“Surely I Must Die!”
A Survivor of the Iranian Embassy Shoot-Out Tells His Story
“GET OUT! GET OUT!” The staccato command of the black-hooded SAS* men rang urgently above the din of the fiercely burning building. “Out! Out!” continued their insistent cry as we staggered through the dust and smoke of the darkened room that had been our prison and stumbled down the stairs over the rubble and debris to save our lives. Choking from the acrid smell of the grenades and spent ammunition and with eyes streaming, we were pushed through the back door of the embassy and pitched into the garden.
Vividly I recall the hysteria of the moment. Rolling over and over on the grass, my excitement mingled with sobs of joy. “The sky! The sky! I can see the sky! Thanks be to God!” I cried out again and again. All of us had been held hostage for six days. The nightmare was over, but tension and stress had taken their toll.
Yes, I did thank God that I was still alive, but now, over four years later, I have even more cause to thank him. Let me explain why.
My name is Ali Asghar Tabatabai. My name Tabatabai attests to the fact that I am considered a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, in my case through the line of both my father and my mother.
In 1980 I came to London, England, for a scholarship course in banking. On the morning of Wednesday, April 30, as I ran for my train I knew I had a busy day ahead of me. Had I not been in such a hurry and instead waited a few minutes for the next train, I would have avoided the traumatic experiences that were to follow. But there was no way of knowing that!
First, I called at the Iranian embassy to pick up some maps for a lecture I was to give at the bank. No sooner had I sat down to wait a few moments for them than I heard a commotion from the embassy entrance. Then six masked gunmen rushed in and ordered all of us upstairs. Within minutes, 26 people, including the policeman who had been on guard duty, were being held hostage. It all happened so quickly it was unbelievable.
I had never taken any active interest in politics, and my religious convictions, although sincerely held, were not profound. My true interests lay with my family and in my work. Banking in London was enjoyable, and life seemed to be improving for me as I pursued my studies. Little did I realize that soon everything I stood for was going to be put to the test.
As the police closed in and sealed off the building, we learned something about the men who were holding us captive. They told us that they had taken over the embassy to highlight problems in their homeland and that they would kill all of us by the next midday if the demands they were going to make were not met.
Living With Death—But Why?
After the first day had passed, it became apparent that the police authorities were playing for time and that they were not readily going to agree to the gunmen’s demands. Tension increased alarmingly. During this time, all of us tried hard to keep our spirits up. I had been given the name “Ali the Bank” and did my best to amuse my fellow captives to ease the strain. At times I would cash imaginary cheques or devise puzzles for the hostages to solve. It helped to while away the hours, but time still hung heavily and there was really nothing we could do about that.
As the frustration of the gunmen grew, it became increasingly obvious that the lives of all of us were in great danger. They constantly threatened to kill everyone, and armed to the teeth as they were it was evidently no idle threat. The tension became unbearable. Every hour or so one of the captives would convulse in sobs—it was terrifyingly unnerving. As I spoke fluent English, I was often able to mediate, and that took my mind off things. But one day I opened my passport and there inside I saw the photographs of my dear wife and children. I too burst into tears. Would I ever see them again? How would my wife cope with life in a foreign land? Would my small son lose his father as I had done at such an early age? I had no wish to die—there was so much to live for!
As I started to write out my will, I tried to reason with the leader of the gunmen. “What happens if you kill us?” I asked. “Our children will come and kill your children because you have killed us, and we are innocent!” “It is the law of the jungle,” was his terse reply. “I am simply a banker,” I told him. “I have nothing to do with politics and I do not want to die for political reasons.” “Stop begging for your life!” one of the hostage diplomats shouted back. “I am not begging,” I answered. “You are diplomats. You are paid a lot of money to work in this country and take risks. I am not, and I do not want to die for something I do not believe in.” I had made my point.
When in serious trouble, people sometimes become fervent in prayer. Many of my fellow captives prayed regularly and audibly, and Allah was heard repeatedly day and night. Perhaps I should explain that Allah is the Arabic word for “God.” In Persian, my language, we use the comparable word “Khuddah” for “God,” the Creator. I prayed to Khuddah many times, but I felt that my prayers would be unacceptable as I was unable to wash as I had been taught I should do before praying.
My thoughts were so disjointed. I could not understand why Khuddah had allowed all these terrible things to happen. All my life I had done my best. What sort of God was he to allow me to be killed, as I felt sure I would be? Yet I had to admit that I had lived a life of pleasure, just pleasing myself. What had I ever done for Khuddah? Indeed, what do I know about him? I asked myself.
It was at one of these moments that I vowed to Khuddah that if there was any way my life could be spared, for my family’s sake, I would really try to find him and serve him for the rest of my life. I truly meant what I said.
“Surely I Must Die!”
The days dragged on. Finally, in desperation the gunmen brutally killed the first hostage and bundled the corpse out of the embassy front door. Ironically, it was the diplomat who had told me to stop begging for my life. The terrorists proclaimed that if their demands were still ignored, they would kill the rest of us at 45-minute intervals! As soon as this became known, the SAS struck—just after seven o’clock in the evening of the sixth day. Their swift action was watched on television screens throughout the world.
Inside the embassy, pandemonium broke loose. The smashing of windows, the exploding of stun grenades and the rapid repeat fire of machine guns filled the air. Immediately three of the terrorists burst into our prison room and within moments opened fire indiscriminately as we lay crouched on the floor. My immediate thought was, ‘Surely I must die!’
I saw the gunman turn toward me. He raised his pistol and fired. I heard and felt nothing, but within seconds my clothing was covered with blood. I clutched at my jacket in a pitiful attempt to shield myself. He aimed a second and a third shot directly at me—yet to my amazement I was not killed. How could it be?
As already recounted, we were rescued after a short, sharp battle and rushed to the hospital. Seeing the state I was in, all the doctors thought I had been seriously injured. But a close examination revealed nothing at all—except a bullet (apparently the second shot) that had become inexplicably wrapped up in my shirt, having just seared my back. Then why all the blood? I later discovered that at the first shot it had spurted from the hostage lying next to me. What of the third shot? When the police returned to the embassy, they found the remains of my jacket and in one of the pockets a severely dented 50-pence coin. It had saved my life. No wonder I am called the mystery man in the police files. How could anybody survive three point-blank shots as I had done! I thought, “Thanks be to Khuddah” indeed!
Fulfilling My Vow
I was restored to my loving family, and we decided to remain in England. But constantly I relived the nightmare of my ordeal. Rehabilitation was extremely difficult, yet how very grateful I was to be alive! What, then, of my vow to Khuddah? I knew I must do something—but what? I had no idea.
Unknown to me, for some months my wife, Shirin, had regularly accepted copies of The Watchtower and Awake! as she found that they were a good help to her in learning English. Later when a member of the local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses called to see me, I politely listened. I found the references to the Bible interesting and checked them in a Persian copy. But when I was told that God, Khuddah, had a name, that was something different! Yes, I had a name and was proud of my name, and now the Bible clearly showed me that Khuddah had a personal name—Jehovah! Eagerly I learned all I could about him from my Bible studies.
Now I could see! Khuddah was not just a God to be bowed down to and worshipped at set times of the day, but he was an individual, personal God, with a loving purpose for mankind. Not a God who simply demands worship, but someone who cares for us individually—for me and my family, personally! My picture was complete. Gladly I would serve Jehovah!
From this point on, things moved rapidly, and now my wife and I are both baptized witnesses of Jehovah. As we were welcomed into the worldwide association of Jehovah’s people, the kindness and generosity expressed toward my family exceeded any possible expectation. Not only did our new spiritual brothers and sisters give their time teaching us the truth of God’s Word but they gave us material necessities too in abundance as we set about rebuilding our lives.
As the days go by, memories do fade, it is true. But the terror of the six-day siege still remains vividly in my mind. Now, however, I realise that such tragic happenings will soon be forever things of the past. Also, in Jehovah’s New Order of righteousness now near at hand, such sad memories will never need to be “called to mind, neither will they come up into the heart.” (Isaiah 65:17) For such grand promises my family and I now gratefully thank and praise Jehovah.
Special Air Service regiment of the British army.
[Blurb on page 20]
The kindness and generosity expressed toward my family exceeded any possible expectation
[Picture on page 17]
I burst into tears when I saw the photographs of my wife and children
[Picture on page 18]
In desperation the gunmen brutally killed the first hostage
[Picture on page 19]
A 50-pence coin such as this saved my life