DCSIMG

Mumbai: City of fear

THE first indication that Wednesday November 26 was the start of a four-day terrorist outrage that would be India's equivalent of 7/7 came at the ramshackle docks that are the pulsing heart of Mumbai, the country's commercial engine. The jumbled collection of wharves, piers and warehouses are just a few hundred yards from the city's gleaming financial centre, but a world away.

It was almost nine o'clock and, in the half-light, fisherman Prasan Dhanur was preparing his nets for another hard night of trawling in his 13-foot boat, as he did at this time each evening. His routine barely ever changed, yet on Wednesday he saw something he instinctively knew was out of the ordinary.

A black inflatable lifeboat equipped with a shiny new Yamaha outboard motor threaded its way among the small, wooden fishing boats at anchor and pulled up to the slum's concrete pier. Ten men, all apparently in their early twenties, jumped out. They stripped off orange windbreakers to reveal T-shirts and blue jeans. Then they began hoisting large, heavy backpacks out of the boat and on to their shoulders, each taking care to claim the pack assigned to him. Dhanur flipped his boat light toward the men, and Kashinath Patil, a 72-year-old harbour official on duty nearby, asked the men what they were doing. "I said: 'Where are you going? What's in your bags?'" Patil recalled. "They said: 'We don't want any attention. Don't bother us.'"

Thus began a crucial phase of one of the deadliest terrorist assaults in Indian history, one that seemed from the start to be coordinated meticulously to cause maximum fear and chaos, and which would leave almost 200 people dead, including an estimated 18 foreigners. The details are still fragmentary, with Indian officials saying little publicly and whisking away any witnesses to the attacks, but from snatched interviews with survivors it has become clear that the men on the boat were joining a larger terrorist force which included attackers who had embedded themselves in Mumbai days before the attacks. Much is not known, with estimates of their strength varying from 20 to 40, but what is clear is that the military precision of their synchronised assaults suggests a high level of training and preparation.

Dhanur and Patil were later to tell police that they had not seen the guns hidden in the backpacks, which is why they did not call the police as they watched the 10 men casually walk into town, leaving their boat and windbreakers at the dock. Not long afterward, fanning out across south Mumbai, as other attackers spread out after landing in other boats, the men began unleashing deadly assaults everywhere they went.

By the time the attack had ended the insurgents had unleashed a torrent of violence at 13 different sites, including two hospitals, a cinema, council offices and the state bank. Although it is impossible to downplay assaults by gunmen wielding AK47s and lobbing grenades, those were relative sideshows compared to the massive firepower unleashed at their five main targets, each chosen for its unmistakable symbolic value.

Collectively the Oberoi and Taj Mahal Palace hotels and the Chhatrapati Shivaji railway terminus, the old Victoria terminus, are what Mumbai-born Booker-prize-winning author Aravind Adiga calls "the central civic institutions that define the city". Those two hotels have an importance in the life of Mumbai that has no obvious parallels for us: these are places where marriages happen, where people of all economic backgrounds go for a coffee; they're the city's commercial and cultural hub. Chhatrapati Shivaji is the gateway to the city, a place used by ordinary workers, with hundreds of thousands passing through each day. It would be difficult to imagine three targets that are richer with symbolic significance for the people of Mumbai.

Nor are the remaining two main targets short of symbolism. For militant Muslim terrorists intent on wreaking destruction and garnering headlines, the Jewish centre in the five-storey Nariman House, just three blocks down a narrow lane from the pier where Dhanur had first seen the gunmen land, was an unmissable opportunity. If the Leopold Caf, a relaxed hangout popular with Westerners and wealthy Indians and famous for sidewalk dining, was a less obvious objective, then the message sent by the devastation of this softest of targets is no less clear.

As the centre of India's burgeoning financial sector and with its proximity to Pakistan, Mumbai has been targeted by Muslim militants on several occasions. Yet when the firing started, few could conceive that a full-scale terrorist onslaught had begun. The range of assumptions people made about the noises and clamour are vast: many thought it was firecrackers, others a gang-fight, some even believed it was birthday celebrations. Many ran towards the noises, only to turn tail moments later as the true horror dawned on them.

The points at which the city's citizens and its visitors woke up to the attack varied hugely. For some, it was when the petrol station next to the Jewish centre blew up under a hail of bullets. For others it was when armed police with guns drawn started frantically shouting for them to clear the streets. For others, it was when they were confronted with bloodied victims fleeing the carnage, or when the muffled boom of an explosion rocked their hotel. For the unlucky few, it was when the bullets started ripping into those around them.

Although the timings are still confused, with a new site attacked every 15 minutes from 9.30pm onwards, it appears that the first furious onslaught came at the Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus. Casualties were high, with a packed concourse and few exits providing the terrorists with the easiest of tasks. Even then, they went about their task with grim efficiency, careful to ensure that there was always one firing as his comrades reloaded.

"We were just waiting to go back to our home at Varanasi, and while I had gone to get the tickets the firing started," said Bhairavsingh Sinha, a 50-year-old grandfather who was travelling with seven family members. "By the time I ran back to where my family was, those men had killed so many people. I have seen the 1965 war and the Bombay riots, but I've never seen anything like this before."

Sinha's daughter Poona is fighting for her life in Saint George Hospital while her five-year-old son Sachin and his two-year-old brother were sent to Sir JJ Hospital. They were the lucky ones, however: by the time police and Mumbai's anti-terrorist units arrived and the gunmen calmly wandered down towards Chowpatty Beach, where they were finally cornered, the lobby had become a cross between a makeshift mortuary and a slaughterhouse. Far from indiscriminately raking their potential victims with bullets, the gunmen had methodically picked off those still living.

The cruelty of the carnage was summed up by one unforgettable photograph of a young assassin smiling as he executed innocent commuters. That picture was taken by Sebastian D'Souza, a picture editor at the Mumbai Mirror, whose offices are just across the road from the Victorian splendour of the railway station. As soon as he heard the sound of gunfire he sprinted towards the terminus to capture the images which will remain as an enduring reminder of the bloodshed.

"I ran into the first carriage of one of the trains on the platform to try and get a shot, but couldn't get a good angle," he said, "so I moved to the second carriage and waited for the gunmen to walk by. They were shooting from waist height and fired at anything that moved. I briefly had time to take a couple of frames using a telephoto lens. I think they saw me taking photographs, but they didn't seem to care."

D'Souza's eerie description of the killers' calmness grates with the savagery of their attack. He first ran into gunmen outside the station, and as soon as he entered the terminus itself he saw one of the terrorists calmly spray the owner of a bookshop with bullets, sending the middle-aged man lurching backwards to lie in a crumpled mass on the floor of his shop. He had no words to describe the feeling of horror when a train pulled into a platform at the height of the massacre.

Yet it was the inability of the armed police present at the station to engage the terrorists that amazed D'Souza. "There were armed policemen hiding all around the station, but none of them did anything," he said. "At one point, I ran up to them and told them to use their weapons. I said: 'Shoot them, they're sitting ducks!', but they just didn't shoot back. When the gunmen moved towards the rear of the station the police refused to follow them. What is the point of having policemen with guns if they refuse to use them? I only wish I had a gun rather than a camera."

By now carnage was breaking out across south Mumbai. Within 15 minutes of the first gunman opening fire at the station, a squad of terrorists had lined up outside the Leopold Caf, just a block behind the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. Once outside, they sprayed the on-street diners with bullets, their heavy-calibre assault rifles leaving the grand facade pock-marked and crumbling, the windows shattered.

Young Welshman Jeremy Lewis was inside the caf watching England play India at cricket when the terrorists burst in. He knew immediately what was happening and ran for cover, hiding himself in a store cupboard. "Seven people were killed on the spot and I thought: 'I'm dead,'" said the 18-year-old gap-year student. "I was in the cupboard for an hour and a half. I felt helpless. I distinctly remember the noise of the gunfire and the flood of bullets hitting bodies. It all feels like it is a dream. There was blood everywhere."

Others were not so fortunate and were caught out in the open. One of those was 29-year-old Harnish Patel from Havant in Hampshire, who was shot three times in the ribs and legs. "I was so lucky," said the chartered surveyor. "The guy just took one look at me and showered the whole side of the bar, He just let loose. It's unimaginable, but luckily he didn't keep his finger down because if he did I'd be gone. The guy next to me was completely creamed; his face completely impaled."

One of the most bizarre stories to emerge from the Leopold Caf was that of actor Joey Jeetun, who played 7/7 bomber Shehzad Tanweer in a Channel Five dramatisation. He survived only because he was so completely saturated in blood that the killers believed he was already dead. When he awoke he was surrounded by corpses where victims had been executed by being shot in the head. Indian police, however, arrested him as a possible suspect, only releasing him after 13 hours.

By now, casualties were flooding into the hospitals as the vortex of violence whirled around the city of 19 million. In one bed at Mumbai's Sir JJ hospital sat 56-year-old Harishcandra Shiverhankar, who had been watching a film at the Metro cinema when a bullet entered his lower back. As he lay helpless, his head was jerked back and his throat slit. Next to him was commuter Jayaram Chavan whose legs had been mangled by bullets as he ran for his train.

Across the city at the Bombay Hospital, Kamal Nagpal told how her family had been celebrating her cousin Gunjan Nagpal's 31st birthday at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel when gunmen burst in and sprayed her table at the Golden Dragon restaurant, killing Gunjan, both her parents and virtually all the family. It was carnage on a scale no one had dreamt of. "At first no one could believe that the flow of casualties would ever end. We are a city hospital not an army casualty ward – you have to ask how many bullet wounds and bomb burns we can cope with."

There were, however, to be many more in an attack that lasted for 60 hours. Relatively few of them came at Nariman House, but the targeting of the Jewish centre was yet another tell-tale sign that this was an attack by Muslim jihadists.

The drama at Nariman House unfolded before the watching television cameras as special forces rappelled down on to the building's roof from a helicopter while their colleagues blew a hole in the rear wall to gain access. Hours earlier, two-year-old Moshe Hotzberg had been carried out of the building in the arms of the centre's cook Sandra Samuel, but there was to be no such escape for the toddler's parents.

Young rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, had only recently moved from New York to work for the orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch foundation: by the time Indian commandos cleared the building yesterday, they were two of nine hostages whose lifeless bodies lay alongside two dead gunmen. Throughout the night six young Israelis from Zaka, the group responsible for mopping up blood and body parts after suicide attacks in Israel, arrived to take over.

Yet for all the symbolism that the massacre at the Jewish centre held for the wider world, it was the siege at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel and, to a lesser extent, the five-star Oberoi that held India and the world's attention. Both hotels are frequented by India's elite and visiting dignitaries, and both were the scene of dramatic sieges that were played out before the television cameras as hotel guests communicated with the outside world by mobile phones and BlackBerrys.

At the Oberoi, the plight of Home Counties lawyer Mark Abell, who used his BlackBerry to communicate with his wife Shizuka and to give interviews to national newspapers amid the carnage, surely took the concept of 24-hour rolling news to its logical conclusion. Unfortunately, the terrorists also followed events on television, tuning into CNN in an attempt to try and pinpoint guests holed up in their rooms.

By morning the true horror of what he had escaped confronted the lawyer: "I'd had dinner in the Kandahar restaurant and I've now just found out that's one of the places it started and unfortunately the waitress who served us was one of the first to get shot. People I'd seen only minutes before going up to my room are now dead."

Abell was one of about 200 guests, including around 40 Britons, to have blockaded themselves into their rooms, using everything from pianos and fridges to heavy furniture and beds to try to keep the gunmen at bay as they roamed the corridors, kicking in doors and executing anyone found inside. It was here that the first reports of terrorists specifically looking for British and American passport holders emerged.

There were moments of high emotion, such as when Italian chef Emanuele Lattazini sprinted out of the Oberoi cradling his baby daughter but, for the most part, the occupation of the Oberoi was a bloody affair. It was in the wide open spaces of the Oberoi that India's elite commando force, the National Security Guard (NSG), came into its own, clearing the hotel floor by floor until they announced that the hotel was safe at 11am Indian time on Friday.

It was a victory at a high cost, though. The NSG, which is modelled on the SAS and was set up after the assassination of Indira Ghandi, found a scene of utter devastation, with the lobby floor a slippery mess of blood and guts. Along with two dead terrorists, up to 30 guests lay dead, with one room said to contain 17 bodies.

If clearing the Oberoi was difficult, it was as nothing compared to the challenge presented by the Taj Mahal Palace, the labyrinthine hotel that is the smartest venue in town and became the scene of the biggest casualties, with more than 50 dead. It was also here that it became clear that some of the terrorists had come armed for a siege. Not only did they have up to 400 rounds of ammunition and provisions, but they had scouted the hotel in such detail that they knew the terrain better than the special forces who arrived from New Delhi.

As Lt Gen N Thamburaj said, displacing gunmen such as the man who was still roaming the Taj Mahal Palace ballroom nearly 48 hours after the assault began, was incredibly difficult. "He is moving in two floors, there is a dance floor area where he has cut off all the lights. Sometimes he gets holed up in the rooms and makes that area dark."

Other gunmen used hostages as human shields to keep commandos at bay, while the terrorists set fire to parts of the hotel to hinder the security services' progress. It was a successful strategy that turned the Taj Mahal into a scene of utter devastation.

Meanwhile, they tried to find every guest at the hotel, killing any they managed to capture. One of those unfortunate enough to be discovered was the only British victim of the terrorists, 73-year-old yacht charter magnate Andreas Liveras. He was frantically texting his son Dion when the gunmen broke down his door and shot him.

There were countless stories of heroism to emerge from the Taj Mahal, not least those of staff who stayed at their posts, including Mr Rajan, a maintenance worker who stepped in between a gunman and guest, Prashant Mangeshikar, and his two daughters. Rajan took several bullets and Mangeshikar still hasn't been able to find out if he survived.

There was also Bob Nicholls and his team of South African bodyguards in town to look after high-profile cricketers who led 120 guests to safety amid explosions and gunfire.

Yet most of the tales are more sobering: of room-to-room fighting and of terrorists intent on killing as many security personnel and guests as possible. It was here that many of the 20 members of the security forces died, including the top anti-terrorist officer, Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan.

Almost as soon as the Taj Mahal was cleared, the inquest began. The city's proximity to Pakistan and visibility as the hub of India's financial sector mean that Mumbai has suffered many terrorist attacks over the years, but the killings this week, played out so publicly and prolonged over so many days, have shaken many as never before.

One reason for the nervousness is that it seems likely not nearly all the terrorists were caught or killed. Between nine and 12 are now dead and so far the whereabouts of the rest are a mystery. As security forces seek to reconstruct how the gunmen managed to inflict so much carnage so quickly, they have been turning their attention to how so many assailants managed to reach the heart of Mumbai undetected and with such a large collection of guns, ammunition and explosives.

Not all of the terrorists may have entered Mumbai on the night of the attack. Reports have emerged that one captured terrorist has said during interrogation that some of his group had stayed in hotels for four days before the attacks to prepare for them and even to store ammunition in the rooms.

Just how a squad of heavily armed militants could lie low for such a long period of time in a city such as Mumbai will be a focus of investigation in the weeks to come. But in the meantime, a stunned nation is torn between grief, confusion and anger.

Survivor

His face framed by golden curls, tiny Moshe Holtzberg is the centre of attention for Mumbai's small Jewish community as it mourns the loss of the boy's rabbi father and mother, both killed by Islamist gunmen.

Moshe, who turned two last week, is now in the care of his mother's parents after his nanny rushed him to safety while militants roamed the Jewish centre where the family lived and worked.

On Wednesday, two gunmen stormed the six-storey Nariman House, taking eight people hostage, including Moshe and his parents, Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg.

Moshe's nanny, Sandra Samuel, locked herself in a room in a desperate bid to stay alive.

"The whole night I heard gunshots and loud blasts," she said. "Next morning it was quiet for a while, when I heard the baby crying."

Samuel quietly unbolted the door and went up to the second floor where she found Moshe crying next to four people lying motionless on the ground. She picked him up and dashed out.

Commandos were dropped by helicopter onto the roof of the building, but after almost two days of intense fighting the militants had killed the remaining hostages.

Moshe has since been handed to his maternal grandparents who flew to India from Israel.

Tweeting us up-to-date

BLOGGERS across Mumbai fed live updates of the action after Islamist gunmen launched waves of attacks in the heart of India's financial capital, highlighting the emergence of citizen journalism in news coverage.

Some, including a blogger named Vinu, were furiously uploading photos of damage from the attacks that killed at least 101 people and injured 287, with scores of foreigners, including westerners, trapped in luxury hotels.

Images of the attacks also surfaced on photo-sharing website Flickr.

Some bloggers provided running descriptions and commentaries from near the action, while others vented emotions.

"I've been tweeting almost all night, too, from Mumbai. Upset and angry and bereft," said businesswoman Dina Mehta, inset, on her blog, www.dinamehta.com/blog.

Twitter, the wildly popular "micro-blogging" site where users communicate with short "tweets" of 140 characters or less, has seen intense activity.

Within five seconds at 0748GMT, 80 messages were posted. Posts included offers of help for the media and updates on the situation. "One terrorist has jumped from Nariman house building to Chabad house… group of police commandos have arrived on scene," one tweeter wrote.

Twitter came in for some criticism as well in the blogosphere for divulging too many details that could prove helpful to the gunmen holed up in the hotels with their hostages and who may have been monitoring blog sites.

"It's a terrorist strike. Not entertainment. So tweeters, please be responsible with your tweets," said one blogger identified as primaveron mumbai.

Several local Indian news channels were reported to have carried a live feed of the twitter updates on the Mumbai attacks.

"Those kind of events show the great potential for all these user accounts to be valuable to the mainstream media," said new media analyst Cherian George.

 
 
 

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