Todd Baer, correspondent, Al Jazeera English
The panel at Columbia University almost 1 year to the day since the Mumbai attacks was an engaging discussion and analysis of what happened in one of the world’s greatest cities on November 26, 2008.
The film that was presented, Secrets of the Dead: Mumbai Massacre by director Victoria Pitt, gave us a personal and compelling account of how the survivors managed to get away. We heard for the first time the chilling phone calls between the attackers and their handlers in Pakistan, as senior members of Lashkar-e-Taiba ordered the attackers to inflict as much damage as possible.
The film and panel discussion also brought up something that as been a source of contention since the world’s media converged on Mumbai to cover the story.
Was this an attack on foreigners staying in high-end hotels? Was this a religious attack aimed at Mumbai’s Jewish community at Nariman House? Was this an attack on India, the Indian people and Indo/Pak relations?
The short answer is all of the above, but the story presented enormous challenges to the media because there were so many layers. The panel discussion allowed me to give some insight into how I was able to cover the story for Al Jazeera English.
I had the advantage of having lived in Mumbai. I had stayed at the Oberoi Hotel and frequently visited Colaba District, where the attacks happened. In addition to this, I previously worked as a correspondent in both India and Pakistan, so naturally, I had a good understanding of what happened, where it was happening and who may be behind such a brazen attack.
Before leaving for Mumbai, my editor Richard Lewis offered what I consider to be the most commendable guidelines I have ever had on a story. He said in his notable Australian drawl, “Hey mate, let’s not make this an attack on Brits and Americans in expensive hotels. Be sure to emphasize that this was an attack on India and on the people of Mumbai.”
It made good sense. Of the more than 170 people who died, most of them were Indian citizens just going about their daily routines at Victoria station and dining at Leopold Café or the Taj and Oberoi Hotels.
Al Jazeera English had five teams of correspondents, producers and cameramen in Mumbai to cover the story. I think we probably had more manpower and more resources than any TV network in the world; this allowed me to tell the part of the story that most of the international media overlooked.
But this wasn’t just about manpower and resources. This was an example of exemplary editorial judgment from our bosses in Doha, Qatar, where Al Jazeera English is based. We knew that most of the media, no matter how many reporters they had on the ground, would run with the headline that this was an attack on foreigners and forget the Indian story.
No journalist feels good about covering a story like this, but it is our job to explain awful events to the world. I can’t think of a better assignment than getting a chance to tell the Indian part of this story.
The editorial decision allowed me to tell stories that no other international media outlet covered. We traveled to Gujarat to tell the story of Balwant Bi Tandel, one of the first casualties of the Mumbai attacks. Tandel was a fisherman on the trawler that was hijacked before the attackers reached Mumbai. We told the story of how Vishnu Ratta Van Zende, the train announcer at Victoria Station, saved dozens of lives. And we traveled to Kashmir to report on Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group behind the attacks.
Producing short news segments and making a film are different things that present unique sets of challenges.
Secrets of the Dead’s film Mumbai Massacre did an excellent job of touching on all aspects of the attack, while focusing on the stories of the survivors caught up in the siege.
This was the most compelling story that could be told in a film format because the survivors’ struggle lasted for three harrowing days, and they spoke in detail about the fear and panic inside of the hotels.