December 8, 2008 in City

For Mumbai’s child witnesses, sense of safety is a long way off

By Emily Wax Washington Post
 

MUMBAI, India – In the middle of math class, Pinak Patel, 12, sometimes imagines himself shooting terrorists, bravely protecting his family. His schoolmate Abbas Jinial, 14, can’t sleep and keeps looking out the window of his family’s apartment, fearful that some of the gunmen might be lurking in the darkened alleys of his neighborhood.

“All night, for three days, I heard the shooting. All night for those days, I was staying awake. I felt so scared,” said Pinak, who witnessed from his home’s balcony the hostage-taking and destruction at Chabad-Lubavitch during the siege of Mumbai late last month. The building, also known as Nariman House, is home to a Jewish center, and Indian commandos were dropped from helicopters onto its roof to seize control from gunmen. Five hostages, including a rabbi and his wife, were killed inside. “After a while, I had in mind that it was like a movie, and I said, ‘Mama, I could save everyone,’ ” he said.

For millions of children, the assault on the city presented scenes of violence they had never before encountered. The 60-hour siege, in which at least 171 people were killed by heavily armed assailants, brought bloodshed to areas of Mumbai thought to be somewhat invulnerable – luxury hotels, hospitals, a heavily guarded train station – sending a message to children that nowhere is safe.

Psychologists said that, as with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, images of the Mumbai siege will be imprinted on the memory of a generation, a traumatic backdrop that probably will shape their attitudes for years.

“The older generation was never exposed to this kind of violence, at this kind of intensity – live – on the city’s streets, on TV 24 hours a day. It was like an urban war,” said Mithila Desai, a clinical psychologist who is offering counseling sessions in Mumbai’s schools. “Children feel targeted, insecure and fearful about the future. The main fear is that they will lose their loved ones, and when they say goodbye to their parents in the morning, they feel as if they may not return home.”

Many children were injured in the attacks or lost parents or relatives. Others witnessed commandos rushing into a burning Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel. To help calm parents’ nerves, schools increased security, banning the traditional Indian lunchboxes, or tiffins, which have been used in attacks in many cities to hide bombs. Throughout the weekend, grief counselors and psychologists held one-on-one sessions with many children, helping them draw pictures to express their feelings or talk about what they had seen on television or on their streets.

On Friday, at the Bharda New High School where Pinak is a student, classrooms echoed with children’s voices. Some of them raced through the hallways, while others waited in the library for trauma counseling. The principal, Pooja Kumar, acknowledged that it will take time for her students to heal and to refocus on their studies. The school has 1,500 students and sits directly across the street from Mumbai’s main railway station, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, where some of the gunmen mowed down commuters. During the attacks, a teacher’s relative was fatally shot at a gas station, and a parent’s best friend was killed in a hotel cafe.

“Even the grown-ups are not feeling very normal,” said Kumar, who has delivered reassuring messages to students over the loudspeaker every morning since school resumed after the attacks. “I also come by the rail station, and, even as I was putting my foot down on the platform, there was some apprehension. A number of our children come that way. They must have also felt the same way I feel,” Kumar said.

In the classrooms, students seemed distracted and worried by what they had seen and heard. Some were restless after having spent three days locked indoors, the TV broadcasting images that looked as if they were from a Bollywood gangster movie.

“The attacks have found a way into their minds,” said Kumar, her eyeglasses hanging around her neck as she bustled about her office. “Some are making up tall tales, saying they saw a bullet hole near their house. They are doing this because of stress; they want to find a way to get control. I have to always remind them that things are safe,” she said.

Her student body is 90 percent Muslim, and she said she sometimes worries that they are “ostracized” in the city. With India’s leaders accusing a Pakistan-based group in the attacks, she has cautioned Muslim and Hindu students to avoid teasing each other based on religion. “In times of pain, we have to stand together,” she wrote on a chalkboard outside the school.

The students wrote condolence cards for victims’ families. They will also write a school play, so they can act out the events, Kumar said.

“Before I sleep, I make sure nothing is happening,” said Abbas, whose father’s friend died in the attacks. “Sometimes I see the dead bodies in my mind.”

“Now insecure children grow up with suspicion and caution, and they just don’t want to relive the trauma they experienced as a result of this attack. One of my patients, a young boy, was shot at, and, because of the three bullets in his leg, he is maimed for life,” said Pradnya Aklekar, 29, a child psychiatrist working with many of the children who were victims of or who witnessed the attacks. “Young children can’t understand why strangers would go on a killing spree. Terrorism has become a major mental problem, especially for young minds.”

At a local bakery and cafe, Sharmila Pinnck and her 3-year-old daughter huddled over a “Finding Nemo” storybook.

“I want my baby to have a childhood,” said Pinnck, who lost two friends during the two-day siege at the Oberoi Trident hotel. Her friends went for dessert at one of the hotel’s posh cafes and never returned. “Their two children are orphans. For them, their childhood is gone,” she said as her daughter sat close by, listening.

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