SAMAA [UN]COVERED - Lahore terrorism

Nov 30, -0001
SAMAA’s Lahore Bureau Chief Habib Akram recounts in his own words the experience of covering one terrorist attack that no one expected would ever happen…

by Habib Akram

I am in the hotseat for SAMAA’s newspaper roundup morning show ‘Pehla Safa’. The producer gives me his usual one-minute-and-30-seconds-to-break warning when the burst of gunfire pierces the soundproof walls.

I am live, ON AIR. I can’t even ask what’s happening. Seconds tick by painfully. I hear the thumping of people running around the office. One of the guests keeps talking... ‘And the Jamaat-e Islami…’

The voice of reporter Aiman Mufti filters into my earpiece: “Habib sahib! The Sri Lankan team is under attack, firing at Liberty roundabout.”

‘And Qazi Hussain Ahmed said that…’

“Habib Sahib! The bus is being attacked - there are casualties!”

It surprises me how swiftly I switch: “The Sri Lankan team has been attacked not far from this building. Firing is being reported and there are casualties...” I announce an unscheduled break and run out of the studio.

What I see from the window I will never forget. A man in a shalwar qameez is shooting at a police van. Another man is lying dead on the road. I am standing at the window when the staccato gunfire makes me duck. But I get back up to get a clearer look.

Are these men going to enter our building? Mumbai is still fresh in my mind. What if we are taken hostage?

“Get down!” I shout to the others behind me. “Somebody get coverage of this. Go! Run!”

A machine-like voice comes over the intercom. “Ali Mujtaba and Liaqut Bashire already got footage, sir.”

I tell them to immediately send it to Karachi and dash back into the studio where Pehla Safa’s guests are silent.

Five, four, three, two, one...

I start telling our viewers what is happening outside. When the program ends at 9am I rush back to the window. Liberty Chowk is eerily silent by now.

A police vehicle appears with a few men armed with batons. They alight and spread out. I find myself running down the stairs, nearly tripping in my haste.

As I burst outside something doesn’t feel right. At this time of the day, Liberty Chowk is crazy with traffic, honking horns, motorcycles, rickshaws, school vans. But there is no one here.

My cell phone rings, it’s tone startlingly loud on the quiet street. It’s from Karachi. “Stay on the line!” they say…

Nothing really prepares you for a terrorist attack such as the one on the Sri Lankan cricket team that day March 3. I don’t know whether I was able to be a good reporter or not. It’s difficult to judge how you are doing your job when bullets are being fired. That day SAMAA was the first television channel in the world to air footage of what happened. For any reporter it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cover something like this.

At least that is what I thought. But our world is changing and just 27 days later, our bureau and Lahore’s other television channels found themselves in a similar situation: The attack and siege of the Manawan Police Training Centre on March 30.

When the firing started at Manawan, one of our reporters rushed to the spot on a motorcycle with the DSNG van close behind. I rushed to Mayo Hospital where I knew the injured would be brought but another reporter urged me to go to the actual spot. “Sir your presence at the spot is necessary,” he said, “this is going to be a long one.” His words proved true and we were there the whole day.

Covering such events are extremely stressful no matter how experienced you are and eventually such prolonged coverage begins to show on people’s nerves. On one hand you have to report immediately and correctly, and on the other hand you have to get your things through. And like any news-gathering effort, it involves two teams – the reporting team and the news desk, which some people call the backbone of any news organization.

Sometimes the desk thinks the reporter is being “over enthusiastic” or is “not quoting the authorities”. In television, as opposed to print media, a reporter’s life is made a bit more miserable because the desk bluntly says: “Don’t tell us! Show it!”

For Manawan it was much like this. The head office told me and reporter Shahid Hussain to stand in front of the camera and keep telling our viewers what was happening. We stood together, facing the camera and I took the microphone. I started throwing questions to Shahid when suddenly the exchange of fire intensified. We were about to take a commercial break. The countdown to the break started and just as we cut, a bullet was fired in our direction. We both dropped to the ground – that was some break!

But it isn’t just bullets that you need to dodge these days as a reporter. As Manawan proved to me, you have to keep yourself in check as a reporter and stay non-aligned. On that day, we had been at work since morning, watching the terrorist event unfold before our eyes and our security forces risk their lives. It was at about 3pm when a member of the Elite Force shouted the victorious ‘Allah hu-Akbar!’ from the roof of the training centre.

I was still in front of the camera and as the crowd started chanting ‘Allah hu-Akbar!’ I couldn’t help but feel a wave of pride rise up from inside me. But I kept thinking, ‘NO ADJECTIVES’ as I prepared to speak. I couldn’t say our forces fought bravely. I couldn’t express how I felt.

And it is with this irony and many more paradoxes that reporters deal with each day… not knowing when the next piece of news will break and where the next bullet will come from. SAMAA

SAMAA VIDEO - Watch Habib Akram's face change as he hears that the SL team has been attacked and see how he responds here:




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