Dec 10, 2008

World - Phone ordeal with a terrorist

NEW YORK: The gunman on the phone in Mumbai said his name was Imran, he wouldn’t put the hostages on the phone and besides, they were fine — they hadn’t even been slapped around.

No one at Chabad House wanted any food, he claimed, his calm demeanour finally breaking into some irritation. “We haven’t come here to eat and drink,” he said.

On the other end of the phone, a New York City Professor tried to keep his focus as he spent hours on the phone as a translator for Orthodox Jewish officials trying to talk to one of the attackers who had taken over their headquarters in Mumbai.

“At the beginning, I didn’t know what to be thinking, I didn’t know what would happen,” Pace University Professor of Finance P.V. Viswanath said. “I had a lot of trepidation when I got on the call.”

Professor Viswanath, who grew up in Mumbai and is now an Orthodox Jew, was in his office that evening at the end of last month preparing his class lessons when he got word that gunmen had attacked a number of sites.

He heard that Chabad-Lubavitch officials were looking for help, that one of the attackers at Chabad House was answering Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg’s cell phone but would only speak in Urdu.

Professor Viswanath, who counts Urdu among the numerous languages he speaks, was ready to help. He had visited Chabad Houses around the world, and had even been to the one in Mumbai and shared a meal with Holtzberg. He offered his assistance, and was connected to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch. Rabbi Shemtov set up conference calls, among Washington, New York, and Holtzberg’s cell phone.

Rabbi Shemtov described the man on the phone as “hauntingly calm.” Professor Viswanath said he did not hear any of the vitriol that he might have expected.

“They had clearly attacked a Jewish centre, so presumably they were anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, I would not have been surprised if the voice sounded angry, sad, filled with hate, making statements about what Jews might or might not have done to Muslims,” he said. “He didn’t say anything about Israel or make any anti-Semitic comments.”

In fact, Professor Viswanath said, the man did not say much of anything, and refused to answer a question about how many people were in the building. In successive conversations, they asked repeatedly about Holtzberg and the others in Chabad House, to be told they were fine.

When they asked Imran what he wanted, he said he wanted to speak to someone from the Indian government.

Professor Viswanath said Chabad-Lubavitch officials tried and finally got someone, but could not get through to the attacker because of technical problems. At another point, Imran asked for someone who had been taken into custody in Mumbai be brought over to him, but that did not go anywhere either.

And then finally, just after 5 a.m., the man said the phone battery was weak, and hung up, according to Rabbi Shemtov. “The next time we tried to reach him, we couldn’t reach him anymore.”

Professor Viswanath waited on the phone for several hours, finally getting back to his home the afternoon after the ordeal started. Later he found out Holtzberg and his wife were among those killed.

Looking back, he does not know that any amount of conversation would have changed the outcome, given that the calm voice on the other end didn’t really change. “He was going to do whatever he was going to do, or had already done,” Professor Viswanath said. “So if the plan was to kill everybody, that was what he was going to do. Our talking to him I don’t think would have changed events in any way. I think we were hoping we could do something positive, that we could keep him from doing something drastic, that we’d be able to save the people there, but looking back on it, I don’t think it mattered whatever we said or did.” — AP

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