'Knew I Was First Target': Amarnath Bus Driver's Race To Save Pilgrims

'Knew I Was First Target': Amarnath Bus Driver's Race To Save Pilgrims

Saleem, who drove Amarnath pilgrims to safety, is being held up as example of humanity beyond religion.

For the first few seconds Saleem Shaikh could barely fathom what was happening. But when bullets started hitting the windshield and every other part of the bus from all sides, he stepped on the gas, driving through a shower of bullets for nearly a kilometer to save dozens of lives. For his feat, the driver of the ill-fated bus carrying 61 Amarnath Yatra pilgrims that became the target of a terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir on Monday is an instant hero in his hometown of Valsad in Gujarat.

"I thought to myself that I will die, but I knew I had to keep going. So I kept going forward," Saleem said of the near-death experience.

It was one of the worst attacks in Jammu and Kashmir in recent times. Seven pilgrims, returning from the annual Amarnath Yatra in a bus with many others, were killed when terrorists opened fire on the vehicle on Monday night.

Saleem was driving 61 Amarnath pilgrims from Baltal to Mir Bazar after a visit to the shrine when the horror unfolded on road. Terrorists on two motorcycles chased the bus - it was travelling without the usual police escort as it was not registered with the official yatra convoy -- before they struck them from all three sides.

Saleem's modest accommodation of a one room apartment in Gujarat's Valsad was flooded with friends and family hailing him as an example of humanity beyond religion. As he received a hero's welcome at home, Saleem recounted the scene of the chilling night of how the bus he was driving got separated from a military escort.

"There was no elaborate military convoy guiding the vehicles," Saleem said. "There were two three vehicles and there were 1 to 2 military vehicles with us," he added.

The bus that left Srinagar at around 4 pm on Monday halted barely after covering 5-7 kilometres due to a flat tyre. The journey was delayed by three hours.

As he drove along the Srinagar-Anantnag route, Saleem recollected "Nobody stopped us anywhere. After every 3-4 kilometres there were armed guards but nobody stopped us."

When the firing started, Saleem said, he did not see the terrorists on the motorcycles. It was later at the hospital that the passengers told him that they saw the men.

Saleem kept driving as he heard the bullet sounds. "They first hit the windshield and it was completely shattered. I couldn't even lean out to see the road. I had to lean inside," he said, being aware that he was their first target.

Seated next to him, a passenger was hit by a bullet on the shoulder and two others grazed him.

The bus was attacked again near a police check-post a few hundred metres away. Saleem didn't stop until he spotted an army camp, saving the lives of over 50 bus-riders.

Saleem has been bringing pilgrims to Anantnag for four years now and said he is aware of the dangers on the route. "I know what happens in Anantnag," he said referring to the stone pelting that often takes place.

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