Shamas-ur-Rehman Alvi should be dead. But he isn’t. This evening he sits uneasily in his Karachi living room as he remembers the morning that he got a second chance at life. The six foot tall, slim twenty-five year old runs his free hand through his hair nervously before he painstakingly begins to recreate the events of a day that he has tried hard to forget, simply for the sake of moving on with his life — a life that should have been cut short, but miraculously continues.
On 28th July last year, at 7:50 am, Alvi was scheduled to be on board Air-Blue flight ED-202, on his way to Islamabad to attend the last session of the Youth Parliament of Pakistan. At 9:25 am, the flight, which carried 152 passengers including five children, two infants and six crew members, crashed near Islamabad in the Margalla Hills. There were no survivors.
When the flight’s passenger list became public, Alvi’s name began surfacing on news channels and websites. He was included in the list of victims of the crash, and everyone thought he was dead.
It seems like Alvi still finds it difficult to accept that he isn’t. “I have calculated the odds of not boarding a flight that is going to crash again and again and again. They are close to zero,” says Alvi slowly. “The probability is less than getting attacked by a shark and surviving.
The night before the crash, Alvi sat with his parents, talking about the session of the Youth Parliament of Pakistan he was flying to Islamabad to attend along with nine of his fellow parliamentarians. It was going to be an exciting session, this last one, since it was to be attended by some of the country’s most prominent ministers and ambassadors, including prominent politicians such as Ahsan Iqbal, Shahbaz Sharif and Raza Rabbani.
But Alvi couldn’t shake an odd feeling about his trip to the capital, a feeling he’d been having ever since he first received his ticket in the mail two days before the flight. “I had such a strong feeling that I wasn’t going to take this flight,” he says. “I was hesitant, hesitant to the point that… I don’t know how I can describe this… but I just knew I wasn’t going to take that flight,” says Alvi, “In fact I kept on telling myself : ‘I can’t take it’.”
Looking back, he feels like he kept inventing reasons to stay in Karachi. He didn’t want to leave his father, who is also his boss at Alvi Petroleum, to handle their family business by himself. “But he insisted I had to go. ‘Don’t worry about work, just get on that flight’,” he told me,” says Alvi.But fate had other plans.
The morning of the crash, Alvi opened his eyes at 8 am. He realised he had missed his flight and was sure that he would start getting calls at noon from his friends at the parliament session when they noticed he was missing. On his way to work he grabbed his plane ticket and put it in his pocket. Alvi reached work at 9:30 am and logged onto a news website, only to see a item about a plane crash near the Margalla Hills.
“I was shocked, but not even for a second did I consider that this could be the same plane I had missed,” he says. The very next minute, his phone rang, and it was Khizer Pervaiz, a fellow parliamentarian who had also missed his flight to attend a meeting. “He heard my voice and started to cry,” says Alvi. “I remember exactly what he said, very clearly: ‘They’re all dead!’” All of Alvi’s fellow parliamentarians, along with the other hapless passengers on that flight, had become victims of a deadly plane crash.
After taking Pervaiz’s call, Alvi went straight home. He walked into his house to find his father a tearful mess, muttering apologies amidst his sobs. “He remembered how he kept insisting that I board the flight,” recalled Alvi, “and it broke my heart to see him like that.”
For Alvi, the next few days were a bit like dying but coming back to attend his own funeral. “My close friends said they did not have the courage to pick up the phone and call me and see if I would answer or not,” he says, “and I kept thinking about what my parents would have gone through if I had died.”
But this was not the only conflict Alvi had to deal with. While he was being strong for his friends and family, Alvi was also dealing with survivor’s guilt and grief for his friends’ deaths. Alvi was painfully aware that he was alive, perhaps, for no other reason than that he could afford to miss his flight that day.
“The tickets were free for us, sent to us by the government. If we wanted to change our dates or work around our schedule, we had to pay an additional Rs1,200. If you deliberately missed a flight, you had to pay for the cost of the ticket out of your own pocket as a penalty. I come from a wealthy family; I didn’t really care about how much I would have to pay if I missed the flight, but the others didn’t have that luxury. In fact, I remember that once Bilal Jung’s trip was clashing with his exams, and he went out of his way to get his exam dates changed so that he would not have to miss the flight and pay the penalty fee.”
A couple of months ago, Alvi made his way to the Karachi Marriott, where the Youth Parliament held a memorial for those who had lost their lives in the crash. He knew that the parents of his deceased friends would be attending. He was soberly dressed and had an excellent speech prepared, but as he got closer to the venue, fear overtook him. How many of these parents would wonder, when they looked at him, why Alvi got to live and their child didn’t? As he entered the room, Alvi’s eye fell on the stage, where six photographs hung against the backdrop, and a row of parents sat before them. Alvi knew that his own picture could easily have been up there, and his own parents could have been seated on that platform.
However, when he met his friends’ parents, they were very warm to him, and told him that they had heard all about him from their children. Realising that he had benefited from knowing his friends, even for a short time, helped release some of Alvi’s grief, even though the emotion, along with anger, still resurfaces now and then.
“I don’t know what I’m angry at,” says Alvi. “But I am just so angry. Angry at a force I cannot control, some call it fate, some say it’s the pilot’s fault and some call it an error.”
Alvi is silent for a while and then adds: “I’ve lost six friends. I’m angry because it wasn’t their fault. I’m angry because they were harmless, upstanding bright Pakistanis who believed in a better Pakistan. I felt this desire emanate from them because I worked with them, and this anger will not subside for a while.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 31st, 2011.