Mehar Mohammad Khalil: A hero across borders

By Aamna Mahboob

LAHORE: Mehar Mohammad Khalil’s job was to drive buses. Today he is being hailed as a lifesaver after he drove the bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricketers to safety, through a hail of gunfire on Tuesday.
Khalil, the bus driver who saved the lives of the Sri Lankan cricket team during the terror attack is now considered a big hero in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Khalil kept a cool head and drove the bus to safety when it came under gunfire, grenade and rocket attack from terrorists.

His routine while the visiting team was in Pakistan was to get up at 6 in the morning, and take the team daily from the hotel to the stadium. He was usually busy with the guest team members, till late at night.
The night before the attack he had decided to stay at the hotel instead of going home as he usually did. “The previous morning I decided I would stay in the hotel that night, as I get home late and felt I didn’t get enough sleep as I had to report for duty early in the morning,” Khalil told The Sunday Times in an interview in Lahore on Friday.

The man of the hour. AFP

Khalil had 22 years of driving experience and had worked as a bus diver for many VIP’s and foreign visiting teams. He said he even had the honour of driving Prince Charles on his visit to Pakistan during President Musharraf’s era. “I have driven many foreign delegations especially sports delegations,” he said.

Re-living Tuesday’s incident he said, he was turning the bus towards the Gaddafi stadium near the main roundabout (Liberty roundabout in Lahore) when he heard what he first thought were some firecrackers going off. But when he saw the elite force cars in front of him getting hit he realized it was gunfire and not firecrackers. The next thing he knew was a rocket being fired at them but it missed the bus and hit an electric pole, after which all hell broke loose. He said, “Suddenly I lost my voice.”

“However, I gained courage when I realized that the other elite car was giving the bus cover. I started thinking and decided to drive off from there,” he said.

He said he kept his foot pressed on the pedal as bullets ripped into the vehicle and explosions filled the air. “My only thought at that time was that the Sri Lankans were guests of my country and its image would be ruined if any of the players got seriously injured. This gave me the courage to drive into the stadium.”

“If we had stopped, a rocket would have hit us. The situation was very dangerous and I thought we might survive so let me try and save my guests,” he said adding that the road ahead of him was clear and it was easy for him to drive straight into the stadium.

Giving his views on the attackers who created horror and put a black mark on Pakistan’s image he said, “they were skilled and knew what they wanted. God was with us. They threw a grenade under the bus which exploded after the bus had passed over it.”

Khalil 42 said he had developed a good rapport with the players. “The players were very friendly. When terror struck, they showed quick sense of reaction and saved themselves by falling flat on the floor of the bus as heavy firing erupted from both sides of the bus.

Although hailing from a cricket-crazy city, he personally wasn’t a cricket enthusiast. “I like football and hockey because they finish within one or one and half hours. I don’t have much time to watch games,” Khalil said.

Khalil, a father of four, the eldest of whom is studying in class 5 said his family means a lot to him but at the time of the attack all he thought of was protecting the innocent Sri Lankan players and the image of his country.

“Almighty Allah gave me courage and strength to protect the players and I did it for Pakistan,” he said.
Much has been said and written about the security lapses but Khalil says that the security was sufficient. “When you suddenly get attacked you need time to react. No place on earth is safe however tight the security maybe,” he said.

Khalil believes the cowardly act was not carried out by Pakistanis but feels that a foreign hand was behind it. He praised the discipline of the Lankan team when under attack. He said he felt particularly honoured when his favourite Sri Lankan player Muttiah Muralitharan gave him his T-shirt and cap at the airport when they were leaving. The other players too spoke to him and thanked him for his act of bravery.

“When I heard later that Sri Lankans are calling me their hero I was amazed” he said, adding that he would love to visit Sri Lanka one day.

(The writer was formerly a journalist attached to The Sunday Times. She is now in Pakistan)

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