By Rohit Khilnani:
I’m born and raised in Mumbai and am proud of my city. I fight when people crib about the traffic, space, weather and so on. No bitching out my city to me!
As a reporter, I have covered the Ghatkopar bus blast in 2002, the cloudburst of 2005, the train bombings of 2006 and just when I thought all this reportage had made me tough, I witnessed and covered 26/11.
I must say, I am lucky to not to have lost any loved ones in the attack. I suffered the least because I had no friends or family inside the Taj or Oberoi on that fateful night of 26 November 2008. I covered the siege from outside, I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for the people who came face to face with those terrorists.
Yogita Limaye (now my wife) and I were reporters in CNN-IBN’s Mumbai bureau, I covered entertainment and she did the sensible stuff, covered news. It all started when we were having dinner at Jai Hind Café in Lower Parel, both of us were almost done with work. She was on the evening shift when the news of gunfire in South Mumbai broke.
Initially, it was unclear what had happened, so she being the reporter on duty went to the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) to check. When she reached CST, she could hear gunshots, the terrorists were not far from her. The thought still crosses our minds as to what if the terrorists had seen her while they were crossing the over-bridge after gunning down people at CST? She was right there.
I, meanwhile, had no time to check on her because I rushed to The Oberoi Trident in Nariman Point, as reports of gunfire from other locations started coming in.
It feels weird, because normally people run away from such spots, they ensure their loved ones are safe and nowhere close to the places under attack. And we were doing exactly the opposite. We choose to go where there is trouble, that’s our job, we enjoy the adrenaline rush.
This was the first terror attack of its kind and most of us reporters knew that we would have a story to tell, if we lived through it. Fact is that journalists live in denial, even in the most hostile situations, we always think, “There is no way, we will be killed. No, that’s not going to happen.”
I covered the 26/11 Mumbai attacks for 3 consecutive days outside the Oberoi Trident. Till then I had never heard what a bullet shot sounded like, but that day, all I heard were gunshots and even grenade blasts. Every time there was a blast inside the hotel, the ground outside would shake and we would just hold each other’s hands.
After about two hours of standing outside the hotel and waiting for something to happen, I heard some crime reporters talking about two terrorists being chased in a Skoda car. So my cameraperson and I drove off in our office car and were stopped at Chowpatty by the police. As I got off the car, I saw a few Mumbai police constables battling it out with two terrorists using their lathis, one of them was Kasab.
The terrorists were taken away in a police van and the location was cleared within minutes, so we rushed back to the Oberoi hotel. The cops standing there told us that they had just killed two terrorists, they didn’t know Kasab was alive.
On reaching Oberoi, which is at the other end of the same stretch on Marine Drive, we were told to be careful of police vans, as some terrorists had hijacked a police van. So we were all hiding behind trees and OB vans.
When I looked up at the hotel in front of me, I could see people standing close to the windows, they were frantically waving asking for help. But nobody was in a position to help them, I wondered what it must be like to be in those rooms. You cannot dare to step out and if anyone knocks on your door, you don’t know if the person wants to save your life or take it!
The next morning, NSG commandos went inside the hotel but the gruesome attacks went on for another day! The following morning we saw choppers heading towards Colaba, they were going to Nariman House, another building which terrorists had attacked. That was the only spot that was not cleared, by then both the Oberoi and Taj Mahal hotel were scanned and cleared by the NSG. By the third day I was drained out, not physically but mentally.
The impossible had happened, terrorists were home, amongst us in my city. Over the next few days, I heard so many stories of horror and sadness about and from people who had lost their loved ones. The papers were full of obituaries, pictures of young and old, all who died that very day from a bullet fired by the terrorists. The front page of newspapers were filled with photos of bodies and blood.
This photograph of a cop helping a senior citizen walk out of CST littered with luggage, pairs of slippers and the blood of the dead, moved me to tears.
For me, the most disturbing element of the 26/11 attack was the CCTV footage from the Taj and Oberoi. It looked like you were watching a video game, the only difference being that these were real people getting killed and that was real blood. How casually the terrorists walked inside the hotel and how calmly they fired and threw hand grenades, it was shocking.
Life in Mumbai changed after that day and everyone says the city moved on. Of course it will move on because life has to go on. But we did pay a price. I realised that much later. We go through baggage screenings and checks before entering a five star hotel in our own city, of course it’s for our safety but this didn’t happen before 26/11/2008. I haven’t enjoyed a meal at a five star since then. Once I am inside, all I think of is the carnage. I look out for exits, what if terrorists enter right now, which side should I run? This thought definitely crosses my mind.
When I enter the Taj Mahal lobby, I shut my eyes for a second and think of that day. This place was a battlefield; dead bodies and bullet shells covered the floor. I open my eyes and everything is normal, everyone is busy but I cannot forget that day. I visited CST recently to meet the PRO, I stopped and saw hoards of people rushing to catch their trains back home. I shut my eyes and I see all these people dead. The images and memories are no further away than yesterday.
Have I moved on? I don’t know. My friends advised me to take some help to forget about the incident, but it’s impossible to forget or maybe I don’t want to forget it. It’s important for me to not forget that day because it was a real day when humans killed other humans and walked over their bodies. They didn’t even spare the Labrador guard dog inside the Taj lobby and in my books that’s an awful thing to do.
A lot of cities have been attacked over the years, New York, Mumbai, Karachi, Paris, Mali etc. We see similar scenes on the news, similar photos in the newspapers and stories of horror and sadness. Every time a city is attacked, I remember 26/11. The story is always the same, only the city changes.26/11 took a part of Mumbai away from me… forever!