Exactly one year ago, ten terrorists from the Jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure) sailed from Pakistan to India. Their goal was to attack that country’s financial and culture heart, Mumbai. They were armed with automatic weapons, hand grenades, and plastic explosives. They also carried satellite phones, and GPS equipment. When the carnage ended 60 hours later, 172 people were dead, including nine of the gunmen. To commemorate the first anniversary of the Mumbai attacks, PBS is airing the latest installment of their popular Secrets of the Dead series, Mumbai Massacre.
Upon arrival their arrival in Mumbai Harbor, the ten men spread out across the city. They murdered 58 people at Victoria Station (a location seen, in happier times, in the film Slumdog Millionaire), and more died at the popular Leopold Cafe, and at Cama Hospital. Eventually, the Jihadists laid siege to the five-star Taj Mahal, and Oberoi hotels, and Nariman House, which is Mumbai’s Jewish community center. Their every move was tracked by their handlers in Pakistan, who were in constant cell phone communication with the attackers.
The impact of Mumbai Massacre comes from the testimony of survivors of the attack. We meet a young couple, Anjali and Michael Pollack, who were married at the Taj Hotel and were having dinner when the attacks began. Seyfi and Meltem Muezzinoglu are a Muslim couple who were taken hostage at the Oberoi, and watched as the terrorists murdered the other hostages but let them live. Anthony Rose is a film director. He and his crew barricaded themselves in bar for six hours before smoke forced them to smash the windows and climb down to the street on curtains. Alison Markell and her husband Doug were Australians on a trip around India. When the shooting began, they remained in their room for five hours before fire forced them to flee. Alison was wounded as they attempted to escape. Doug was not as lucky. Australians Debra Bayne and Drew Dickson hid in a smoke-filled room on the 19th floor for 20 hours before being rescued by Indian security forces.
Until I heard the testimony of the survivors, Mumbai was just one more terrible story in a time when terrible stories have become all too commonplace. The natural tendency is to wonder what you would have done if you had been in the middle of such a horror. How do human beings react under extreme pressure? The stories of the survivors are harrowing, to say the least. While the victims of the attack were using their cell phones, text messages, and Twitter to communicate with the outside world in a desperate attempt to get information about what was going on around them, the terrorist leaders in Pakistan were watching media coverage of the event and using the same methods to communicate instructions to their operatives on the ground in Mumbai. The recordings of the cell phone conversations between the terrorists and their handlers are horrifying, as orders are issued in Pakistan for people to be killed in Mumbai, and for the phone lines to be left open so that the handlers can hear the gunfire.
The bodies of the nine gunmen who were killed are still laying in Mumbai’s morgue, unclaimed. The Indian Islamic Council has refused to give them an Islamic burial. Despite their claimed Islamic agenda, scores of Muslims were among the victims. The lone surviving terrorist, a 21 year-old named Azam Amir Kasab is currently standing trial in India.
This is a timely and important documentary. The real experience of terror, not for one brief moment, but spread out over the three pressure-packed days of the siege of Mumbai, is not one that is often heard. It will not do anything to warm your heart for the holidays, but it will serve to remind you that we live in desperate, dangerous times. Secrets of the Dead: Mumbai Massacre was written and directed by Victoria Midwinter Pitt, and narrated by Liev Schreiber.
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