The day my airplane got hijacked
This is a story my roommate (Slavica) told me a couple of days ago during the quarantine. It was so unreal and movie-like I asked her if I could share it, so here it is.
Chapter 1: hop on for the ride
In late September of 1981, I was heading back to Belgrade from Titograd after failing to take a machine typing test. I had taken a sick leave from work to be able to do this test, hoping I could get a better job with the diploma. But the test got postponed so I flew back having achieved nothing.
We were going to head straight back to Belgrade, but just after the airplane reached its cruising altitude the pilot announced that we were going to make a quick stop in another city (Dubrovnik) to get some more passengers. It seemed like making a bus stop along the way. I wanted to get back home early to see my son. I wasn’t looking forward to the delay.
We waited for a water polo team to arrive. We kept waiting for 45 minutes but they never arrived. Their game went into overtime so we left with only 2 or 3 more passengers.
Finally, heading home.
Chapter 2: what the hell?
I was sitting in the first row behind the business class and I think there was no one else in my row. I was lost in my thoughts when suddenly a man harshly said to me “I told you to go to the back of the airplane”. I looked at him in disbelief.
This man was holding a gun.
“Am I being mugged on an airplane?” I wondered. “This is an airplane for god’s sake!” It took me some time to realize what was really happening. And apparently, the people in the back hadn’t yet realized anything at all.
It takes time to assimilate reality with something like this.
I went silently to the back and sat somewhere. A stewardess came to me and offered me a glass of water. She must’ve seen how pale I was. She wasn’t aware of the hijack situation, so she just calmly went for that water.
Ignorance is sometimes bliss.
Since the class-division curtains were open I got to see how the copilot was kicked out of the cockpit. He was thrown to the ground.
One of the hijackers had caught a stewardess earlier and had dragged her to the cockpit. He was threatening to harm her if they didn’t open the door. So they did and moments after we saw the copilot on the floor. “Oh, it’s just a military exercise”, said a passenger without giving it a second thought.
No one yet understood the seriousness of the situation!
Chapter 3: now you know
Finally, the pilot said that we’ve been kidnapped and the whole plane went silent.
It’s a hard pill to swallow.
He said that he didn’t know our destination and just that we please remain seated. I was still in shock. I buried inside myself. I started thinking about my boy who had lost his father three years ago in a car accident. How the hell was he going to live without both of his parents!? I couldn’t think straight.
But just for an hour to refuel the plane. The scene became something like taken from a movie. Police cars. Ambulances. Firetrucks. All of them surrounding us from a distance.
And we could just look through the windows. They didn’t know what the kidnappers were going to do to us so they just stayed put.
We took off.
Chapter 4: getting farther away
A plane in the pitch dark. So calm from the outside, but boiling in uncertainty inside.
8 to 9 hours have passed. We haven’t eaten anything. We’re just sitting there without a clue. Our lives are in the hands of terrorists. We hope they know what they’re doing.
At least we’re alive. For now.
We later learned that the hijackers tried to go to Israel, but they were denied access. Worse, they were going to shoot us if we entered their airspace. Then they tried Johannesburg. Not so drastic measures but again, access was denied.
So after these 8 or 9 hours in the air, the pilot convinces them to land in Cyprus to let off a very sick woman. She actually was led inside in a stretcher at the beginning of our trip and she was scheduled for surgery the next day. That’s how bad her situation was.
Once we landed, the crew opened one of the back doors and took the woman out down the stairs. The pilot somehow coordinated with the flight attendant to leave the back door loosely closed so that the airplane couldn’t take off again.
That saved us.
Chapter 5: run!
As the crew was taking that poor sick woman down the stairs, someone shouted “FIRE!” and everyone went crazy. The cabin instantly filled with smoke. People were pushing each other desperately. I had to run. Otherwise, I would’ve been crushed.
Some minutes before, someone had gone to the bathroom and lit a newspaper. A clever way to distract the kidnappers and get people moving.
We all freaked out, running to any available exits. Someone opened a door on one of the wings so I ran towards it. I just saw one of the hijackers unable to make sense of the situation. He could’ve killed us all but luckily he remained still. In shock I guess.
So as I got to the door, I saw that there weren’t any slides or stairs. It was a 4-meter jump, I couldn’t do it.
“Just fucking jump!” shouted someone from behind, so I did.
I’m not sure if there was someone below to absorb part of the fall, but the next thing I knew we were all running towards a hangar. Imagine like a hundred or more people sprinting through an airplane runaway during the night. And they could’ve shot us right there!
Chapter 6: stuck in a room.
Luckily, the hijackers remained inside the airplane.
The pilot and the rest of the crew managed to sneak out. Those were some lousy terrorists, thank god.
We then all gathered in this large room. Like an airport smoking room but not like one of those modern cramped ones. Anyway, we are all sitting on the floor surrounded by the police. Some of them were Yugoslavs and they started asking questions out loud.
“What’s your name?” shouted one of them right next to my ear. I startled. I really didn’t know my name at that point. I was still in shock and I didn’t answer.
He kept asking rudely.
The police had been briefed that there was a terrorist collaborator among us. A blonde woman nonetheless. And here’s me, blonde too, trying to remember my name when all of a sudden someone bailed me out from the crowd.
“We know her, she’s not the one,” someone said. I’m not sure who said that, but they rapidly changed their target. She was found soon afterward. It really was a blonde girl.
Chapter 7: slowly heading back.
It’s like 4 or 5 in the morning and we’re being questioned individually. They take our ID cards and do a background check. They must’ve even searched who my great grandfather was. And they kept doing that for hours. At least they gave us some food (since we’ve barely eaten something in the last 10 hours).
That day in the afternoon another JAT airplane arrived and took us home. Once we arrived at Belgrade they kept us another 3 hours on yet one more background check. We were all exhausted.
Chapter 8: reunion.
We get to leave at last.
I was eager to see my kid. I remember how the airport’s exit doors opened and suddenly, boom!
We get flashed by dozens of cameras. You couldn’t see a thing! These reporters just went crazy when we started leaving. I can’t remember if there had been any other airplane kidnappings in Yugoslavia before, but this was a major headline.
And finally, I see my boy. He raced towards me. I hugged him really really tight. I was relieved. He was back in my arms and we were safe.
He said to me “Mamma, I brought a gun to kill them” while holding a plastic weapon in his hand.
I just cried.
The next weeks became an endless replay of my story. Colleagues at work, friends…everyone wanted to know what happened.
Chapter 9: the official story
Who did it? The whole operation consisted of 5 people. Three kidnappers, the financier and the blonde girl (weapon smuggler). They hijacked a 727 Boeing from JAT airlines on the 26th of September of 1981 with 97 passengers on board. There were “important” people among the passengers: famous Yugoslav actors (Marko Nikolić, Žarko Laušević, Miša Janketić), the whole soccer team Budućnost and some WW2 veterans (Božo Lazarević and Milan Šijan).
Why did they do it? Head of operations, Milomir Maric, was influenced by Bader-Majnhof, a german terrorist group he met in jail. The main purpose was to cause a scandal, just like many other hijacks frequent in those days throughout Europe. He was sentenced to 8 years in jail (the longest of the group).
Chapter 10: life goes on
And this is just one of the stories I’ve told you. You wouldn’t imagine all that I’ve been through in my life. I could easily write a book, or two.
But it is what it is. I’ve survived it and it’s now in the past. I hope no one ever has to go through a hijack, and if you do, that’s the life you get.
Life goes on.
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