x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The umpire who held on to life

Eight months on, Ahsan Raza returned to competitive cricket in Abu Dhabi this week for Pakistan's one-day match against New Zealand.

Ahsan Raza, a cricket umpire who was shot and wounded in the terror attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, Pakistan in March, points to a scar where broken glass entered his arm.
Ahsan Raza, a cricket umpire who was shot and wounded in the terror attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, Pakistan in March, points to a scar where broken glass entered his arm.

DUBAI // Ahsan Raza lay on the floor of the minibus, covered in blood and fighting for breath with two gunshot wounds to his chest. Bullets tore through the vehicle, shattering windows, as he thought of his three young daughters and prayed he would live to see them again.

Mr Raza was not a soldier at war. He was a cricket umpire, caught up in the ambush of the Sri Lankan national team in Pakistan earlier this year. It was the first attack on a national sports team since 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed by Palestinian militants at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. On March 3 in Lahore, about a dozen gunmen using AK-47s, grenades and rockets launched an assault on a convoy of minibuses carrying the Sri Lankan team and game officials.

Mr Raza, a 36-year-old Pakistani, was a casualty of the ongoing battle between armed fundamentalists and Taliban forces who are struggling to wrestle power from the Pakistani government. Eight men were killed and seven wounded in the seven-minute battle in the heart of the city, less than a mile from the Gaddafi Stadium, where Sri Lanka was due to play Pakistan. One bullet punctured Mr Raza's right lung, another hit his liver. "I thought I was going to die. I was 100 per cent sure of it," he said, pausing frequently to take deep breaths as he recounted the attack.

"The trauma of it is always with me. I used to have bad dreams. I can remember the fear." He stayed in a hospital's intensive care unit for 26 days, and needed 22 bottles of blood to survive. Doctors twice warned his family that they feared that he would die. This week, however, the former wicket-keeper and batsman has returned to the international stage. On Monday, he took part in his first international match since the attack, when he was appointed fourth umpire at the one-day International between New Zealand and Pakistan in Abu Dhabi.

Today, he will be the third umpire in the Twenty20 match between the same two sides in Dubai. Mr Raza said he was eager to put the horror behind him. His memories of the attack are crystalline. His minibus was behind the Sri Lankan team in an armed police convoy heading to the stadium. He was sitting behind the driver and looked up as the first shots were fired. He saw two policemen ahead of him fall dead.

"I shouted to everyone to get down on the floor. Then the bullets started to hit our bus. I was lying on the floor by the door and I could hear Chris [Broad, the International Cricket Council umpire] screaming. "I got up to try and comfort him and that is when I was hit. One bullet went through the front of my chest near my armpit, and the second went in the middle of my stomach. "The pain was terrible. It felt like burning. There was a lot of blood and I was so thirsty. I kept asking Chris to get me something to drink."

He was left with only 60 per cent use of his lung. "I can never forgive them for [what they did]," he said. "It is not just what they did to me and the other men that day, but what they did to my country. They tried to ruin my country's reputation." Since the attack, Pakistan has been stripped of its right to host international cricket matches and it seems unlikely that the ban will be lifted after a series of recent violent attacks.

But Mr Raza is optimistic for the future. He said: "After the attack, I had planned to spend the rest of my life in England, but then I changed my mind. I thought, if I do that, it means I am scared of them [the gunmen]. It means those people who are trying to intimidate us, win. "It was wonderful to get back on to the field this week. It was exhilarating. "I just hope it will not be too long until international cricket comes back to Pakistan."

chamilton@thenational.ae