Beaten, blinfolded, stabbed, starved and frozen: the unimaginable hell of Flight 814's hostages

Click to follow
The Independent Online

They have been squashed into aircraft economy seats, day and night, for nearly a week. They have been barked at, blindfolded, separated from their spouses and children, beaten, tied up, and threatened with death.

They have been squashed into aircraft economy seats, day and night, for nearly a week. They have been barked at, blindfolded, separated from their spouses and children, beaten, tied up, and threatened with death.

They have been starved: at one point they went 26 hours without being given anything to eat. They have huddled long hours in the dark and the freezing cold, and then sweated in an unventilated plane in the boiling heat. They have spent days and days unable to escape the stench of overflowing lavatories.

And still the 155 hostages on board Indian Airlines flight IC814, stranded since Saturday at Kandahar Airport in southern Afghanistan, can have no inkling of how it will end.

But they have vivid memories of how it started. Kathmandu is a cheerful, modern airport, and because most travellers passing through it are on holiday, on honeymoon or on their way to climb mountains or gamble in casinos, the mood is lively and cheerful. Flight IC814, though a couple of hours late leaving, was no different. The passengers included honeymooners, Indian Embassy staff returning home on leave, a party of shopkeepers who had won this holiday in Nepal as a prize for the quality of their shop, and several surgeons returning from a conference of neurosurgeons in Kathmandu.

At least one of the surgeons, Dr Girish Tyagi, of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, decided to combine the conference with a family holiday. With him on board were his wife, Pooja, and their two sons, five-year-old Chiragh, who has a speech impediment, and two-year-old Vishal.

The A300 Airbus finally took off at 4.25pm last Friday, Christmas Eve, with 189 people on board, including 11 crew members. Honeymooners took snaps of each other. Though dry, like all Indian Airlines flights, the mood was happy and convivial.

At 4.50pm, the plane had dropped down from the Himalayas to the north Indian plain and the city of Lucknow, and the staff began serving a snack meal. Suddenly five or six men, all young, several of them tall and gaunt, pulled on balaclava helmets, drew guns and knives and ran down the aisles yelling that the plane had been hijacked.

"We thought the honeymooners were having a lark," recalled one of the passengers who was later released at Dubai.

They quickly found out that it was no lark. The hijackers were armed with pistols, grenades and kitchen knives. They flicked the trays of food on to the floor and ordered the passengers to close their tables, and sit with their heads between their knees and not to look up. Mothers were brusquely told to shut up their crying children.

Families were broken up, women and children herded to the back and men to the front. All hand luggage was carted to the business class compartment at the front, to prevent enterprising passengers attempting to remove anything that might serve as a weapon.

From their first announcement on, the hijackers awed their captives by the degree of planning and co-ordination they demonstrated. No detail had been overlooked. They spoke to each other only in whispers or by sign language, or in huddles out of the passengers' sight. They apparently stayed awake all night. They positioned themselves so as to have all sections of the plane in view.

It appears now that Afghanistan, home of an Islamic fundamentalist regime sympathetic to the hijackers' ultimate goal of "liberating" Kashmir from India, was always their intended destination. But the first hitch in their plans came when Lahore in Pakistan denied the plane permission to land. Pleading shortage of fuel, the pilot insisted on landing in the north Indian city of Amritsar.

This was India's moment of opportunity - wasted - and the hijackers' moment of great danger. They reacted with shocking brutality. They singled out seven of the strongest-looking male passengers, forced them towards the front of the plane and tied their hands behind their backs. Via the pilot, they demanded fuel - but within a few minutes they lost patience and declared that they were starting to kill passengers.

One of the seven, Satnam Singh, was dragged to the food preparation area at the front and stabbed in the jaw. (He survived, and is now recuperating in Delhi.) Another passenger, Ripan Katyal, who was returning from his honeymoon, was dragged out of the seat by his hair and stabbed in the neck. He subsequently died from loss of blood. The other five were beaten up, and before refuelling could commence the plane took off.

It was a tortuous odyssey from Kathmandu to Kandahar by way of Amritsar, Lahore (the plane landed, without permission, with the airport in total darkness) and Dubai, where 27 women and children were released in exchange for food and fuel. But the passengers, their window shades closed, under strict orders not to look at anything, blindfolded with strips of cloth torn from the backs of the seats, and with no communication from the cockpit, had no idea where they were or where they were headed.

At Kandahar, the journey finished - but the real nightmare had just begun. On an Airbus 300, lavatories should be emptied and cleaned even after a routine eight-hour flight. During four days of use they were not touched. On Monday, Taliban commanders surrounded the aircraft; the hijackers showed their displeasure by refusing to accept any food for the hostages for 26 hours. Then early on Tuesday morning, the auxiliary power unit which had kept the air-conditioning working and the air at a tolerable temperature in a zone where at night the temperature falls to minus 10 degrees celsius and at noon climbs to the mid-20s, finally gave up the ghost after 72 hours of continuous operation. For 11 hours the passengers, still squashed rigid into those economy seats, were breathing their own stale exhalations, their sweat, their vomit and their excrement.

Conditions have since improved. Lavatories are being emptied, food and water are said to be arriving regularly; hostages have been reported to be playing cards or chess, listening to music on the plane's sound system or reading. But those images should not deceive. The suffering these unlucky 155 people have endured is unimaginable.

Even the hale and the young will be suffering blood clots, risking deep vein thrombosis from long periods of forced immobility. The older passengers will risk heart attack, and any chronic conditions they have will be aggravated. Among the passengers are two cancer patients and a 14-year-old with kidney disease. All have been deprived of their usual medicines.

Emotional numbness will be the brain's defence against the intolerable pressure that has been imposed, a zombie-like state, rendering all normal reactions sluggish.

And spare a thought for five-year-old Chiragh Tyagi, the little boy who can't speak properly. At Dubai, his mother, Pooja and his small brother, Vishal, were hustled off the plane to safety - but in the confusion Chiragh got left behind. Throughout the ordeal he has been separated from his father at the opposite end of the plane: unable to speak, unable to comprehend what he has been subjected to or why; and with no idea at all how it will end.

Comments