It was supposed to be the announcement of Australia’s newest and third-youngest Test captain. The start of a new bright era for a country trying its best to get over a dreadful bereavement. But it began on a mournful note as Cricket Australia extended their solidarity with those stuck in the Sydney siege. Australia had woken up to another nightmare. Two weeks after it had seen Phillip Hughes, a young man of 25, killed on the field of play, an entire nation gaped in shock and despair as a gunman laid siege to a popular coffee shop in a busy part of Sydney holding more than at least 30 hostages with him.
In the summer, work starts early Down Under. And it’s common for office-goers to leave home by 7am or earlier. And the coffee-shops around the CBDs are where they head first for a quick cuppa. The ones around Sydney’s office district end up being the busiest, and the Lindt café at Martin Place was among the most popular. The area is surrounded by four tourist hotels and with Christmas season imminent, by 9.45 am the area was buzzing with people and activity.
Little did they know that the holiday spirit would be punctured in the worst manner possible and that they were to become targets of a terror attack.
“There is a police operation underway in Sydney,” were the ominous words that sounded from the television as all news channels broke away from whatever else they were broadcasting and shifted their gaze to midtown Sydney. Their gaze would remain fixated on the chilling scenes of a bearded man in a bandana wielding a gun, and a handful of petrified hostages fleeing the scene for the rest of the day.
Then came the images of a hostage being forced to hold a black flag with Arabic text against a window.
The initial reactions around Australia were those of absolute disbelief. The general feeling had always been that they were far away from the terror hotspots. That Sydney in particular was a city that stood for happiness, freedom and friendliness. Then the mood turned to dread as rumours began circulating that home-made explosives had been placed in significant landmarks across the city. The Sydney Opera House was soon evacuated, and so were a number of office buildings in the nearby area. Those working in and around Martin Place were asked to stay put in their offices as the New South Wales police and security personnel enclosed the area.
In Brisbane, the Indian cricket team had just begun their practice session at the Gabba. And they reached the stadium to find a beefed up security presence. News had spread across the country by then that terror had arrived in Australia.
As the day wore on, tensions grew elsewhere as well. Rumours abound of Muslims across the country being targeted. One report claimed that a bunch of women of Islamic background had been beaten up in Sydney. Close to 40 Australian Muslim groups had spent the day condemning the siege. There was support on hand for the Muslims of Australia as #iwillridewithyou became the most-trending hashtag of the day with local Aussies promising to provide their brethren security and promise to travel with them in buses and trains.
While the identities of the hostages remained unknown, one was identified as an Indian working for Infosys. Then reports emerged about the perpetrator forcing hostages to speak to media outlets, and demanding an interview with Prime Minister Tony Abbott on live radio.
Throughout the day, Abbott and police officials, including the deputy commissioner of New South Wales were on TV pledging safety to their compatriots and asking them to remain calm. But Australia went to bed on Monday night with dread and fear, their first major tryst with terror sinking in uncomfortably.
“First Phillip? Now the Sydney siege? What next?” was the general mood on the streets of Brisbane and maybe across the country.