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Hero Driver Still Traumatized by 2009 Attack

by AFP
Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Meher Khalil says militant assault on the Sri Lankan cricket team is best forgotten.

Meher Khalil earned fame and success after saving Sri Lanka’s cricket team from a deadly 2009 attack in Pakistan, but the bus driver calls the incident “tragic” and says it is best forgotten.

The 43-year-old will be one of the guests of honor at Lahore’s Qaddafi Stadium on Friday, when Pakistan play Zimbabwe in their first home international since the notorious incident.

Khalil was driving the team’s bus when extremists armed with rocket launchers and machine guns targeted the left eight people dead and seven players injured in an assault. The attack brought an end to international cricket in Pakistan, until Zimbabwe agreed to visit for a short series in Lahore, which will be held under unprecedented security.

Khalil was feted after he held his nerve to drive the team to safety, and with reward money from Sri Lanka’s government and donations from well-wishers, he started his own bus company.

Six years on, he told AFP that he wishes he could drive the Zimbabwe team to the stadium for the first Twenty20 international later on Friday. But he admits that his recollection of the events of March 3, 2009, still fills him with dread.

It took him a moment, he says in an interview, to realize what was happening. “Initially I thought that they were Lahoris and were celebrating with firecrackers,” he remembers. “But when two people came towards me and started firing at me then I realized that it was some other kind of work.”

Momentarily stupefied, he was shaken into action when the players began shouting “Go! Go!”

“Those words were like a 440-volt current jolting through my body. I gathered myself and then hit the throttle.” There were 10 to 12 people who attacked them as they were coming from the team hotel, he says. “Thank God I kept my confidence and dashed them [the players] safely to the stadium.”

Khalil said once the players were rescued and taken to a safe airbase for their return home, they wanted him to come along to Sri Lanka with them. “But I told them that I am a family man and excused myself at that time. Then a month later their president invited me and I went there,” he said. “When I reached the airport I realized that I am not the driver Meher Khalil who has come here but I am a VVIP. When I used to go out to the market for shopping, people would call me ‘hero’.”

Besides the praise and an expenses-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 along the Lahore to Islamabad motorway—an impressive feat for a man who once earned Rs. 35,000 a month.

On Friday, instead of driving Zimbabwe’s bus, he will take his place at the stadium as a spectator. “When the name Liberty Chowk comes up, even the mention of it raises my hair,” he said, referring to the roundabout just outside the stadium where the attack took place. “That was a tragic incident and it’s better if we don’t remember it.”

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