A trip to Turkey ended in terror for a young Cape Town couple who were about to board their flight home when gunmen opened fire at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on Tuesday night.
Caeri Dunnell, 26, and Nikish Hiraman, 27, were smelling perfumes in a duty free shop when the first shots rang out. It was the beginning of a terror attack that left at least 42 dead and more than 230 injured.
“We knew instantly it was gunshots, like an AK47 sound,” Dunnell said. “We ducked down instantly and I thought we were honestly going to die – that the gunman would appear right there and we were completely cornered at the back of the store.
“Everyone was trying to keep quiet and a lady next to me was weeping. I kept thinking, I don’t want to die’ over and over.”
Dunnell, a research analyst from Walmer Estate, said the gunman came onto her floor of the airport and fired shots, but she couldn’t see him as they took cover in the duty free shop.
“Then security motioned us to run down the side to the food court so we ducked and ran,” she said. “Little kids were going slowly in front of me so I tried to make them move to safety.”
It was at that moment that one of the gunmen detonated his suicide vest on the floor below.
“Then we heard the explosion – it was muffled, but we could hear it was some kind of bomb.”
Three suicide bombers were responsible for the attack, opening fire in the departures hall then detonating their bombs one floor down in and around the arrivals hall. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has said it appeared to be an IS attack.
The airport was closed after the attack, as security searched the building for other explosives. Dunnell and Hiraman were moved to the food court with the rest of the travellers in the airport.
“Security herded us the whole night, but didn’t tell us what was going on, so there was lots of panic and fear,” she said.
Muslim women cried while removing their hijabs out of fear that they would associated with the terrorists. In the chaos and uncertainty, children were separated from their families, but later reunited.
Dunnell and Hiraman were held in the airport for hours until they were released just after 2am. “We got evacuated past the bomb site. It was hectic to see that damage and blood on the floor,” she said. “We sat on the pavement not knowing what to do.”
Buses were provided for the uninjured survivors, who were later dropped in a tourist district. It was there that Dunnell and Hiraman found a hotel to stay the night.
On Wednesday, Hiraman waited over four hours in the queue at Turkish Airways offices for a ticket home to Cape Town. He was number 663 in the queue.
The pair were relieved to clinch a spot on a plane leaving on Thursday night. Now, they are left to deal with the aftermath of the trauma.
Dunnell said: “We don’t want to go back to the airport, but we have to. Every loud noise makes me jump. Nikish knocked over his hand luggage suitcase in the road outside the airport and everyone jumped. It’s called a terrorist attack because of the fear – I’ve never been that scared.”
But Dunnell said she still felt love and gratitude for the city and country the couple holidayed in. “The people here are amazing and now tourism will plummet even more, which many people rely on as a livelihood. Istanbul, we love you and we’re feeling so heartbroken for everyone that’s been hurt, and future business and livelihoods that will be affected by the fear.”
President Jacob Zuma sent his condolences to Turkey on behalf of the government and people of South Africa. “South Africa shares in the grief of the Turkish people and the international community following the substantial loss of life and wishes the injured survivors a speedy recovery. Terrorism in any form and from whichever quarter cannot be condoned.”
Department of International Relations and Co-operation spokesman Clayson Monyela said no South Africans had been reported injured or killed in the attack