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02. December 2009

The Bloody Trail Through Bombay

A Commentary by Edit Schlaffer

The terror attacks in Mumbai on one of the city’s best-known symbols mirrored the attacks on its Western counterpart. The Taj Hotel, the colonial landmark next to the Gateway of India, symbolizes not only the country’s collective memory, but also the current dreams of the ambitious young generation.

The Taj provided a stage for weddings and successful business dealings, as well as a hint of Bollywood, to the country’s elite and the international public. A team of ten Jihadis, well-trained and equipped with the newest technologies, shook this country of extreme social opposites to its core. They were young men in their twenties, in casual baggy pants, who communicated with each other via satellite phone and who researched their targets on the internet.

We have become accustomed to terror, but the attack on November 26th, 2008, was a world premiere: this was not a short series of explosions, but rather a city taken hostage for 60 hours. The clouds of smoke rising from the old wing of the Taj Hotel now symbolize the city. The terrorists dragged their trail of blood through the entire city and left behind rapidly-shifting horror scenes: from the central train station with its unmanageable chaos of commuters, they made their way through the southern stretch of the city, from the Oberoi Trident Hotel to the popular Leopold Café, the Cama and Albless Hospital, and finally to a Jewish Orthodox community centre.

Mumbai has a long history of terrorism, but the 11/26 attacks explicitly targeted the middle and upper classes. The guests in the elegant Oberoi Trident Hotel wrote “Save us!” on large pieces of paper and pressed these silent cries for help against the windows, while their relatives and the press corps tried to follow the events with binoculars.

The final count after three days of horror: 173 dead and 108 injured. Beyond the numbers, however, there is a deep-rooted uncertainty. The attack's message was: it can happen to anyone; no one is safe. The gaps in the national security net suddenly came to the fore. The terrorists arrived in motorboats and were able to launch their acts of terrorism unnoticed, but also nearly unhindered. The incompetence of the security apparatus in a country that has developed the world’s most advanced computer programs suddenly became clear. It took over eight hours for commandos from Delhi to reach Mumbai.

On the occasion of the anniversary of the attacks, the authorities will display their newly acquired modern equipment during a widely advertised parade through the entire city. New motorboats, updated police stations, and the newly-established, specialized squad Force 1 are meant to build confidence.

This is one side of the story. Behind the shorthand “11/26,” an entire panorama of courage and personal tragedies has surfaced over the past year. The conductor Sharma gave up his own life to warn masses of commuters during that fateful night in the train station. His widow managed to find work to put their children through school. She has used her federal compensation payments to start a fund for the poorest survivors in her husband’s memory.

A conspicuous difference to the dramatic attacks in New York and London is the separation and isolation of the victims. In America, the “Families of 9/11” came together, and they now have a strong voice in investigating the attacks and in making political recommendations for fighting terror.

The voices of the Mumbai victims do not have a collective message. They still carry individual trauma and suffering. Sabira Khan was severely injured by an exploding taxi and spent eight months in the hospital. The nerves in her left leg are destroyed and she urgently needs an operation to avoid having her leg amputated. Her compensation payments are not enough to pay for the operation, nor has she any money to marry off her daughters.

Above all, however, there is no pressure to mobilize the slow bureaucracy for Sabira and for other victims.
Resignation and anger define the lives of Sabira and many others. They want to see Kasab, the only surviving terrorist, hanged.

In order to look to the future, the victims must find closure with their traumatic experiences. The call to publicly hang Kasab seems to provide this closure for many victims. The 15-year old son of a murdered police officer, however, is a more optimistic voice for young civil society.“I don’t want the next generation to fall into the traps of radical extremism,” he said.

High-tech equipment to defend against terror attacks is the order of the day, but this can only constitute one part of the strategy. The voices of the survivors and of the victims’ relatives must reach the young generation to equip them with the necessary tools of critical thinking and debate to actively stand up against the ideologies of radical extremism. Jihadis thrive on the absence of alternatives.

(This commentary by Dr. Edit Schlaffer was published in the Austrian newspaper Die Presse on November 26th 2009)


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