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The Rediff Special/Kollattu Ravikumar

'They looked at my recent hair cut and asked me if I worked for the intelligence service'

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Kollattu Ravikumar, 41, a merchant navy captain working for the US-based Navitrek, had wanted to visit Kathmandu before 2000 rolled in. So late last month, Ravikumar -- while on a brief vacation -- went for a leisurely holiday to the Himalayan nation.

He had planned to take a taxi and drive all the way to Delhi. But on December 24, he changed his mind. He'd take a quicker way down, he thought. And so he boarded Indian Airlines Flight IC-814, bound for Delhi...

Now, reunited with his wife Geeta and sons Rageeth, Raveeth and Ranjeeth in Kochi, Ravikumar recounts his eight-day ordeal in the hijacked aircraft.

December 24: I had planned to drive down to Delhi from Kathmandu. But I was tired and did not want to sit in a car for 36 hours. Thus, on December 22 morning, I went to the Indian Airlines office in Kathmandu to book a ticket. I got a ticket, but it was waitlisted 13. Unlucky number, I thought. But the IA reservation counter said the ticket would be confirmed by evening. I enquired in the evening and the ticket was waitlisted 4. On December 23, the ticket was confirmed.

I reached Kathmandu airport for the scheduled checking-in at 11.30 am. But the flight was late and we were told it would take off at 1630 hours, three hours later than the usual time of 1330 hours. Meanwhile, the flights to Calcutta and Varanasi took off. The Delhi flight arrived around 1545 hours and we were rushed through the security. I went through the metal detector but it did not react to my keys or the belt buckle. Perhaps it is not working, I thought.

I was sitting on seat number 29 B. Twenty minutes into the flight, airhostesses were moving up and down the aisles serving drinks and refreshments. Suddenly, a tall man wearing a monkey cap emerged out of the executive class. We could see his eyes and nose. He carried pistol and a hand grenade. He shouted: "Don't move. Plane hijack ho gaya hai." The passenger sitting beside me muttered, "It is a mock exercise."

I felt nervous, but suddenly remembered a Hollywood movie that I'd seen years ago. In it, there was a scene in which an airline conducts a mock exercise to gauge the travellers' reactions. "Oh, the Indian Airlines is also doing a mock rehearsal," I thought.

But satisfaction at Indian Airlines' security-preparedness did not last long. I soon realised I was wrong when a bulky man also wearing a monkey cap rose from an economy class seat and walked up to his tall companion who handed him the grenade. They together screamed: "This plane is hijacked. Put your heads down." The bulky guy then walked to the cockpit, grenade in hand. I was in disbelief. But soon the captain's words filtered through:

"This flight has been hijacked. Kindly obey the hijackers' orders." Panic rose in me as I put down my head. Tears rolled down my face as I thought of my wife and children.

Soon there was a disturbance and two more hijackers in masks emerged. Those who disobeyed orders were slapped hard. Some passengers who were coming back from the toilets were dragged to seats and made to sit. I heard people crying. The airhostesses were stuck with the trolleys on the aisles.

"What happened? What happened?" everybody was asking. In five minutes, total silence descended as the truth sank in. The plane was actually hijacked and death now probably lay ahead.

It could have been an hour in the air at the time. The way the flight was moving, I felt it was going to land. I did not know where it was. (Now I know it was Amritsar). I badly wanted to visit the toilet. So I raised my hand. One hijacker came to me and put a pistol on my head.

"Kya chahiye, " he asked me.

"I want to go to the toilet," I said.

"No, you cannot go," came the harsh reply. He then started questioning me: "What is your name?" "Where are you from?" "Where do you work?" "Show me your identity card," he ordered.

My professional identity card was in the bag. I had only the voter identity card from the Election Commission in the wallet.

"Are you working here," he asked.

I said, "No."

Soon one more hijacker joined the questioner. They looked at my recent hair cut and asked me if I worked for the intelligence service.

Soon after the inquisition, the plane took off. Then only did I realise that it wasn't flying during their interrogation. I was shaken. I sat with my head down, not knowing whether the flight was landing in Amritsar or Lahore. I had a pen in my pocket. I took it out and jotted down the landing and take-off times on my jeans.

Things quietened down for a while. But soon there was another commotion. All the passengers in the business class were ordered to get up and move to the economy class. All the cabin baggage was taken out and put in the aisles. The air-hostesses were ordered to take the baggage and put them in the business class.

Ten passengers were told to move to the business class. It seems the hijackers wanted these ten passengers to be the first targets in the event of any attempt to attack the aircraft. Rupin Katyal was sitting in the business class. Now I read that he was stabbed to death for disobeying the hijackers' command. That may be true. I feel certain that Katyal must have been looking back for his wife Rachna and that angered the hijackers.

I felt a little relieved when the flight landed in Dubai. It seemed like the hijackers had relaxed by then. They said some passengers would be released there. One hijacker came to my side and asked the lady sitting on seat number 28 to get out immediately if she wants to go home. She was perplexed. Her husband and child were sitting somewhere else and she did not want to go out alone. So she did not go and sat there. One tall hijacker came to me and said: "You can go to the toilet." I was sure they would not let me off in Dubai.

December 25: The flight took off from Dubai to an unknown destination. I was tense. I slept with my heads down. It must have been around 2 am that the hijackers begun to shout, "Keep your heads down or we will kill you."

I slept again and when I awoke the aircraft was stationary. It was Kandahar, I later learnt. I thought it was Christmas day, when my town would be lit all over with stars and festivities.

My body hurt and I had cramps all over. I was not hungry. May be fear had nipped my hunger. The whole day went like that. But we could put our heads up and relax. It seemed after the plane landed in Kandahar and the hijackers eased the rules. We could go to the toilet. They did not slap people but they often shouted and abused the Indian government. The first meal came very late in the evening.

December 26: It was the day after Christmas, I thought in the morning. We were served fruits and soft drinks for breakfast. The hijackers would walk down the aisles with knives. I then began observing them. One or two hijackers even began talking to some passengers.

Their leader was the tall man sitting in the cockpit. He must have been around 40. The four hijackers who were watching over us also had a leader, called Berger. It was Berger who used to often shout. As Berger called them, I caught the names of the others -- Bola, Shankar and Doctor.

Bola was always angry. Shankar looked like a well-built commando. But Doctor was the nicest of the hijackers. He seemed mild.

I hear Berger talking to a passenger next to me. "I am sorry that you are in this situation. We have nothing against you personally." The day went off incident-free. But the passenger next to me told me that his friend sitting beside him saw blood in one of the business class seats. That was where they had killed Rupin Katyal.

December 27: Another night went without incident. Today, it was not food that begun to worry us, it was the toilets. After two days, they were full and the smell inside was unbearable. Nobody wanted food and drinks. The morning breakfast was bread and water. It was some kind of an Afghani bread. When Berger came over, I picked up the courage to tell him that the toilets were stinking.

"Kindly make arrangements to clean the toilets."

He looked up. He was not as angry as he used to be on day one. After some hours, some Afghan workers came and cleaned the toilets. By then, we came to know that some kind of negotiation is taking place, though we did not know what exactly was happening. Berger would come and tell that the Indian government is not agreeing to their demands.

December 28: I was sick and tired of sitting. I thought of my home and wife and children. The whole day went off but by the evening the passengers begun to get angry. It seemed the negotiations were reaching nowhere. Bola walked in and out of the cockpit to abuse the government and threaten that they would kill all of us. I was restless. The hope that we would soon be let off began to fade.

The Afghan workers came to clean the toilets. But soon after they finished the hijackers became suspicious. They were lined up and thoroughly searched. Apparently the hijackers thought the Afghan government had sent a team of commandos to rescue the passengers.

December 29: I was very tired though I had slept well the night before. But I had been watching the militant hijackers and knew they hadn't slept at all. I saw one of them taking a tablet -- may be some pill to keep them up nights, I thought. But now they began sleeping in turns. Two of them slept while the other two waited.

Often I felt we ought to attack the hijackers. I could easily overpower one of them. But none of us were in a condition to attack. We didn't know how it would all end. As negotiations with the government progressed, the hijackers became much freer. They begun allowing us to sit anywhere and play cards. Some passengers sang to relieve the tension and fear. Others talked endlessly to others about personal and family matters.

But as night approached one of the hijackers barked at us:

"Your government is not bothered about your well-being." Maybe the negotiations were not progressing smoothly, I thought. They said they would kill us all since they did not want to wait any longer. Suddenly the hope that we'd survive and the resulting cheerfulness vanished. Not many of us slept this night. We thought the inevitable would happen that night.

December 30: I must have slept around 3 am. I woke up at 8 am. The usual Afghan bread was served for breakfast. I did not feel like eating. I was worried that the millennium would end in hours and I would be missing the celebrations. I was thinking of many things. Suddenly, in the afternoon, Bola announced we would all be freed. He said they have struck a deal with the Indian government. Many people wept, not out of fear, but due to emotion. I could barely control myself.

December 31: I woke up when the doors of the aircraft were thrown open. The air was fresh but chilly. We all knew then that we would be freed, but did not know when and how. We did not know what kind of a deal the government had struck with the militants. But we were happy that we were out of there. The minutes moved by very slowly. In the afternoon, we were told that we would all return to Delhi.

Bola came out around 3 pm and apologised: "We are sorry for what has happened to you. It was beyond our control." Soon the hijackers left the plane and we were on our way to Delhi.

The eight-day ordeal had ended.

I am sure about many things: The militants had meticulously planned the hijacking. They had conducted many rehearsals on how to conduct a hijacking. Each of them was told of his duty and he had carefully carried it out. I am sure they must have been planning it for, perhaps, two years or so. They must have also travelled in flights and thoroughly studied the moods of passengers and the duties of the flight crew.

Kollattu Ravikumar spoke to George Iype

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