Photographers' Blog

Destination Cuba: Alongside empty seat 17A

Havana, Cuba

By Maxim Shemetov

I’ve never been to Cuba before. Frankly speaking, today is my first visit. It’s a very short one of only 24 hours, of which now I have only half left to walk around Old Havana and to swim in the ocean while the global hysteria over the uncatchable Edward Snowden carries on.

For me, this story started on Sunday when I woke up and slowly went to the office. It was supposed to be a usual working weekend when almost nothing happens. Almost… Incoming calls suddenly started to light up my cell phone. The big story with Snowden as the lead actor flying somewhere via Moscow began. It is hard to describe all of the next 24 hours spent in the airport, with expensive tickets booked to get inside the transit zone at Sheremetyevo and disappointment that a lot of energy was wasted on information that turned out to be wrong.

The next morning I headed to the airport again to take the same flight as Snowden. It looked suspicious that everyone knew when and how a top secret target was going to leave Russia. The flight number, even the fugitive’s seat on the plane, was known 24 hours ahead of departure! I met around 30 reporters flying to Cuba near gate 28. All were filming a newly arrived plane while arguing with airport security.

An hour and a half before the flight, security blocked the gate and the windows, brought in tables and metal detectors to check all passengers who wanted to get aboard. “The situation is extraordinary, stop shooting if you don’t want to be kicked off the plane,” a policeman said with anger. People were starting to get nervous and security blocked the way to the gate. I didn’t even try to get my professional camera out, shooting on an iPhone and feeling an angry look from a security guard pretending to be a regular passenger. I smiled stupidly and pretended nothing had happened.

Boarding was delayed for a while. Row 17, where Snowden was expected to be seated, was full with cameras and Aeroflot staff. Ordinary passengers asked flight attendants to be re-seated. All were closely watching everyone getting aboard. It was 2:10 pm and the flight was being delayed. A flight attendant ran past us murmuring “Only three left, there is no Snowden among them”. People were stuck in their nervousness and hysteria was at its peak. All ended within 15 minutes when the flight attendant closed the door and the plane started to move.

Trading fear for photos on a stricken plane

We took off smoothly for the short flight from Singapore to Jakarta, and I started falling asleep. Suddenly I was woken up by the sound of two bangs, like a bomb or truck tire blowing out. My wife gripped my hand and asked “Do you smell something burning?” Yes, there was a sharp smell stinging my nose. I realized there was something wrong because all the stewardesses ran back with the food carts.

The plane started to vibrate, harder and harder. I held my wife’s hand tightly and looked at her face as she started praying. My two younger children were asleep, after their first ever trip abroad, but not Pradipta, the eldest one. “Pra look through the window and watch outside,” I said. “I see light, I see fire, I see fire,” he said. Then the electricity was switched off.

I realized the plane, an Airbus A330, had a big problem. I was afraid because I thought we would die. Pradipta looked into my eyes and asked: “Will we die?” I was afraid and could not answer the question. I looked at all my children’s faces and held my lovely wife’s hands tightly.

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