Shadow of the gunmen still haunts Mumbai

It is a year ago that terror came to the Indian city. Andrew Buncombe meets the victims – and suspects – whose lives were forever changed
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There is one thing that hotelier Karambir Kang has been unable to do, one thing he has not wanted to do. He would rather remember the family he lost, his wife, Niti, and their sons, Uday and Samar, as they were – happy and vibrant, full of life. Remarkably, after their deaths, he discovered that, on the day the militants struck, his family had visited the hotel photographer and posed for happy, carefree pictures. That is how remembers them now. He has no desire, therefore, to enter the suite on the sixth floor where they perished.

"I have not entered that room – it's not something I have done. Even in the aftermath I did not go in. I did not see the bodies. I refused to do this," says Mr Kang. "To me, the last memories I want to remember are of them still alive."

Twelve months after 10 Islamist militants swept ashore and laid deadly siege to the Indian city of Mumbai leaving more than 165 people dead and a nation stunned, the historic Taj Mahal Palace hotel – the hotel of which Mr Kang remains general manager – is buzzing with the sound of workmen. Staff apologise to guests for the sound of drilling and the clatter of hammers as carpenters and plasterers hurry to rebuild damaged restaurants and interiors, but the quiet truth is they rather like the noise. They say it is the sound of recovery, of the hotel coming back to life – the sound of defiance.

In the lobby of the 107-year-old building where four of the gunman ran in spraying automatic fire, a marble plinth lists the names of the 31 people who died here. "For now and ever you will inspire us," it reads. Hotel officials, Mr Kang among them, seem genuine when they say the restoration of the hotel, located opposite the Gateway to India memorial, marks the efforts of those caught up in the violence to rebuild and regroup.

But such upbeat talk of recovery only goes so far. The shock waves of those attacks, when for 60 hours a highly-trained team of militants, apparently from Pakistan, terrorised the city, continue to resonate deeply. Relations between India and Pakistan, never warm, but which at the time had been definitely improving, have been set back by years. Pakistan insists it has done much to move against those responsible for planning the attacks. Indeed yesterday, in a move that may help improve the current stand-off, Pakistan charged seven men, including the alleged mastermind Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, said to be the operational commander of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), or "Army of the Righteous", which is believed to be behind the attacks. Others charged include Hamad Amin Sadiq, who worked on raising funds.

Yet India says the militant infrastructure remains in place and that key figures linked to the events of last November remain free to go about their business.

The events of 26/11 – this date, the latest numeric shorthand to enter our shared lexicon of terror – have also left lingering doubt and anxiety, both regionally and beyond. In these pressing times, who now sleeps entirely at ease in a large hotel in any major city? In our post-9/11 world, these events have created new uncertainty, fresh angst.

Of course, those suffering the hardest are those bearing personal loss, a loss that cannot be shared. When the militants struck, Mr Kang became famous as the man who worked without sleep to try and save his guests. Even after his family perished from the fire, trapped in their room – he had been speaking to his wife by phone until the very end – he refused to leave the hotel, insisting that he could help save the lives of others. At the time, his behaviour appeared remarkable, robotic even, but that was not the case.

Sitting in the hotel's Sea Lounge which looks out over the flat ocean, Mr Kang says that, during those 60 terrible hours he received strength from his mother. When he called her to say that commandos had finally broken into his family's suite and found them dead, huddled together in the bathroom, his wife cradling one son, the body of the other lying beside them, she had told him he must do whatever he could for those still alive. "I thought about it for a minute and I thought, 'Yes, that is the right thing do'," he says.

After the siege, many people told him that he should move away from Mumbai. He thought about it but decided to stay. "If my family died here... I think it's my moral duty to be here, maybe more than that – something deeper," he says. "It's important for me to oversee this task of rebuilding and see [the hotel] better than before. But also that I act in a way that makes my family, who are no longer, proud of me. Perhaps [I need] to redeem myself."

Redemption, from what? "You play over in your mind everything – 'What if...'" he continues. "But it was a helpless situation."

Less than five minutes' easy stroll from the seafront hotel, the workmen have been less busy at Leopold café, a popular hang-out for foreigners and locals alike. The restaurant was one of the first locations struck by the militants and 10 people were killed, two of them waiters. Unlike at the Taj, the bullet holes and cracked mirror have been left as they were, a perhaps unnecessary reminder for those who work at the restaurant but a definite draw now for tourists. Nearby, touts offer "terror tours" of the various locations attacked by the militants for the equivalent of £25. "It's not a question of forgetting. It's not forgotten but we go ahead with our lives and we make sure this does not happen again," says Farhang Jehani, one of the owners of the Leopold.

But is security any better, are the police any better trained, better prepared? In the aftermath of the attacks, the Indian home ministry introduced several key changes including the establishment of new regional hubs for the National Security Guard (NSG) commandos. One of the woeful failings of the authorities when the militants struck was that it took more than 10 hours to fly the "black cats" from their base in Delhi to Mumbai to confront the gunmen. [Officials were unable to find a suitable plane for them.]

Additional Commissioner Deven Bharti, one of the policemen who have interrogated the sole surviving militant, Ajmal Kasab, the 21-year-old "highly motivated terrorist" whose trial is still ongoing, says that numerous changes have been introduced locally in the aftermath of 26/11 – a day on which the first police to encounter the militants were carrying old rifles and one or two bullets, if they were armed at all. Commandos are now located in each of the city's five sectors, and there is a mobile response van in each of the 87 stations with police armed with automatic weapons. These have been assigned the role of first response.

But he readily admits to the failure by the security forces, in particular a "failure of imagination". "One should remember 9/11," he adds. "We never thought that 10 people from Pakistan would be landing in Mumbai and engaging five targets. I don't think there's anywhere in the world where militants have taken up five targets."

The reorganisation and retraining has involved closer cooperation with the FBI and other international groups. "It has been a great learning experience."

Yet not everyone is convinced that the security situation has markedly improved. Mr Jehani, from Café Leopold, has placed a guard at the front of his restaurant and installed CCTV but he recognises that defending such an establishment against well-armed, determined militants is an all-but impossible task. "I think security is better, but not 100 per cent," he admits. "What can you do? You see what is happening in Pakistan with attacks continuing every day. When the terrorists want to strike, they strike."

But at times Mumbai remains ill-prepared, as if it simply does not care. Just last month, India's Home Affairs Minister, P Chidambaram, said: "My assessment of the vulnerability is that it has remained the same since 26/11. It has not diminished nor has it enhanced."

Watching the busy scenes at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus – the railway station still better known by its Colonial-era name, Victoria – it is difficult to imagine it as the scene where that Kasab and a colleague mowed down at least 52 people and injured scores more. The waiting area, slick with blood and downed bodies in the aftermath, is now full of passengers waiting for trains.

Sebastian D'Souza, photo editor of the Mumbai Mirror and the man who rushed into the station and was rewarded for his dedication with a now-iconic image of Kasab, points out where he hid when the gunmen came looking for him. He saw a group of policemen huddled in the corner and shouted at them to fire back at the two gunmen but no one did. Instead, some of them ran. "They could not match their guns," he says.

Standing amid the mid-afternoon bustle, Mr D'Souza says the city rapidly returned to how things were, despite the carnage and the chaos. "The city always gets back to normal. People are always bothered about their own lives, everybody has to go back to work. By the morning [after the attackers struck the station], it was back to normal."

On the way out of the terminus, Mr D'Souza points out the frames of electronic security gates erected at the entrance to the station. None of them are even plugged in; none of them are working. The crowds of commuters rush past them without pausing to look.

At the rear of Mumbai's Sir JJ Hospital is a stone building with a red-tiled roof that sits alone beneath the shade of tall trees. The metal doors are kept padlocked shut. Outside, a man holds his nose as he points to the building and claims that inside there is a bad smell.

This is the mortuary operated by the police and it is here that the bodies of Ajmal Kasab's nine fellow militants lie. The Indian authorities have identified them either by their fake or real names as Nasir alias Abu Umar, Abu Ali, Soheb, Fahad Ullah, Bada Abdul Rehaman, Abdul Rehaman Chota, Ismail Khan, Babar Imaran, and Nazir. Yet for all their notoriety just a year ago, these individuals appear to have been forgotten about.

"Normally bodies are kept here for one month maximum," explains Dr Shivaji Dound, the police hospital's resident medical officer. "Those bodies are being kept at -4C and they have been embalmed so they do not decompose."

The fate of the bodies of the Mumbai attackers is one of the more striking reminders of the subsequent fall-off in relations between India and Pakistan. While the relationship between the two countries, which have been to war three times, has never been warm, a peace process had been ongoing.

In an instant that dialogue came to a halt and now the corpses remain stranded. The government in Islamabad has admitted Kasab is a Pakistani national and President Asif Ali Zardari – seemingly ahead of many in the political establishment in trying to repair the relationship with India – conceded to The Independent earlier this year that some of the other militants may also be. Despite that, there have been no efforts to repatriate the bodies. In Mumbai, local Muslims have refused to bury them, claiming that their actions have "defamed" Islam. Pakistan is keen for the talks to resume. Earlier this month, the country's Prime Minister, Yousaf Gilani, told reporters: "I think dialogue is the only solution. The world is aware of Pakistan's strategic location and its role as a frontline state in fighting against terrorism... If Pakistan and India do not hold talks, the terrorists are likely to benefit and not the people."

There have been several meetings between senior officials, and Mr Gilani met his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh earlier this summer, when the two agreed that efforts against terrorism should be "de-linked" from the stalled peace process. However, not withstanding the genuine political courage shown by both Mr Singh and Mr Zardari, substantive talks remain on hold.

Pakistan, currently involved in what it has described as a life-or-death struggle against Taliban and al-Qa'ida militants, insists that it has acted to bring to justice alleged LeT militants blamed by India for carrying out the attacks. All seven men charged yesterday under Pakistan's anti-terrorism act and criminal code, were seized in February when the authorities conceded that the Mumbai plot had been at least partly organised inside the country. These men are being dealt with by a secretive anti-terrorism court inside Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi in sessions that have been off-limits to the media and public. The seven, who could face the death penalty, yesterday all pleaded not guilty.

The indictments will be welcomed by Delhi, yet India, which says it has provided more than half-a-dozen dossiers of evidence about those involved in the attacks, still demands more. In particular, it is furious that Hafiz Muhammed Saeed, a founder member of LeT and the head of a charity allegedly linked to it, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), is still at large.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the JuD was proscribed as a terrorist front group by the UN and US and the Pakistani government said it was shutting down the organisation's operations. Mr Saeed, its head, or Amir, was placed under house arrest and then released after Pakistan's courts said there was no evidence to detain him. It was a decision that left India spitting.

In an interview, Shashi Tharoor, India's External Affairs minister, claims there was no practical point in returning to substantive talks until Pakistan did more to dismantle the "infrastructure" of terrorism within its borders. He says India recognised that some steps had been taken, but believed that more needed to be done.

Of the case of Mr Saeed, he says: "This is an egregious example of what we are talking about. He is head of two organisations that have been proscribed by the UN Security Council. If the Pakistanis feel that more information [to prosecute him] is needed, then that information is best found in Pakistan." He adds: "We want peace but, in the words of the old Indian saying, it requires two hands to clap."

At the headquarters of the charity that India and others say is a front group for the militants responsible for Mumbai's carnage, women line up for free medical treatment and boys and girls are being taught history, science and biology. Less than 20 miles north of the Pakistani city of Lahore, as the sprawl of the provincial capital begins to fade, lies Mudrike, the village where JuD has it main compound. Following the attacks, the organisation was proscribed and supposedly shut down but that never happened. During the Pakistani military's operations against militants in the Swat Valley this spring when a human tide of refugees flooded from the valley, The Independent even discovered volunteers from the charity helping the needy and calling themselves the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation.

At the 200-acre site at Mudrike, senior JuD members confirm that the organisation's work was never stopped and it is clear that the authorities are more than aware of this; two special-branch police officers have been assigned to the compound while a civilian government official has to give permission for visitors to enter.

Yet officials at the sprawling centre insist they have nothing to hide. "It's intellectual dishonesty. They have no explanation," says Rashid Manhes, who oversees boys' education at JuD facilities across the country and who leads a tour of the compound, pointing out classrooms and clinics where villagers receive free health care, dental treatment and even surgery. "You have observed and you can see we are a relief organisation that has worked all over the world."

But if the JuD compound is accessible, the same cannot be said for its leader. Repeated requests to meet with Mr Saeed are turned down and when The Independent calls at his residence in Lahore, the street is blocked off by armed police and a guard carrying an automatic weapon.

His lawyer, A K Dogar, insists that his client is innocent. "I have seen no evidence, no evidence against him. The only thing that I keep hearing is that Kasab has made a confession. That is not even valid in court," he says, serving tea and traditional south Asian sweets at his office. "There is not a shred of evidence connecting him with [the attacks]. I have argued this for months. The central and provincial governments said they had secret evidence but the judges found nothing substantive in it." Mr Dogar says that Mr Saeed has opened more than 140 schools and two universities. "He is a peaceful citizen," he adds.

A spokesman for JuD, Yahya Mujahid, is similarly dismissive of India's claims. "The allegations are baseless because we are doing charity work," he says, sitting at a Chinese restaurant in Lahore. "That is all we do. The hospital at Mudrike, that is what we are doing. What other militant groups are involved in charity work? How could we do both together? To prove our innocence we have gone to the courts. Who does that?"

Karambir Kang says he seeks a sense of peace, a place of solace, by listening to music. He has also moved out of the Taj and into an apartment in Mumbai. He talks of the help he has received from his friends and colleagues, of the outpouring of support there has been from people around the world, many of whom he never knew.

He believes that those recruited to carry out the attacks that killed his family were probably being used by their controllers. "Those people who are killing don't know who they are killing. Those being killed don't know who is killing them or why. That's why I say it's such a tragedy," he says.

"The terrorists met their fate and I think those controllers eventually will. I think India as a country... we need to be stronger and tougher in every way, internal security, the way we deal with things."

The anniversary of the attacks, he says, will be a solemn day. Rather than a public event or a vigil, he expects to organise a multi-faith prayer meeting for the staff who went through so much. He says: "We will talk to the staff about the year that has been and put it behind us and make this the finest hotel. We have to look ahead."

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