Cricket in Lahore: ‘2009 attack is best forgotten’

Driver of the Sri Lankan team guest of honour at Gaddafi Stadium.

Afp May 22, 2015
Khalil now runs a bus company he started using money awarded to him by the Sri Lankan cricket board. PHOTO: AFP

LAHORE: Meher Khalil earned fame for saving Sri Lanka’s cricket team from a deadly attack in 2009. The 43-year-old was one of the guests of honour at Gaddafi Stadium on Friday when Pakistan played against Zimbabwe in their first international game since the incident.

The bus driver calls the incident “tragic” and says it is best forgotten.

Khalil had been driving the team’s bus when it was attacked by a rocket launcher and gunmen in an assault that left eight people dead and seven players injured.

The attack brought an end to international cricket in Pakistan until Zimbabwe agreed to visit for a short series in Lahore.

Khalil was feted after he held his nerve to drive the team to safety.

He started his own bus company with the reward money from Sri Lanka’s government and donations from well-wishers.

Six years on, he tells AFP, that he wished he could drive the Zimbabwean team to the stadium for the first Twenty20 international.

He says the memory of the events of March 3, 2009, still haunts him.

“It took a moment,” he says, “to realise what was happening.”

“Initially I thought that they were some youth celebrating with firecrackers,” he recalls.”When two people came towards me and started shooting, I realised that this was something more sinister.”

He says he was momentarily stupefied but was shaken into action when Sri Lankan players began shouting “Go! Go!”

“Those words passed through me like a high-voltage current. I gathered myself and then hit the accelerator.”

There were 10 to 12 people who attacked them as they were coming from the team hotel, he says.Khalil says once the players were rescued and taken to a safe airbase to return home, they wanted him to come to Sri Lanka with them.

“I told them that I had a family and could not leave them,” he says.

“Then, a month later, their president invited me and I accepted,” he said.

“When I reached the airport I realised that I was not being treated like a driver who was visiting a foreign country but am a hero,” he says.

“When I used to go out to the market for shopping, people would call me a hero,” he adds.

Besides the praise and an all-expense paid holiday, the Sri Lankan government rewarded him with a cash prize of $21,000.

Together with private donations, he began his own company and now owns three buses which carry passengers from Lahore to Islamabad on the motorway.

On Friday, instead of driving the Zimbabwean bus, he took a seat as a spectator.“When someone mentions Liberty Chowk, I get goose bumps,” he said.

“It was a tragic incident and it is best forgotten,” Khalil says.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 23rd, 2015.


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