The Mumbai Bombing: An Eyewitness Account

[To all doomsday prophets- we do not look all that bad to the Nigerians. Maybe even to some others as well – Thanks to Sanjay R.Hegde who forwarded this mail to me. I am posting this considering our readers’ interest – V.V.]

Kamar Bakrin who was in India and was close to the scene of the bomb blast when terrorists hit Mumbai last week wrote about his experience

We were in the middle of the main dinner course when we heard a distinct boom from nearby. The restaurant, reputed for serving the best seafood in Mumbai had been very quiet before then. “Is it another explosion?” I asked my host warily. “No, there must have been an accident in the kitchen” she replied with a nervous laugh. Understandably so. Minutes earlier, her mother had called to enquire where we were and if her Nigerian guest, myself, was staying at the Taj Mahal hotel, a favourite of foreign businesspeople. There had been a report of a terrorist attack there. However, these had become fairly regular in India, enough not to attract more than the most casual comments from other diners as the news gradually filtered in. Probably a small amateurish explosion, we thought and continued to enjoy our meal.
I did make a nervous joke about how, if it was an explosion then, the second terrorist must have left his watch at home and therefore failed to synchronise with the first.

We were no longer laughing, when, shortly after, someone confirmed that it was indeed an explosion barely two minutes walk away from the restaurant. However, it was only after dinner at about 11.00pm, when we drove off and found the adjoining streets cordoned off that the enormity of the situation began to sink in. Little did I know that we were witnessing one of the worst terror attacks on India, already being called their own 9-11. But for the darkness of the night one would have thought it was the midday rush-hour, traffic that had built up and was crawling quite slowly.

My host’s phone rang every other minute as different people called to either give or receive information. As we sat in traffic the radio stations reported the news that about eight places had been attacked. That was of course when my phone chose to die. Talk about Murphy’s Law. I was left to fret about what would happen when the news got on CNN and people tried to reach me, either to confirm my safety or, I thought cynically, to get first hand gist. How their anxiety would rise when they found my phone switched off. On September 11, 2001, I was in Boston from where the planes that were crashed took off, and now I was beginning to think ”hmm, what is it about me…?”

My hosts were absolutely wonderful. The main host had cancelled his flight scheduled for that night and he called frequently to check that we were okay. When we finally got to the hotel I turned on the TV and was for the first time confronted with the extent of the horror of that night. My initial relief at having chosen to stay at a hotel near my hosts offices quickly turned to anxiety as I heard dogs barking madly outside. I looked out of the window only to realise that right behind the hotel was a train station. The terrorists had attacked two of the trains that very night! I was convinced that the dogs must have been agitated by the sight of terrorists lurking in the shadows. Needless to say, it was not a very restful night and I rushed off first thing in the morning to board my 1.30pm flight to London.

As one would expect of a tragedy of this magnitude, there are enough human interest stories to provide material for at least a dozen books, countless hours of television programming and even a few movies. Where does one begin? The stoic attitude of the people as they dealt with the events of the night? The British lawyer sitting next to me on the flight back was, a guest at the Taj who was actually in the bar when they struck? He described how himself and 59 others crowded into a room for the night, how they quickly ran out of water and also had to set up makeshift toilet arrangements. He recounted that among the dead were two of the world’s top chefs; there was also the tall beautiful hotel staff who had attended to him that very night. Another gentleman on the flight had actually been fired upon at close range by one of the attackers but he was not hit.

However, as I reflected on the still unfolding events, some lessons for Nigeria emerged which were too compelling for me to view this event from just the human interest angle. They are made even more compelling by the fact of India’s position in the world relative to Nigeria: a former British colony, with a very large poor population still struggling to define its place in the world.

But here the similarities seem to end and the highly instructive lessons take over.
In the heat of the crisis a, TV reporter sharply criticised the government for its poor handling of repeated terror threats. As we speak she has not been arrested by police for treason or charged with malicious slander. Neither has her television station been shut down by overzealous men of the state security agency
Despite the dispersed nature of the attacks and the fact that the attackers came by boat, there was no knee-jerk closure of borders, forced cancellation of flights or dusk to dawn curfew and blanket restriction of movement.

There was no indiscriminate ‘stop and search’. In short there has been a thoughtful measured response to a mindless crime and assault on a society. The security agencies have been calm and focused without resorting to intimidation or harassment. It is obvious that there is a common understanding of who the real enemy is; terrorist criminals not law-abiding citizens. There have been no reported incidents of extorting money from innocent commuters whose only crime is their desire to engage in legitimate pursuits in a lawless society.

There has been no indiscriminate crackdown on Muslim communities, no destruction of Muslim neighbourhoods in an attempt to ‘fish out’ the perpetrators, yet several successful arrests have been made all across the city. It is clear that the Indian nation has at this critical time demonstrated a sense of decency, of collective maturity clearly with a keen sense that the world is watching and that the opinion of civilised societies does matter.

My flight acquaintance spoke very highly of the commandos who have worked bravely to flush out the terrorists. Describing them as highly skilled and professional, he even promised to write them a personal letter of appreciation! I suppose it helps that the heads of their agencies have not embezzled the funds intended for their training, equipment and welfare while granting them license to survive on checkpoint takings, renting out of weapons to robbers and serving as bodyguards to the economic saboteurs. It also helps that they have not been converted to thugs to facilitate the stealing of elections and beating up defenceless young women for obstructing traffic.

The media was fully present, providing timely, accurate, insightful on-the-spot coverage. The news channels focused on the most important news item of that day, providing very useful information rather than regaling viewers with reports of what an ‘Excellency’ said through an ‘able’ representative at the start of a ‘timely and relevant’ 3-day seminar on whatever.

Oh, and by the way, the lights did not blink even once nor did the cell phone networks become congested all through the thick of the crisis.
Finally, I watched with a mix of sadness and admiration, the last few minutes in the life of Hemant Karkare, head of the Anti-terror squad. A tall distinguished-looking officer, he arrived at the besieged Taj, stepped smartly out of the car and got a quick briefing. He calmly collected and put on a flak jacket and helmet, then proceeded to walk towards the main building. He was not to come out alive. Of all the events of the day, that brought tears to my eyes. That singular event seemed to capture everything we so sorely lack in Nigeria: exemplary leadership, practiced from the front-lines without pomposity or bombastic pronouncement, just a deep sense of responsibility and ultimately the willingness to make the supreme sacrifice.

What more can one say?

• BAKRIN Sent this piece from London while in transit to Lagos…

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1 comment
  • Completely different picture from what I have personaly thought and heard from others about the way the terror attack in Mumbai was handled. It brings me back to perceptions of the world about India and reminds me of this one time I was in Nairobi addressing a group of women lawyers on the Indian experience on Public Interest Litigation and how that has been used to further reproductive rights of women in India. The audience there was so amazed by the whole PIL system, which frankly till then I had taken for granted and was not quite happy with the direction the judiciary was taking in their response to PILs. I think sometimes we need to sit back and view our own world from an outsider’s point of view to truly appreciate what exists!