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 Post subject: Caught in an air raid scare
 Post Posted: Mon May 28, 2007 2:37 pm 
Caught in an air raid scare

“Exit the aircraft as quickly as possible,” a flight attendant announced abruptly. “Take all your bags and de-plane now.” The gunfire continued. Is the airport under attack, I wondered? We stood in the aisle waiting. How long can it take for them to open the door and let us off this sitting duck of a plane full of jet fuel? Does my colleague back in the city know what’s happening?

@Gulf Times, Qatar /Monday, 28 May, 2007
By John Ruwitch


COLOMBO: We boarded on time shortly before 1am and a few minutes later the captain came on the PA system. Our four-hour flight from Colombo to Singapore would be delayed because of a “security issue”, he said. As soon as the Sri Lankan military cleared us to get under way he would let us know.

I texted a Colombo-based colleague about the delay, just to be safe, then switched off my mobile phone and started to doze off.

During my assignment to Sri Lanka, I had mostly written about the escalating conflict between government forces and Tamil Tiger separatists.

Almost all of the fighting takes place in the north and east of the island, hundreds of kilometre (miles) from the capital, so I wasn’t too worried about this vague security issue holding us up.

Then the sound of explosions and the crackle of machine guns interrupted my sleep.

Orange tracer bullets arced across the sky and the lights inside our plane were quickly doused.

Now it sounded like it was coming from several directions, sporadic, not orderly the way I thought anti-aircraft fire would sound.

The Tigers, who are fighting for an independent state, had mounted two raids by a newly unveiled air wing in April.

Two nights before my flight on April 29, reports of unidentified light aircraft heading towards Colombo had tripped air defences. Power to the city was cut, and anti-aircraft batteries opened up on the black sky.
That one I’d covered from the newsroom.

This time, I was on a stationary airliner with a fusillade going on outside.
The other passengers looked half-stunned and did not move.

My heart raced. I remembered July 2001 when rebel commandos attacked the Colombo airport – this airport – and blew up civilian airliners on the tarmac during a fierce battle.

“Exit the aircraft as quickly as possible,” a flight attendant announced abruptly. “Take all your bags and de-plane now.” The gunfire continued.
Is the airport under attack, I wondered? We stood in the aisle waiting. How long can it take for them to open the door and let us off this sitting duck of a plane full of jet fuel? Does my colleague back in the city know what’s happening?

I tried calling, but the mobile phone network was jammed. I reached the jet way. “Stay away from the windows. Hurry, hurry!” a guard said. The popping of gunfire continued.

At the concourse, we joined a stream of people from other flights scurrying toward the main terminal. Airmen waved their arms, urging us to go faster. Some people started to run.

The facts of what had happened slowly emerged: The airport was not attacked but rebel airplanes had bombed oil facilities between the city and the airport.

Nerves at the airport cooled, and a few hours later passengers were allowed back on their planes. I stayed to cover the story.

Returning to the bureau from the airport as the sun rose I thought about the war I had covered but did not know until my last night in town.
As foreign correspondents, we try to describe events in terms the proverbial milkman in Kansas City can understand.

Yet if it took being caught in an air raid for me to grasp this story, how much true understanding could there be among people who have never even set foot here, I wondered?

Before I boarded the plane the night of the attack, my colleague and I joked about the risks.

“Call if the Tigers attack the airport,” he’d messaged me in jest.
“I will if I’m alive,” I texted back with a dose of gallows humour.
That following night, before I flew out, we didn’t joke. – Reuters


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