"26/11 Stories of Strength" | 26/11: Surviving an Execution
On the 10th anniversary of the horrific Mumbai attacks comes this compilation of heart-wrenching stories discussing personal encounters of terror and reflexive mechanisms of shared resilience. Excerpts:
It was not just another weeknight meet-up with friends. Apurva had invited his two closest friends to discuss a deeply personal matter – his will. They’d picked Kandahar, the Indian restaurant on the first floor of the Oberoi Hotel, barely a kilometre down the road from his home on Marine Drive. His friends lived farther away and they picked him up. As they drove past the Marine Plaza, another star hotel on Marine Drive with lavish views of the Arabian Sea and Mumbai’s famed Queen’s Necklace, Apurva wondered for the briefest moments if pizza at Geoffrey’s there might not be a better option. He didn’t voice the thought, however, for they had a reservation at the Kandahar, and soon they were being ushered to their table. Around 10 p.m., they had not even placed their order when gunshots rang out downstairs. ‘We knew immediately that something was seriously wrong.’
The staff at the Kandahar could see from the mezzanine the mayhem wreaked within minutes at the ground floor restaurant The Tiffin, and tried to herd the diners out quickly into the kitchen and out from a back exit. The heavy kitchen door was bolted shut even as one gunman came rushing up. Bursts of machine gunfire close behind them, Apurva and his friends joined a small crowd of diners stumbling down a stairway leading out from the kitchen’s fire exit when a second terrorist emerged from below. They were trapped.
It appeared that the two terrorists had sketchy instructions to take hostages. The trapped diners, shaking and crying, were huddled together when somebody’s phone rang. One gunman barked at them to throw their cell phones away. Eventually, about twenty of them, of various nationalities, were marched up the service stairway to the eighteenth floor. Apurva remembers a foreign Muslim couple saying prayers in Arabic – they were allowed to go. He also saw a couple of others slip out from the doors on the landings – he tried too, but found one locked and later the opportunity to slip out unnoticed didn’t present itself. Meanwhile, smoke from grenades and a fire from a lower floor began to fill the stairwell. Coughing, breathless and some of them crying, they made it to the landing of the eighteenth floor where the hostages were lined up against the wall. One gunman was speaking on a cellphone, apparently to a handler. Execute the hostages, was the instruction. The gunmen took their positions on the upper and lower landings of the flight of stairs, and opened fire simultaneously.
‘I was sure then that it was all over,’ Apurva says. It is evident that even a decade later, the memory torments him. He recounts the events of the night slowly, in a voice so low it is almost inaudible at times. Describing the massacre on the stairwell, there are long, silent pauses as he battles waves of emotion, but each time he gathers himself and continues softly.
He was near the centre, his friends were on either side of him. He ducked and turned his face almost 180 degrees, his neck at a full stretch. He felt the bullet graze his neck – had he not turned that far back, it would have hit him in the throat. He fell, bodies around and on top of him. One more spray of bullets was aimed at the heap of bodies. Once again a bullet hit him, this time in the back, but passed through causing only superficial damage. Two AK-47s, high muzzle-velocity guns, had shot them from close range. Blood was gushing out from his fellow hostages’ injuries, slicking down his face and hands.
As the gunmen left the area, he lost track of time, it could have been minutes or much longer before he gathered the courage to move in the crush of bodies. There were three other survivors, at least one seemed to have a serious injury. They dared not emerge from the pile of corpses, moving only their fingers to check the others. His friends were both dead. He lay still for a long time, choked with emotion but also frozen in fear as the rattle of machine gunfire continued from various parts of the hotel below them. The stairway was also still filled with smoke. At one point, the gunmen returned, and appeared to film the bodies at the bloodied site of the slaughter. The four survivors held their breath, playing dead. When the gunmen left this time, Apurva and the three others decided it was too dangerous to stay there. Communicating only by gesticulating, the terrorists not far below them, they decided to walk up the stairway to the very top. There, they found themselves facing what appeared to be a room housing the heating and air-conditioning systems of the hotel.
The four of them would spend the next two nights hiding in the room, relieving themselves in a corner and surviving on sips of filthy water from the air-conditioning unit until the attack at the Oberoi wound down and an NSG team evacuated them on Friday morning.
‘Over time, I made my peace with what happened. The memories remain, they will never go away, but as time passes they trouble me less,’ Apurva says.
(Excerpted with permission from 26/11: Stories of Strength; Edited by: Kavitha Iyer; Published by: Penguin Books under their imprint Penguin Random House, in November 2018)