IN THE Chabad House there was horror. A Muslim youth employed by the Rabbi, Zakir, and Moshe’s nanny Sandra Samuels were in the kitchen stowing away leftovers in the fridge when they came face to face with the terrorists. Later, much later, Zakir recounted that encounter. ‘We didn’t see the face, just the big gun. We knew something was wrong. We had barely entered the library on the first floor and turned to quickly lock the door shut. We rushed to the balcony and started shouting for help. But as the firing continued we ran towards the store room (on the first floor).’
No sooner had Zakir and Sandra entered the store room that a huge explosion tore through the first floor. The door, just bolted by the terrified Zakir and Sandra, was torn off its hinges, acrid smoke, and a film of soot and dust covered everything. The plaster coating the walls and ceiling was stripped away to expose the masonry. Shards of glass and splinters of wood were sticking out of the sofa as if it was a giant pincushion. It was a miracle that Zakir and Sandra were still alive. Zakir said later, ‘Even the terrorists thought we died in that explosion, but we hid between two steel fridges, praying.’
The shooting and grenade explosion on the second floor made a startled David Bialka sit up bolt upright in bed. The blood curling wail that followed a while later sent a tremor down his spine. Bialka crept out of his fourth floor room and edged to the balustrade that ringed the stairwell. As he peeked over he was almost immediately accosted by plumes of thick smoke, so acrid that it hit the back of his throat and strung his eyes, Choking back tears and cupping his hand over his mouth, Bialka slipped back into his room making sure that he locked the door behind him. He needed to do something and fast, if he was going to escape this hell. He glanced across the room but found that all the windows were grilled; the only way out was through the bathroom window. Bialka forced it open and reached for the drain pipe. Clinging to it for dear life, he slid down slowly till he reached the motor component of a newly installed air conditioning unit. His arms were tiring and his hands were chaffing and he was happy for a foothold. Standing on the air conditioning unit as it groaned and creaked under his weight he looked down nervously and became aware of the dozens of people who were gathered around the Nariman House.
There was smoke billowing out of a room in the neighbouring Merchant house and someone on the second floor was crying for help. Bialka was scared that the person’s cries may attract the terrorists who might open fire or may spot him. Left to choose between the prospect of losing his life to a bullet and a fatal fall, Bialka chose the latter. There was not time to lose and he decided to hop on to another air-conditioning unit slightly below. Now as he was down to the second floor he decided to jump…
Meawhile, on the second floor of the Chabad House Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka, who had swept Moshe up into her arms, were bracing for the worst. They had heard the gunshots and moments later had felt the building tremble when the explosion rumbled through it…
Imran and Nasir [the two terrorists in Nariman House] had no idea that they were being tracked by HHTIs (hand-held thermal imagers). But luckily for them the imagers weren’t as effective as they normally are due to the odd angles within Nariman House.
At around 10.30 am Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg’s cellphone started ringing. It was Rabbi Levi Shemtov, a Chabad emissary in Washington; he wanted to ensure the safety of the Jews taken hostage and find out if the terrorists had any demands. But the call didn’t amount to anything as the person on the other side, Imran, spoke in Urdu.
Shemtov then began to hunt for an interpreter and tracked down PV Vishwanath, professor at Pace University New York. Vishwanath was the perfect candidate. Besides being an orthodox Jew he was familiar with Urdu as he had spent the initial twenty years of his life in Mumbai. Vishwanath had also met the ‘kindly and generous’ rabbi and his wife Rivka at the Chabad House.
It was midnight in New York, Vishwanath recalled, ‘when I got on a conference line to the Chabad House. I heard a low male voice. The person identifies himself as Babar Imran. At first there was a little difficulty understanding Imran’s Urdu but gradually I got accustomed to it.’
Imran was calm and was tutored not to say much. He had been in fact given a few lines to speak and in a measured voice he delivered the message, ‘Hum Bharat sarkaar se baat karna chahte hain. Hamara ek banda aapke kabze mein hain. Hamare saamne use pesh kar do.’ (We wish to negotiate with the Indian government. One of our men is in your custody, bring him to us.)’
When Vishwanath translated the demand back to Rabbi Shemtov, the Chabad emissary said he wanted to know if the hostages were alive. Chillingly Imran answered, ‘humne unko thappad bhi nahin maara hain. (We haven’t even slapped them around as of now)’.
But Vishwanath persisted and Imran still calm but more menacing growled into the the phone, ‘Yeh baatein zaroori nahin hain (It isn’t important).’
Over the next few hours the rabbi and Vishwanath kept talking to Imran. In an attempt to prolong the negotiations and try and win over the terrorists, the rabbi asked Imran if they were safe and had eaten any food. The unyielding terrorist shot back, with a curt, ‘Hum yahaan khana khane nahin aaye hain. (We haven’t come here to wine and dine).’
At one point Shemtov managed to put through an Indian police official to Imran but the connection was bad and no one could hear anything. After that, later in the afternoon on Thursday, no one answered Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg’s phone. But Shemtov’s phone call was godsent for three people inside Nariman House.
WHILE THE terrorists were busy speaking to the rabbi in Washington, they had no idea that Sandra and Zakir had crept out of their hiding place between two oversized refrigerators on the second floor. Zakir described the scene,’ We came out of the store room at around 11 am on Thursday and we saw destruction, slowly making our way through the broken glass and pieces of concrete. We were near the stairs when we heard baby Moshe’s cries. Sandra and I then stole up the stairs to the second floor. While I waited by the stairs, she went in and picked up the baby. Both of us then ran out of the building.’
Sandra later said that Moshe was lying in a pool of blood in the midst of four motionless bodies, including those of his parents. His pants were starched from coagulated blood.
Sadly that was to prove to be the lone high point of the day.
(Extracted from the chapter ‘The Fight for Nariman House’ by Rahul Shivshankar)