Sachin Kalbag: No time for water, no time to blink

25 Nov,2013

By Sachin Kalbag


On the morning of November 28, 2008, around 100 reporters rushed to Chabad House in Colaba where four Pakistan-trained terrorists had taken hostage all the eight Jewish people living in the building. Chabad House, or Nariman House as it was previously known, is the outreach centre for the Jewish community in Mumbai, and is the first stop for any religious activity for the community, especially for those visiting from outside the country. It was a natural target for Islamist militants who had laid siege to key locations in Mumbai from the night of November 26.


There were a few reporters present at the spot, but most of the attention from media houses for the most horrific terror attack in India’s history was given to the Taj and the Oberoi, both plush five-star hotels where hundreds were held hostage, and many later killed. Nariman House, on the other hand, is in a middle-class area of Colaba at Hormusji Street, and access to the building is through a narrow lane on the west, and a slightly wider but still crowded lane to the north. Escape is practically impossible.


It was in this situation that Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his pregnant wife Rivka found themselves on the night of November 26. Later, reporters at “ground zero” were told that the hostages were tortured badly before being killed.


For the reporters, which included this writer who was reporting for the Delhi-based newspaper Mail Today, there was seemingly not much to do but wait until the well-trained National Security Guards (NSG) commandos neutralised the four terrorists.


However, it was not all just wait and watch. Intermittent fire had already been targeted at journalists at the Taj on the night Nov 27, and the four terrorists at Nariman House could have, out of desperation, hurt any of the hundreds of onlookers and journalists, which included cameramen from news agencies all over the world. In fact, a few bullets were indeed fired at us, but they seemed more like warning shots than any attempt at killing us. The terrorists, reportedly, were told that their only aim at Nariman House was to kill the Jews. According to a Times (of London) news report, the Pakistani handlers told the terrorists that “the lives of Jews were worth 50 times those of non-Jews”.


A unit of 22 NSG commandos arrived in the morning rappelling down a military helicopter, and entered Nariman House. Soon, the exchange of fire began. A second unit of NSG commandos, most likely snipers, took positions in a building situated 100 metres north of Nariman House. Separating them was the narrow lane, whose most remarkable feature was a large banana godown which was shut indefinitely.


There was neither food nor any water for journalists, so we relied on the goodness of the locals to provide us with biscuits and cups of tea. The more fortunate ones were given vada pav. We could not even imagine the stamina of the NSG commandos who had nothing to eat or drink during the entire offensive that last close to 12 hours.


The terrorists, it was immediately obvious, were well-trained in military warfare and hand-to-hand combat. How else could they survive an onslaught by some of the best trained commandos in the world?


In the middle of all this, journalists were shooting pictures, giving live newscasts and filing stories to their respective newsrooms. The pressure on television reporters was immense. Viewers from all over the world wanted the latest, and the live pictures were not providing much context. Studios kept calling their correspondents, who had nothing much to say. This often resulted in misreporting.


One such reporter, whom I got acquainted with, was being repeatedly called upon to give updates. In frustration, he began describing events that never took place. For instance, he would sit and chat with me for 20 minutes, and then, when his editor called, he would simply rattle off trivial stuff that was the figment of his imagination at best. When I asked him why he did that, he replied, “This is television, yaar. You print guys will never understand.” Later, at around 6:20 pm, they even claimed that the operation was over.


I was more amused than angry. I cross-checked with a Hormusji Stree resident, Dhaval Koli, whom I had befriended during the day. He said the firing is still on, and the operation isn’t over. Koli worked at the local Baskin Robbins shop, and he offered to take me around as he had lived his entire life there. His help turned out priceless because I could add details to my reports that others could not. For instance, he was the first to tell me that Sandra Samuel, the 44-year-old nanny of Holtzbergs’ son Moshe, had rescued the toddler. The operation finally got over at night, three hours after television reporters had declared it finished.


Around 9 pm, I ate my first morsel in 26 hours – a vegetable sandwich bought by a colleague working at India Today’s Nariman Point office. Later, after filing stories, I went to a pav bhaji stall to eat some Mumbai street food. There is a certain satisfaction you get by eating good food after more than a day of not eating. My respect for war reporters went up a hundred notches.


I had arrived in Mumbai on November 27, and stayed on for four more days. Most of these 102 hours were spent on the streets. I could not meet my parents or my friends, who kept calling up. No reporter I knew there could find time to drink water, leave alone meet friends and family. This was one of the most horrific events of independent India, and as reporters, we could not even blink. We were, we soon realised, eyewitness to history.


Sachin Kalbag is Executive Editor, MiD DAY


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