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Mumbai terror attacks: And then they came for the Jews

Thanks to Apostate Islam for reminding me of this from yesterday's Sunday Times.
Last November, more than 150 people were killed by terrorists in Mumbai. One target was a centre run by this young Jewish couple, who were murdered and perhaps tortured; miraculously, their toddler son escaped. Alastair Gee went back to Mumbai to find out what really happened that night.
It is a sticky monsoon day in Mumbai, and Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz walks through the shell of Nariman House. Today, the ruined five-storey structure is testament to the ferocity of the terrorists’ incursion and their battle with Indian commandos. It seems impossible that anyone could have come out alive.
Berkowitz is an American charged with recreating the Mumbai outpost of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a Hasidic outreach and educational organisation that sends emissaries around the world. “We are in deep shock,” says Berkowitz, 33. “They have left a gaping hole in our community.”
But even as the organisation looks to the future, uncertainty lingers over what took place during those 48 hours last November. During the siege, six foreigners were murdered inside Nariman House and three Indians were killed on the surrounding streets. Four people from inside the house survived. The building was run by Lubavitch, and was part of a larger attack on hotels and public buildings across Mumbai that resulted in the deaths of at least 166 people. But for the terrorists themselves, Nariman House was different. It was the only Jewish target, and the terrorists would be told by their handlers in Pakistan that the lives of Jews were worth 50 times those of non-Jews. The organisers had sought it out with care. Most Mumbaikars knew of the Taj Mahal hotel. Few were aware of the small Jewish centre tucked away on a backstreet.Strangely, considering Nariman House’s central place in the attacks, the events of the siege are a mystery. The full story of what happened, of how the siege began, of the hostages who escaped, and of the baby who was rescued, has never been told.
The storage room in which Sandra Samuel and Zakir (Jackie) Hussain were hiding from the gunmen measured 3.5 metres by 3 metres. . .
There was little indication of what the men upstairs were doing with the American rabbi, his wife and son, Moshe, who was almost two, and their guests. “Nobody was speaking, there was just the moving of tables, shaking noises, bumps, things being pushed against the wall, things grinding,” says Sandra. It was approaching 1am on Thursday, November 27, 2008.
In an adjacent building, a British woman, Anna, was crouching in the hall of her apartment with her Indian husband. Anna, 41, is a thoughtful, dark-haired teacher; she didn’t want to give her real name because, in light of what happened in her adopted city, she fears becoming a target. All their windows — about 21 panes — had shattered from a blast after the gunshots and explosions had started at Nariman House at 9.45pm the previous night. So they waited on the floor for hours in the darkness, calling and receiving calls from worried relatives and friends, unsure of what was going on next door, even though Nariman House was only a few steps away. Curiously, the thing that struck Anna was the silence. It was as though the city beyond had ceased to exist. No car horns, no chatter from the street, none of the normal hum of a sprawling tropical metropolis. That night there was nothing except for gunshots, and they issued from Nariman House infrequently.
At around 1am there was one unforgettable sound that Sandra, Jackie and Anna would all hear. It came from Nariman House. Anna was crouching. Jackie and Sandra were hiding. And then, very clearly, a woman screamed. From that moment on, there could be little doubt about what was taking place there. “She screamed as a gunshot rang out,” says Anna. “Then there was a real sobbing. She was crying with that kind of… like she was terrified. That kind of crying.”
The central figures in this story are Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, emissaries of the Lubavitch movement who arrived in Mumbai in 2003. They offered local and visiting Jews a free place to eat, sleep, and pray.
Illness afflicted the Holtzberg family. Their first child, Menachem Mendel, was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs, a genetic disorder, and died in 2006, aged two. Another son, Dov Ber, also had the disease, and was to die at four years old in December 2008, a month after his parents. Amid all this, the Holtzbergs had their youngest child, Moshe, and to them he was a blessing. He did not have Tay-Sachs, and Rivki called him her malach, her angel. Everyone on their street seemed to know him. . . What’s more, Rivki was five months pregnant, another reason to be thankful.
Sandra, a Catholic Mumbaikar who previously worked as a private cook and a masseuse, started with the Holtzbergs in 2003. Jackie, a Muslim from Assam, was hired as a cook in 2006 after meeting Gabi at a sports club where he worked. Since the siege, The Sunday Times has learnt, suspicions have arisen that he may have been implicated.
The Holtzbergs had guests for dinner. Among them were the American rabbis Benzion Kruman, 28, and Leibish Teitelbaum, 37. There were also two women: an Israeli grandmother, Yocheved Orpaz, 62, and Norma Shvarzblat Rabinovich, 50, from Mexico. Kruman, Teitelbaum, Orpaz and Rabinovich would not leave Nariman House alive. Another Israeli visitor, David Bialka, 52, a diamond trader from Netanya, was more fortunate. Unbeknown to the occupants of Nariman House, at around 8.30pm on Wednesday, a dinghy landed at a local jetty. It contained 10 men from Pakistan. Splitting into small groups, they fanned out across the city, some leaving bombs in taxis on the way. Each man carried an AK-47, a pistol, 8 to 12 grenades, and was in constant phone contact with handlers in Pakistan. Two of them, identified as Babar Imran of Multan and Nasir of Faisalabad — little else is known about them — walked a few streets to the only Jewish target. Their handlers would emphasise to them the importance of killing Jews.
Few developments gave cause for optimism. At 10.45pm, an hour after the terrorists entered the Jewish centre, a bomb they had left at a local petrol station exploded. The scream heard by Anna, the Englishwoman, came at around 1am. “At that point, my blood ran cold,” Anna says. In Nariman House itself, it appears that some of the hostages were killed immediately after the terrorists’ arrival, although this would not be known until the end of the siege. Rivki and Gabi seemed to have survived for a few hours after the terrorists arrived, according to Sandra. She says it was Rivki who screamed. Soon after, she heard Rivki shout “Gabi, Gabi, stop, stop”. “What she wanted him to stop, I don’t know,” Sandra says; she suggested that Gabi had been fighting the terrorists.
While the terrorists focused on the phone conversations with Lubavitch, there was a lull in the gunfire. In the storeroom, Sandra and Jackie suddenly heard Moshe crying upstairs. Sandra’s reaction was instinctive. “I heard him cry, I ran towards him, that’s it,” she says. “I wasn’t frightened. If I was frightened I would have run away.” It is not known who brought Moshe down from his fifth-floor room, or why Babar Imran and Nasir did not shoot him. A sense of humanity may have prevailed. Sandra found him wandering amid the bodies of his parents and the two visiting rabbis. “They were unconscious, not dead,” she insists. “There was no blood on the scene, not one scratch on the bodies. It was like they were sleeping. Rabbi Gabi had a little bit of blood on his leg.” It is possible Sandra did not fully take in the scene, because there was certainly blood on Moshe’s clothing. Grabbing the baby, she and Jackie fled.
At dawn, a helicopter dropped Indian commandos onto the roof. For hours, rockets and bullets slammed into Nariman House as commandos closed in on the terrorists from the roof and the ground floor. Onlookers were stunned at the intensity of the battle. It continued until Friday evening, when the terrorists were killed by commandos. Their bodies were riddled with bullets; Nasir’s arm was charred. A team of volunteers at Zaka, an emergency-response group, had arrived from Israel on Friday with Rivki’s parents, and now they and others moved into the building to recover the bodies. As the Jewish Sabbath started, the siege of Nariman House was over. The rumours began shortly afterwards. Some in Mumbai heard that the hostages had been tortured, their bodies mutilated. There was speculation that the terrorists had taken mind-altering drugs before committing appalling acts, perhaps even sexually abusing the women. Few know what actually happened. The situation was complicated by the fact that no autopsies were performed on the bodies, in accordance with Jewish law.
I tracked down a man who was one of the first people into Nariman House after the siege ended. It was the first time he has spoken to a journalist, and he asked me not to reveal his identity as he feared upsetting the families of the deceased. He allowed me to say that he has medical training.
He had waited outside Nariman House as the commandos battled their way in on Friday, he said. He was optimistic; when Sandra escaped on Thursday morning, she had stated that the hostages looked unconscious rather than dead. But what he found appeared different. “They were tortured very badly,” he told me, speaking sombrely and matter-of-factly.
All the hostages had been shot, he said. Some had multiple bullet wounds. But there was more. Two of the rabbis had broken bones. The skull of one of the victims had caved in, as sometimes happens when somebody is shot in the head at close range with a rifle, except the man had not been shot in the head. The two female visitors, Orpaz and Rabinovich, were found bound with telephone cord and lying next to each other on a fourth-floor bed. One of the hostages had bruising all over her body, which the man, who is not a pathologist, said was consistent with being hit by a blunt object. There was a large cut on her thigh. And one of her eyes was out of its orbit and lying on her cheek.
It sounded so extreme, so hard to believe, that the man said in a quiet voice: “I can show you photographs.” So we drove through deserted night-time streets to his home, where he opened a folder on his laptop entitled “Nariman House”. Inside were pictures, presumably taken by the Mumbai police, of the terrorists and four of the hostages: Gabi, Teitelbaum, and the two visiting women. He did not have photos of Rivki or Kruman. The pictures are overwhelming, an almost unbearable tableau of blood and contorted bodies. Nariman House is in disarray, the furniture overturned, bullet holes everywhere. It was not hard to believe that the hostages met a horrific, drawn-out end. Based on the images and eyewitness reports, it becomes clear that most did not die in the first hail of bullets as the terrorists entered the building, as has been reported. They may have fought back. Survivors would hear Rivki through the first night, and Gabi appears to have died some time after being shot in the leg, as there is a tourniquet around his thigh. The most brutal injuries suggest torture, but the organisations that might have conclusive answers, such as Zaka, the Israeli emergency-response group, decline to comment.
One more question remains: how did the terrorists and their handlers apparently know the layout of Nariman House, and the schedule of its inhabitants, so well? Suspicion has fallen on Jackie, the Muslim cook. Since the siege, he says he has had about 100 interviews with police and officials, including Israelis. Solomon Sopher, a leader of the Mumbai Jewish community, says he thinks Jackie is suspected not of direct collusion with terrorists, but perhaps of unwittingly revealing information to scouts who struck up a friendship with him. Jackie denies this, and it is probable that if there were evidence against him, he would have been charged.
He now lives with Sandra’s son, and works at a falafel firm. When he speaks warmly of the Holtzbergs, he seems genuine.
Moshe, almost three now, seems to have adjusted. He lives in Israel with Rivki’s parents and Sandra.
Meanwhile, Damyanti Gohil, the mother of the call-centre worker who was shot from Nariman House, says that before the siege she would sit out, watch the building’s sparkling lights, and listen to the melodies of prayers and songs. The Holtzbergs had parties and it all seemed lovely. Now it aches so much for her to see the house through her kitchen window that she has blocked it with bricks and cement.
Surprisingly, considering the grim history, dozens of Lubavitch couples have applied to replace the Holtzbergs in Mumbai. “The light has to shine again from Chabad house,” Berkowitz says.
It is Tisha B’Av, a Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of two Jerusalem temples about 2,000 years ago. On the roof, Berkowitz sits and begins to recite a traditional prayer. “They attacked us and besieged us, our enemies,” he half-sings, the city spread out beneath him. “They made impure what was pure. There is no comfort.” The visitors look at the ground or into the distance. “Hashem,” he says, using one of the Jewish names for God, “return us. We will repent and you will return us. May you reinstate the glorious days of old.”