Mumbai's night of terror
MUMBAI - The unprecedented night of horror in India's financial capital began at about 9.30 pm for two Germans, Rita and Thomas, part of a Lufthansa in-flight crew finishing dinner at Leopold Cafe in Colaba in south Mumbai.
Barely five hours earlier, Asia Times Online published an article ( Closing time for India's Iranian cafes) mentioning the restaurant as a favorite of Western tourists, and this popularity caused it to be among the first of 12 terrorist targets on Wednesday night that killed more than 80 people and injured nearly 300, and the figures are rising.
Apart from the cafe, groups of militants armed with automatic weapons and grenades burst into luxury hotels, a hospital and a railway station, spewing death. As of publication time, many tourists were being held hostage in the Taj Mahal hotel, a 105-year-old landmark, and the five-star Trident Oberoi.
"I saw the terrorist firing his machine gun at people sitting at the next table," Rita said, "and then thought the gun would turn around to me." But the terrorist, in his mid-30s, swung the gun away from her, momentarily distracted by his accomplice waiting in the mezzanine floor and firing randomly at diners.
Her life had been saved in that split second. Police said they had killed four gunmen and arrested nine. A group identifying itself as the Deccan Mujahideen said it was responsible, per emails sent to news organizations. Virtually nothing is known of this group. "Deccan" is an area of India and "Mujahideen" is the plural form of a Muslim participating in jihad. Security officials believe it unlikely an unknown group could carry out such a precise and heavily-armed attack.
It is more likely to be the work of the Indian Mujahideen, an Islamist group that has claimed responsibility for other attacks in India. On Thursday morning, speaking from inside the Oberoi where foreigners are being held hostage, a man identified as Sahadullah told India TV he belonged to an Indian Islamist group seeking to end the persecution of Indian Muslims: "We want all mujahideens held in India released and only after that we will release the people."
No one knows how the terrorists arrived in the city. One theory is that they came from the sea in an explosives-laden boat. But there is no doubt about their agenda.
Rita, Thomas and Jesper, the latter the owner of a shipping company from Denmark, fell to the floor with other diners at the Leopold, some on top of each other. "We thought if we lay down and kept still, the gunman would think we are dead," said Rita, a blonde stewardess serving on Lufthansa Flight 764 from Mumbai to Munich.
As the machinegun-wielding murderer ran up to join his accomplice upstairs, the trio fled into an already panic-stricken street, over a dead body and leaving their bags, money, cell phones and unpaid dinner bill behind. But the night of terror for Rita and her friends was only beginning, as it was for a city of 13 million not unused to terrorist strikes but never in such prolonged horror.
The trio were staying at the Oberoi Hotel in Nariman Point, a rare case of victims caught in two of the dozen terrorist-hit areas in Mumbai on the fateful night. Hemant Karkare, chief of the city's anti-terrorism squad, was among three senior police officials killed in a police counter-attack against the terrorists holding hostages as the Oberoi and Taj Mahal. By 10.30pm outside the Oberoi, by the Arabian Sea on Marine Drive, it was surreally quiet, with roads dark and deserted, in contrast to the usual daytime office bustle in one of the city's busiest and most expensive office areas.
I reached the Oberoi minutes after seeing the news flash on TV, even as gunmen were holed up inside the hotel and police cordons were being thrown around the white-painted building. I recalled the Marriott in Islamabad, which terrorists struck on September 20, setting it alight. Would the Oberoi and Taj suffer the same devastating fate? No one nearby, including police constables, had any clear idea of what was happening, except that gun shots had been fired and there were multiple explosions.
Small groups of bystanders joined fleeing uniformed hotel staff running into the night. Sporadic gunfire and explosions could be heard from the Taj Mahal about two kilometers away. Oberoi hotel guests periodically raced out, crouching and escorted by poorly armed policemen. Sunil (name changed on request), a Marine Commando Special Forces Officer, residing nearby, had heard the first explosion outside the Oberoi.
An explosives specialist, Sunil said that he gauged by the sound that it involved low-grade explosives of about 10 kilograms, of the kind that can be packed into a fire extinguisher and set off with a mobile phone ring as a trigger.
Other explosions were grenade attacks, the first of many across Mumbai. "The explosion in the Air India building in the 1993 bomb blast attacks was so loud the ground shook," remembers officer Sunil. "First you feel the building shake and then you hear the loud explosion."
At this point security men asked us to move away from the area, particularly since I was wearing a white shirt and could be a sitting target at night for bullets.
It was a terrible feeling of deja vu for officer Sunil, who, like me, had similarly raced out into the streets in Churchgate on midday on Friday, March 12, 1993, to see a sea of glass shards amid dead, bleeding and dying bodies strewn around the Air India building, just a stone's throw the Oberoi. In that incident, a series of 13 blasts killed up to 250 people, with 700 injured. Fifteen years later, Mumbai has suffered more serial terrorist strikes. In the intervening years, the city has been the victim of bomb attacks, but it has never seen anything like the carnage of Wednesday night - it was pure and simple urban warfare.
Mumbai has been attacked six times since 1993. The last major attack was in in 2006 when 200 people were killed in attacks on the rail transit system.
"This is a high-risk zone," said officer Sunil. "There could be delayed explosions." His prediction was correct; within 30 minutes, with gunfire and explosions had turned Mumbai into Baghdad.
A black-suited Oberoi banquet manager was standing in a dark, nearly deserted lane opposite the outwardly silent hotel, staring up at the few lighted room windows. His hotel would be nearly empty of guests by the morning.
The still surreal silence was broken occasionally by a rush of feet fleeing the hotel, or policemen crouching into firing positions near the hotel's perimeter, or warning onlookers to go away. "Fortunately, we had only one function tonight, in one banquet room out of the nine we have," the banquet manager said. "Otherwise, the causalities might have been higher." He said the hotel had about 45% occupancy.
"Two masked armed gunmen randomly fired from the ramp in the lobby," the Oberoi shopping mall manager standing nearby reported on his cell phone to a senior. "The Kandahar [restaurant[ is badly damaged, sir. No word of causalities." A pattern was emerging. Two-member teams of gunmen had fanned out across Mumbai, randomly firing into crowds and hurling grenades out of backpacks.
Most of the targets were tourist-oriented, including railway stations and hospitals. Reports emerged of terrorists looking in particular for American and British guests at the Oberoi and Taj Mahal, two luxury landmarks and rated by Forbes and Conde Nast among the world's best business hotels. In a sense, Mumbai and India's economy was under attack.
A young food and beverage trainee attending a roof-top party at the Oberoi had just escaped into the street, still panting, and reported seeing a Japanese guest shot in the hip. "Another guest said he had seen a man being shot dead before his eyes," he said. "We heard there is another explosion in Mazgaon Docks. We live near there and have to go."
By 11.30 pm, when I met Thomas, Rita and Jesper near the Air India building facing the Arabian Sea, Marine Drive had turned into a Hollywood disaster movie set: ambulances, police vehicles, satellite TV vans, trucks of heavily armed soldiers rumbling into the zone and reporters screaming into their cell phones. Thomas and Rita were desperately trying to contact three missing crew members, not yet sure whether one of them had escaped alive out of the Leopold Cafe.
Soldiers were moving into the Oberoi, seven grenade explosions rocked the Taj Mahal, India's first-ever five-star hotel, with its famous sea-facing dome on fire. Like other hotel guests, the Lufthansa crew were stranded outside for the night. Shipping company owner Jesper had experienced bullets flying near his head when he served as solder in a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Yugoslavia 13 years ago.
"We were caught in the crossfire between Bosnians and Serbs," Jesper remembered. "But tonight was more terrifying because I had no gun to defend myself. Soldiers firing on soldiers in a war is easier to understand than civilians firing at other civilians." "This is my first visit to Mumbai and I like it," said Rita, who nearly lost her life in the Leopold Cafe and escaped being killed in the Oberoi in a night of terror that she and Mumbai will never forget. "But I don't want to come back here again."
Lufthansa eventually picked up Rita, Thomas and Jesper in the morning and moved them to the Hyatt Residency near the airport. Flights out of Mumbai were expected to be full on Thursday. But Mumbai has so far refused to heed chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh's advice to stay indoors. Office attendance is expected to be down, but suburban trains are running and the city is attempting to come out to work. For stoic, terrorist-battered Mumbai, work and life go on.