Revisiting the horror

The evening of July 1, 2016, — a Friday near the end of Ramadan — had descended quietly on the Holey Artisan Bakery as the busy capital settled down after breaking the day’s fast.

The upscale eatery on Road-79 in the posh Gulshan neighbourhood had a thin crowd. As the evening progressed, the Western-style café, a favourite for both expatriates and Bangladeshis, started getting busier.

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Guests were ordering lime-glazed donuts, croissants, bagels, pizzas, pastries and coffee with about 20 waiters rushing back and forth inside the ritzy café with a wood-and-stone facade and a sprawling garden facing the lake.

By 8:00pm, the tables were mostly occupied by expatriates — a group of Italians and another of Japanese — while a few Bangladeshis were also dining.

None, however, had any idea of the horrors that would befall a relatively tranquil evening.

It was around 8:45pm when the diners heard a loud sound like that of a firecracker. What happened next was beyond their wildest dreams.

Shouting “Allahu Akbar”, five young men brandishing weapons, including semi-automatic rifles, grenades and machetes, burst into the eatery and started attacking indiscriminately.

Shrieks and screams immediately pierced through the air.

Panicked and bewildered, the diners ducked under tables and scurried about for safety. The attackers held the diners who could get out of their reach and sorted out the non-Muslims by a grim test of reciting verses from the Holy Quran.

“You don’t have to be scared. We will not kill the Muslims. Lay your heads down on the table,” they said.

The worst-ever hostage crisis then began to unfold before the nation.

It wasn’t until the next morning, around 12 hours later, that para commandos broke the siege, killing five attackers and a chef.

What they found at the scene were traces of mindless butchery, with the restaurant’s floor strewn with bodies and blood.

Twenty hostages, including 17 foreigners, were brutally murdered, while two police officials and the chef of the restaurant were also killed in the standoff.

People stood aghast at the extent of terror not seen ever before in Bangladesh.

During the bloodbath, a young man, only 20, stood out as an example of courage, friendship, and humanity.

Faraaz Ayaaz Hossain, who was at the cafe, could have walked free but refused to abandon the friends he was there with. He chose to stay with them even in the face of death.

A student of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in the US, Faraaz and his friends Abinta Kabir, a US citizen of Bangladeshi origin and of the same university, and Tarishi Jain, an Indian student of the University of California, Berkeley, were among those killed.

The Gulshan attack, carried out by IS-inspired outfit known as Neo JMB, formed by a faction of Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), served as a wake-up call for the government and triggered a massive hunt for militants and crackdown on terror networks.

Law enforcers succeeded in busting a number of militant dens through counter-terrorism operations. The mastermind of the attack — Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi-origin Canadian — was killed during one such drive a month later on August 27, 2016.

Tamim spearheaded the Neo JMB after coming to Bangladesh in 2013 and took charge as its chief in 2015. On July 11 that year, his group joined mainstream JMB leader Sarwar Jahan Manik’s group. Sarwar was also killed in a drive on October 8, 2016.

Since the café attack, law enforcers carried out 28 high risk anti-militancy operations at dens where 79 militants were killed and a huge amounts of explosives were destroyed or seized.

Following the massacre, a case was filed with Gulshan police under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

On November 27, 2019, the Anti-Terrorism Special Tribunal in Dhaka sentenced seven militants to death for their involvement in the attack, terming it a disgraceful attack aimed at assassinating the non-communal character of Bangladesh.

The case is now awaiting the High Court disposal.

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