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18. April 2009

Café Leopold ©

The Leopold Café in Mumbai

Terror, Trauma, and the Search for Answers

A hint of nostalgia hovers around the terms stability and security, tempi passati. The regions rocked by disturbances and attacks no longer seem to be that far away. The global destabilization is one of the big challenges, and each terror attack makes clear that conventional methods cannot efficiently counter the threat in the long term. The increasing radicalization requires new answers and can no longer be restricted to crisis regions and societies in a state of development and transition.

The terror attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore is a clear indicator that soft targets are moving toward the center of the new guard of young terrorists. Sports are often the last neutral territory on which players meet, when the team spirit of each of the countries they represent is no longer present and the rules of fairness have long since been cut from the political vocabulary.
Lahore is Pakistan´s cultural stronghold, one of the spiritual centers of Islam and the site of historical peace talks between India and Pakistan. It was especially shocking that it was precisely here that men equipped with machine guns and rocket launchers attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team.
As in Bombay, the attackers were young, in their early twenties. They appeared in a market on motorized rickshaws and were able to disappear again after a lengthy firefight. Their own people are physically attacked. Especially striking is a picture the New York Times published of a young police officer bent crying over the body of his dead colleague.

At another time, in which the deadly ideologies of extreme currents would not have been able to spread in the minds of young men, these young police officers and the attackers might have been friends, would have played cricket side-by-side and trained together to protect Lahore’s inhabitants and their guests. Their paths diverged. When exactly did this happen? And how was it possible that hate, anger, and the will to destroy became the propulsive forces for these young men’s life motives?

Ajmal Kasab visited his mother in a village in the Pakistani Punjab and asked her to bless him for his jihad before he prepared for his deadly mission in Bombay. During this last visit to his home village he was observed gathering young boys around him near a school and play fighting with them.
The next pictures that his father saw of his son, in a police station, were video images that showed Kasab, armed with a machine gun, in the Victoria Station terminal. He is the only surviving attacker. Amid sobs, his father identified him: “Yes, that is my son Ajmal, I have to admit.” The young man left home as a teenager to go to Lahore. Frustrated and often involved in petty crime, he was increasingly sighted in religious groups. He asked his father for new clothes for the Eid Festival, which his father could not provide because he was too poor.
This story is only one side of the drama. The other is the terrorist’s mother in a trance, alone with thoughts that we cannot even imagine. One’s own failure, having to watch one’s young son as he drifts away into the impenetrable tangle of radical undercurrents.

A few weeks ago I was in Bombay, in a room with victims and survivors of the terror attack that claimed 183 human lives all across the city and which lasted three long days. Terror’s deadly energy will always accompany the victims and survivors. Now we are all sitting together in the Mumbai Press Club. Everyone came because they want to talk. In the days after the attacks the reporters’ interest was large and they hectically interviewed people, but the floodlights have since been turned off.
Sharman, a driver in the Indian Armed Force, was present with us. On the fatal 26th of November, he went to Victoria Station with his son Chotu to say goodbye to his wife and daughter. Panic broke out on the platform; gun shots were being fired. Sharman protectively threw himself over his son, but not soon enough. The bullet hit the boy in the back and perforated his heart. He sits, crying: “But that bullet was meant for me, he was still so young.”
The young, dedicated journalist Shantanu received a text message with his wife’s last words: “Now they are in my bathroom.” She was in the Taj Hotel and was getting ready for a wedding party when the terror began. Shantanu’s sorrowful certainty was confirmed when her body was found three days later. Today he is a single father with two children. He says, “They not only took my wife away from me, but also stripped both kids of their childhood.”

Two pretty young women, Anamika and Sarika, were sitting in Leopold Café, a popular meeting place for young locals and tourists. Anamika had quickly made eye contact with one of the terrorists who was later shot, and had thought, “I like him, he is very good-looking.” She remembers his chic cargo pants. Seconds later he mowed down the guests who had not taken cover quickly enough. During the discussion Anamika shows her stomach wound; three bullets pierced her belly. Overcome with tears she says “Who will marry me now? My life is over.”

These people live in a state of paralysis and hopelessness months after the incident. Being forgotten by the world would be worse than the pity that is often the substitute currency for accountability. And for this reason they were ready to talk.

The day before, in Cama Albless Hospital: the midwives and nurses recount how they survived the day of terror. There were shots, they looked out the window and saw the guards collapsing. They knew then that they had to bring the women and babies in the maternity ward to safety. They all barricaded themselves in a room. In order to prevent the babies’ traitorous yells, they were pressed against their mothers’ breasts. While the terrorists searched the hospital and threw grenades, two little girls were born. They held the mothers’ mouths shut during the birth to stifle their screams. One mother named her little girl Kranti, which means something like “revolution.”
The representative of one of Bombay’s large Muslim communities was deeply moved by the story of the nurses who had kept their cool, and asked them to come to his mosque. He wanted his Muslim parishioners to hear of these young Hindus’ courage and to build a bridge over ethnic difficulties. These were magical moments during the meeting at the Mumbai Press Club.

The management of the Taj Hotel did not tire of making sure that the loyal guests came back and that normalcy returned. Arriving in the hotel will not be all that normal in the future, however: the street in front of the hotel is largely blocked off, and the elegant security guards in white gloves stretch out baskets lined with pristine white linen into which guests must place all belongings for screening. And when guests leave their rooms they unexpectedly find themselves facing armed guards.
The waiters who regained confidence after a few days began to recount details. Bits and pieces joined together to form a puzzle of horror. Farid was serving in the colonial-style pool area when he saw an armed boy through the glass door. He quickly changed gears and directed the guests to a small storage room, where they would spend the next three days huddled together. Without water, without a toilet. But they survived. The hotel’s manager also brought guests to safety using back passages while his family was killed on the top floor of the old part of the hotel. The hotel management honored the dead and seeks to make carrying on possible for the survivors. All the décor has been changed, including the upholstery on the chairs.

Café Leopold is taking a different approach. The owner even points out the bullet holes in the wall. They will never be removed. The security measures have a more humoresque character here. The shutters are periodically closed to fend off potential attackers. Guests who go out to the street to quickly smoke a cigarette are sometimes separated from the beer they left on the table for a longer period of time. Sandbags piled up at neuralgic points around the city are more alarming than reassuring. The questioned soldiers behind the mountains of sand seem to be more resigned than ready to fight.

Ferreting out radical ideologies with their deadly consequences requires an all-encompassing strategic conception that can no longer be restricted to the traditional realms of defense and the politics of security. The question is, where are the seismographs of society located? Which early warning systems can be introduced? And the global community is under pressure; it has no time to lose. This is the hour of civil society and for women to realize their abilities and possibilities. Women especially are strategically positioned at the heart of families and communities, where they often are the first to perceive feelings of unhappiness, resignation, and anger in the adolescent generation. Women can be the central starting point of such an early warning system, when their voices are heard on the private and public stages. This presumes that educational establishments have socio-political weight in raising world citizens, in making them sensitive to conflict with potential threats and radical ideologies, and in preparing them to build their lives and our future on the foundation of education and freedom.

SAVE – Sisters Against Violent Extremism is a new movement of women, formed in Vienna at the end 2008, determined to travel down this path: women from around the world, from Kosovo to Columbia, from Africa to Asia, and from the Middle East to Northern Ireland came together to design a strategic forum for a new architecture of peace that is based on negotiation, understanding, and reconciliation. The power of words and the force of persuasion is their basic equipment. This is about actualizing the dream of a common, secure territory. The era of large-scale projects in finance and politics has failed, and the strategy of carefully thought-out small steps offers a new path – but we have to leave behind a series of convictions for this journey: that there are quick solutions, that we can live in peace with enemies, and that attack is the only form of defense.

The creation of “SAVE Spaces” is the action plan for dedicated SAVE activists. They operate on familiar terrain: in families, schools, and politics. In these areas, security and stability have to be forcefully broached, and, paradoxically, this is exactly the point at which irritations that are frequently overlooked, suppressed, or masked develop—with disastrous consequences. We all feel this, particularly the young generation. They must be able to have faith that there are answers to their most pressing questions: how we desire to live together, which solutions exist for their most personal problems, and what society’s answers are to the growing insecurity and violence around us.


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