakistan, in the medium and possibly even the long run. In the weeks to come, if the Pakistan government is not able to track and apprehend those responsible for the attack, it is very possible that the increasing trend towards the isolation of Pakistan in the international community will quicken to the point where the country is left without any allies and supporters.

A Pakistani policeman inspects a police vehicle after masked gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore on March 3, 2009. Masked gunmen opened fire on the Sri Lankan cricket team's bus in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore, killing at least eight people and wounding six team members, police said. AFP PHOTO/Arif ALI

The attack took place at approximately 8:40 a.m., as two buses, containing the Sri Lankan players and match officials, reached Liberty Chowk, about half a kilometre from Gaddafi Stadium. The bus transporting the Pakistani players to the ground was about 15 minutes behind the other two buses and escaped attack.

According to eyewitness accounts, two cars entered the roundabout and lobbed a grenade in the direction of the buses. Although the grenade missed its target, three gunmen, armed with heavy weaponry, including Kalashnikovs and AK-47s, started firing indiscriminately at the buses. Police later said that these men reached the scene by hitching a ride on rickshaws. Khalil Ahmed, the driver of the bus with the Sri Lankan players, told reporters that the gunmen also fired a rocket and threw another grenade, neither of which hit the bus. Ahmed identified the terrorists as men between the ages of 20 and 30, most of whom had beards.

The majority of the fire was borne by the police vans escorting the players and officials to the ground and six security officials were killed in the firefight, although all 12 terrorists managed to get away. The most seriously injured official was reserve umpire Ahsan Raza, who is in critical condition after being shot in the back. Match referee Chris Broad, who emerged as one of the heroes of the saga, threw himself on Raza after realising he had been shot, thereby risking his own life to ensure that Raza did not suffer any further bullet wounds.

Among the Sri Lankan players, Thilan Samaraweera and Tharanga Paranivatana were the most seriously injured, suffering shrapnel wounds in the hamstring and chest, respectively. Three other Sri Lankan cricketers, captain Mahela Jayawardene, star batsmen Kumar Sangakkara and spinner Ajantha Mendis also suffered shrapnel wounds. The Sri Lankan players were spirited away from the scene by the bus driver, who drove them to the stadium. Ahmed described the ordeal: “A person ran in front of the bus and threw a grenade in our direction. Soon after that I was aware that the vehicles had come under attack by firearms.” He says that he only became “sparked up” and drove off “as fast as I dared” when a Sri Lankan official yelled at him to continue driving. Jayawardene hailed Ahmed as a hero, saying, “We owe the team bus driver our lives for his remarkable bravery in the face of direct gunfire.” All the players and match officials were taken to a secure military base from the stadium by helicopter and later flown out the country.

del267807-229x300In the aftermath of the attacks, the second Test, which was beginning its third day, was called off and the tour cancelled. Condemnations of the attack swiftly followed from all the Test-playing nations and the Indian and New Zealand players, who were playing a One-Day International at the time, wore black armbands to mourn the loss of life and injuries.

Pakistan, which, along with India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, was one of the scheduled hosts for the 2011 World Cup had already become something of a cricketing pariah, with very few nations willing to play in the country. In fact, Sri Lanka had only agreed to tour Pakistan because the Indians had pulled out of their engagements due to the Mumbai attacks last year. And while vice-captain Sangakkara was gracious even after the attacks, saying that their decision to play in Pakistan was not the wrong one, there is no chance that any country will risk playing here again.

The abandonment of Pakistan as a cricketing venue was more or less borne out by the ICC’s chief executive Haroon Lorgat, who declared at a press conference that teams are unlikely to tour Pakistan unless there is a significant change in the situation. And while the ICC has put off a final decision on whether Pakistan will host any World Cup matches in two years time until next month, the outcome of that meeting is a foregone conclusion. It takes over a year to prepare pitches and other logistics for World Cup matches, and given that the situation in the country has shown no signs of improving — if anything it seems to keep getting worse — Pakistan can forget about hosting any multinational or even binational cricket series.

While there is very little that can be done to rescue Pakistan’s reputation from the doldrums, an honest and efficient investigation into the attack would be a good start. The signs that emerged on the day of the attack, unfortunately, do little to inspire confidence, as politicians seemed more concerned with scoring points against each other and officials were only interested in covering their backsides. The first official word, received barely an hour after the attack, was that the Sri Lankan team hadn’t been attacked at all; instead, it was caught in the crossfire between two gangs of landgrabbers, an assertion so patently ludicrous that it was quickly dropped and never repeated again. Rehman Malik was quick to see a “foreign hand” in the attacks, while Raja Riaz , a PPP member of the Punjab assembly, and MNA Nabeel Gabol automatically concluded that India was responsible for the carnage, a view that was echoed by various politicians doing the media rounds, including JI amir Qazi Hussain. Perhaps the most bizzare explanation come from Awami League chief Sheikh Rashid who declared on DawnNews that the police was unable to combat the gunmen because it was divided between supporters of the PPP and PML-N. He, too, raised the possibility of a foreign hand in the attacks. The electronic media fanned the flames, with one channel playing a clip of Congress head Sonia Gandhi saying that India would deliver a “fitting response” to the Mumbai attacks, the implication being that the response had been delivered in Lahore.

Others were out to score political points. Imran Khan, who had earlier criticised the Indian cricket team’s decision not to tour Pakistan on the grounds that militants were trying to win public sympathy and hence would never attack cricketers, was quick to point an accusatory finger at the government for not providing the Sri Lankans with adequate security. Shahbaz Sharif, who had been removed as chief minister of the Punjab after a Supreme Court ruling, said of Asif Zardari, “Had [Zardari’s administration] not spent all their time planning how to buy up enough MPs to form their own government in Punjab, this might never have happened.” A spokesman for Zardari countered by saying, “It is disturbing that a major political party would attempt to score cheap domestic points during such a serious incident.”

Although it is too early to judge the effectiveness of the protection offered to the Sri Lankan team, it is hard to take the Punjab police’s assertion that there were “no significant security lapses” at face value, especially when taking into account that eight people lost their lives and not a single terrorist was apprehended. This despite the fact that the Gulberg police station was only five minutes from the scene of the attack. And even though the buses had many police vans escorting them, the security certainly did not rise to the presidential-level security promised to all foreign teams touring Pakistan. For one, the windows of the buses were not reinforced with bullet-proof glass and the terrorists were able to access Liberty Chowk all too easily. It has also been reported that, other than the police escorts, there were no policemen along the five-kilometre route from the Pearl Continental hotel, where the Sri Lankans were staying, to Gaddafi Stadium.

The initial police investigation also seemed quite shambolic and amateurish, reminiscent of the aftermath of the Benazir assassination when blood was washed away before it could be tested. At the scene of the attacks, the common public and journalists mingled freely with the police, who had not considered blocking access to the crime scene. One proud kid showed off a bullet he had managed to recover to the television cameras, with the police showing no apparent concern that a piece of evidence may have gone missing. It is also pertinent to note that the day before the attacks, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer had held a meeting with high-up police officials, reportedly to discuss what security measures should be taken during the Long March scheduled for March 12. No mention was made of security for the Sri Lankan cricket team at the meeting.

One TV station produced a letter dated January 22 from the central investigation agency to the provincial police claiming that terrorists would target the Sri Lankan team, either at the ground itself or on the route from their hotel to the stadium. That the contents of this letter were not seriously discussed among the police could be due to the fact that the upper ranks of the police were replaced after the Supreme Court disqualified then chief minister Shahbaz Sharif from office, prompting Governor Salmaan Taseer to impose governor’s rule. Former deputy police chief in Lahore, Parvez Rathore, who had been replaced after governor’s rule was imposed, confirmed that they had received warning of a potential attack but did not know if the new set-up had taken any extra precautions as a result of the warning.

With the blame game well underway less than 24 hours after the attack, identifying the perpetrators of the attack may prove an impossible task. One possible clue could be found in the similarities between this attack and the one in Mumbai, suggesting that even if the same group was not involved in both the attacks, the gunmen certainly took inspiration from the latter. In both operations, the terrorists appeared to be highly-trained, well-knit groups that staged commando attacks. Another similarity was the manner of dress, as CCTV footage from both Mumbai and Lahore shows terrorists draping themselves in rucksacks.

The strongest symbolic moment that Pakistan is now an outcast not only in the cricket world but among the international community as a whole came from former England fast bowler Dominic Cork, who was in Lahore to commentate on the series for PTV. Cork had come to Pakistan especially to show that the country was safe for international cricket — he spent the past two weeks mingling with locals and hosting lucky draws. He gave numerous interviews to British newspapers advocating the return of Test cricket to Pakistan, claiming that if he could safely move around in Pakistan then so could anyone else. Here is what Cork had to say after the attacks: “I don’t think international cricket should return to this country. I won’t be coming back here while I’m still living, there is no chance.”

Related:  Who is to Blame?, A Course in Death and Destruction, Terrorism and Cricket.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.