Mr Dhillon was then a celebrated 33-year-old cameraman who had gone to film the civil war between the Congolese government and Simba rebels, while Mr McMillan, then 11 years old, and his siblings lived with their Canadian father and American mother who were missionaries.
On November 24, 1964, Mr Mohinder Dhillon and Mr Stephen McMillan shared a similar dark fate as they waited for their turn before a firing squad in separate locations in Stanleyville (Kisangani), in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. The two survived after miraculous last-minute help and lived to swap their harrowing stories when they met for the first time in Nairobi last month.
Because they were several kilometres apart on that day, no one knew of the existence of the other until this year when Mr Dhillon wrote a three-part book – My Camera, My Life – detailing his life, including surviving the firing squad. The book was featured in the Nation on October 2 this year, the day it was launched in Nairobi.
That is why it was an emotional moment on October 21 when Mr Dhillon, 85, and Mr McMillan, 63, met and recalled their experience of surviving a firing squad on the same day 52 years ago – a remarkable coincidence.
You could hear a triumphant tone in the men’s voices as they hugged and shook hands when Mr Dhillon welcomed to his Nairobi flat Mr McMillan, his wife Melinda and writer Shel Arensen who had organised the unlikely reunion. This was a cheer for cheating death.
“You know my story; but now I need to know your story,” Mr Dhillon, known for his daring images of people and places all over the world, told Mr McMillan.
On that eventful November 24, Mr Dhillon cheated death twice. He was caught secretly filming Congolese government soldiers executing people near a bridge and throwing their corpses into the Congo River. Luckily, a soldier who wanted to execute the cameraman was distracted and ended up shooting Mr Dhillon’s safari hat.
After the escape, he made it to the Stanleyville airport where he found another round of executions going on. He was again arrested by government soldiers and accused of collaborating with the Simba rebels. His punishment was death by firing squad along with 50 others.
With only a handful of victims waiting for their turn to be shot dead, Mr Dhillon was saved by Jon Lane, a cameraman from British news outlet Independent Television News, who came to the scene by chance and, with the help of a mercenary, convinced the soldiers to release the famous cameraman.
“I felt like I had been brought back from the dead,” says Mr Dhillon, who later returned to Kenya where he had been living since 1947 with his family.
As Mr Dhillon was having a close shave at the airport, a young Mr McMillan was among foreigners being rushed to safety, crammed in three vehicles headed for the airport to a Kinshasa-bound plane.
They had narrowly escaped being killed by Simba rebels, eight kilometres from the airport. At one point, Mr McMillan and the group of 19 that had been held hostage for three months had been lined up before a firing squad but one rebel miraculously had a change of heart and herded them back to the house where they were being held. However, the young man’s father Hector McMillan was not so lucky as he was shot dead. The rebels then drove away to a nearby house where they shot dead a group of Belgian hostages.
Rescuers would later arrive moments later.
“To our amazement, we saw these white soldiers get out and circle the compound,” Mr McMillan recalls.
The family later moved to Canada where they stayed until 1968 when they returned to Congo. They would stay there until 1996 when another war broke out. Mr McMillan had by that time married Melinda and they had four children. They moved to Kenya and started working at Kijabe Hospital.
“I’m just amazed at how God brings things together. I don’t think it’s always coincidence,” said Mr Arensen, delighted that the meeting he arranged after reading Mr Dhillon’s book had finally happened.
Mr Mcmillan foresees a deeper bond with Mr Dhillon in the years to come.
“God has an act of always bringing triumph over tragedy and just meeting like this – this immediate bond between us because of a shared tragic experience – we can make friends and communicate with a lot of common ground that both of us have,” he said.