What was supposed to be a quick trip to celebrate Eid with his family in Bangladesh turned into a harrowing, life-altering experience for a University of Toronto student when a group of men stormed into a Dhaka cafe and brutally murdered 20 people on July 1, 2016. He survived, but the nightmare was far from over.
Two years later, he’s finally telling his story.
In a talk at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus on Saturday, Tahmid Hasib Khan took to the stage to describe in detail what happened at the Holey Artisan Cafe, offering for the first time his own account of one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Bangladesh’s history, a nightlong massacre that the country watched unfold in horror.
Khan publicly refuted for the first time the rumour that he was a co-conspirator in the attack, which started when he was detained for questioning by Bangladeshi police — without charge — and was fuelled by photos released by media of him holding a gun on the roof of the restaurant, along with one of the attackers. VICE News requested an interview with Khan following his talk, but his brother said he declined.
Khan was about to start an internship in Nepal with UNICEF and stopped in Bangladesh to spend a few days with his family and celebrate Eid at the request of his mother, he told a packed room of students and faculty at the school, where he’s finishing his degree.
The same day he landed, Khan snuck out of the house to meet his then-girlfriend and her friend at the Holey Artisan Bakery, a restaurant in the heart of Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter. The three sat in a gazebo across from the front lawn.
“There was an eerie feeling that night, like something was ominous, something bad was going to happen, but I didn’t fully realize what it was,” Khan said. “We heard noises in the background, but laughed it away, thinking it was fireworks.”
The realization that it wasn’t fireworks came too late.
A group of armed men stormed into the restaurant, yelling chants “you would never want to hear,” said Khan. They began firing indiscriminately, as customers and restaurant staff tried to flee and hide.
“The next 20 minutes were massacre,” said the soft-spoken 24-year-old.
By the end of the night, 28 people were dead, including 20 hostages — 17 foreign nationals — and two police officers. Most of them had been hacked or stabbed to death. The country declared two days of national mourning. Survivors painted a gruesome scene. Some said they found shelter in a bathroom, barely able to breathe, with the heat turned up because it was being temporarily used to store ingredients. One man was strapped to a chair, with bombs and gas canisters tied around him. Pictures from inside, posted online by an ISIS-affiliated website, showed bloodied bodies strewn throughout the restaurant.
"How long can you refuse when there’s someone in front of you with a machine gun around their neck?”
Khan narrowly escaped with his life — the fact that he happened to be Muslim saved him, he said. Surviving hostages said the attackers demanded that they recite the Quran — those who were able to were spared. One of the attackers approached Khan and his friends, with a machine gun pointed at them, and asked if they were Muslims.
“The three of us pleaded for our lives, and said that we were,” he said. “Our lives were spared at that point, and he moved on.”
But he knew it wasn’t over. Several terrifying scenarios played out in his mind in those moments, he explained.
“What’s the best escape route? Should I dart through the middle of the field? There’s a fence behind it but it has barbed wire on top of it. Maybe I can climb and escape,” Khan said, recalling his thoughts. “Maybe? Barely. But can my friends? Did I just escape death or is there more to come?”
Khan and his friends didn’t move. One of the attackers ordered them to go inside, and they did, joining a group of five others sitting at a table with their heads down.
“Our survival was highly dependent on a group of individuals, a group of young men whose motives were unknown,” said Khan, who has been credited by some surviving hostages with saving their lives. Looking back, he described himself as a nuisance, who instead of quietly accepting his fate, “couldn’t stop pleading, reasoning or begging.”
“I had to do what I had to do.”
Khan recalled how at one point, the terrorists asked the restaurant staff to serve everyone food and water. Despite a lack of appetite, Khan ate, thinking it might be his last meal. The attackers also asked the waiters to bring large gas cylinders from the kitchen storage room, and place them at the entrances of the building, as a way of ensuring that police who were stationed outside wouldn’t fire their way in.
Khan believes the turning point of the night came close to dawn — a moment that has also lead to endless speculation about his role in the attack.
The attackers called Khan and another hostage, a British citizen named Hasnat Karim to come up to the second floor. There, the attacker pulled out a gun, showed Khan that it was empty by pulling the trigger, and demanded that he take it. Sobbing, Khan initially refused.
“But how long can you refuse when there’s someone in front of you with a machine gun around their neck?” he said. He took the gun.
The attacker then demanded that Khan step out onto the roof with Karim, while holding the gun, and ordered the pair to check each corner.
“What I realize now is that we were basically assurance that the snipers around us wouldn’t shoot us,” said Khan. If someone who looked like Khan — a young man with a beard, who seemed to fit the profile of the attackers themselves — wasn’t shot, the attacker himself wouldn’t be either if they stepped outside. Reassured, the attacker joined them.
“Amra ekhon ki korte pari?” he asked Khan. What can we do now?
“Amra ekhon ki korte pari?” he asked Khan. What can we do now?
If there was a chance to reason, this was it, Khan said. He asked the man what their mission was. It’s obvious, the attacker told him — to target foreigners who were bringing their culture into “our land.”
OK, Khan said, but were they ready for a hostage situation? The attacker responded, disappointedly, that they weren’t.
“You’re not going to kill us, neither are you planning to get out of here alive,” Khan recalled telling him. “The police won’t come in until you let us go… how about you let us go, and you get what you want?”
If not them, then at least the women and children, Karim added.
“But in my mind, I’m like, ‘I wanna live as well,’” Khan recalled thinking. He asked the attackers if he could go downstairs and tell his friends that they were free to go. No, the attacker responded, he’d told them no such thing.
Still unsure of their fate, Khan and Karim went back downstairs to rejoin the other hostages. Another hour passed before things started happening.
“We start hearing sounds. Zips and clicks,” said Khan. “The attackers come and ask us to stand up. We see that they’re geared up for war, but much more calm than they were last night.”
The attackers then gave the hostages their phones back, showed them the exit, and told them they’re free to go. Khan had convinced the attackers to let the hostages go before security forces moved in, survivors later said.
It was after this that Bangladeshi commandos moved in, ending the 10-hour standoff, killing six gunmen and rescuing 13 hostages. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, although the Bangladeshi government has maintained that it was carried out by local militants.
Tamim Chowdhury, the alleged mastermind of the attack, who grew up in Windsor, was killed by police in Dhaka two months later.
“Now I don’t know about you, but my intuition tells me that our little conversation upstairs worked,” said Khan. “Yes, we were photographed there for the world to scrutinize. But to me, that conversation was also the turning point of the night.”
“What I also learned from this is that half truths propagated by the people and the media alike can destroy people’s lives,” said Khan. “Very few people other than the authorities took what we had to say before making a verdict.”
“What followed is a story of its own,” he continued. “I went through police custody, remand, jail and a very long and lengthy court battle.”
Khan was in detention for three months as police investigated his connection to the attack. Upon his release from custody, police said that forensic analysis of the photos showed that he was forced to hold the gun.
Dhaka Metropolitan Commissioner Asaduzzaman Mia told reporters at the time that they had found no usable evidence against him.
“We can not say someone is guilty or innocent if we do not have credible information or evidence,” he said.
And while he was cleared of having anything to do with the attack, police charged him with non-cooperation, accusing him of failing to show up to two police interviews, which happened when his family and lawyer said he was already in police custody. He was acquitted of that charge in 2017.
His friends, who launched a social media campaign for his freedom with the hashtag #FreeTahmid and took turns doing television interviews in his defense, rejoiced.
“I’m saying all of this because I’ve never had my experiences shared, whereas a lot of people have had their opinions read out aloud and in turn have had a lot of people’s lives jeopardized,” said Khan.
With a slideshow at the end of the talk, Khan thanked his parents, his brother, and the two women he was with, who survived the attack with him. He also thanked the thousands of people who supported him through the #FreeTahmid campaign.
“Has all of this changed the direction of progress in my life?” said Khan, echoing the many questions he’s received since the attack about how it has changed him. “Is an experience which was supposed to leave a lasting scar, supposed to stop me from looking forward? Absolutely not. Life is about being resilient.”
Cover image by Daniel Gomes via TedxUTSC.