Mumbai: When the gunfire started at Mumbai’s main train station last month, Sebastian D’souza was well placed to respond. From his office directly across the street, D’souza, the photo editor of The Mumbai Mirror newspaper, grabbed his Nikon and two lenses and headed out into the blood-soaked night of 26 November.
Peering from behind pillars and running in and out of empty train cars, he emerged with the singular iconic image of the attacks: a clear shot of one of the gunmen.
“I was shaking, but I kept shooting,” D’souza said as he scrolled through his pictures of the attacks in a recent interview at his office.
D’souza’s photo of Mohammed Ajmal Kasab confidently striding through Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus carrying an assault rife in one hand, finger extended toward the trigger, has been printed and reprinted in newspapers here and flashed daily on television screens.
Caught in the act: Terrorist Mohammed Ajmal Kasab at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai. Sebastian D’souza / Mumbai Mirror / AP
Four weeks after the terrorist rampage that left 183 people dead, the memories of victims are blurring. Some witness accounts remain contradictory. But D’souza and another newspaper photographer, Vasant Prabhu, have millions of pixels of evidence that will remain part of the indelible record.
Their photos, some of them yet unpublished, provide detail and precision that is lacking from other witness accounts. They show brave attempts by police officers to stop the attackers. But they also highlight the woeful inadequacy of the police officers’ weapons, and thus help to explain how just 10 terrorists managed to hold a city hostage for three days.
Surprising in an era of camera phones and point-and-shoot pocket-sized cameras, there are very few other images from the attacks aside from those taken by D’souza and Prabhu, except for some grainy security camera footage at the luxury hotels and one blurry photo of an attacker walking outside—taken from a newspaper office window by a photographer of The Times of India newspaper who was shot at but unharmed.
Prabhu, who is a photographer at The Indian Express newspaper, followed two police officers into the Taj Mahal hotel and documented the room-by-room discovery of the destruction and killing there. He captured images of restaurant tables abandoned; there are half-eaten meals on plates and shattered glass everywhere. By the swimming pool, a Western couple clad in white are sprawled out lifelessly near an ice bucket and some wine glasses.
Both D’souza and Prabhu, who are in their 50s, took their pictures at great risk to themselves. Several police officers whom they photographed were subsequently killed. Prabhu said he invoked the name of Ganesh, the Hindu deity, for protection when he had to use a flash and risked being spotted by the gunmen.
Both photographers were tormented by the passivity of their jobs—recording the bloodshed without any power to stop it. “I wanted to get rid of my camera, get hold of a gun and go after the terrorists,” Prabhu said.
If they had been looking through rifle scopes instead of camera viewfinders some of the attackers might have been killed early on. D’souza, who tracked the gunmen for about 40 minutes until they left the train station, had managed to find a better vantage point on the attackers than any of the police stationed there.
Witnesses have offered various accounts on the timing and duration of the attacks. D’souza’s pictures help resolve the issue. Some images show the train station clock, down to the second. A police officer is seen shooting his rifle at the attackers at 22:07:05. Another photo shows the same clock 20 minutes later. His camera also recorded the time that the photos were taken.
A photo of Kasab that has not yet been published gives a slightly more detailed look of the attacker. Kasab’s assault rifle appears to have two ammunition cartridges bound together with tape, allowing longer intervals between reloads. He has the appearance of a college student, with a slightly floppy haircut, cargo pants and what appears to be a sweatshirt. D’souza described the two attackers as cool and unflappable. “They never ran, just walked,” he said. “They were very accurate and didn’t waste any bullets.”
Kasab is in police custody as the lone surviving gunman. The other nine were killed by the police.
Both photographers’ images of the police show a stark mismatch with the attackers’ arsenal. D’souza photographed a police officer awkwardly firing his outdated rifle; he and all the other officers missed, D’souza said. Neither attacker appears to have been wounded at the train station during what was at least a half-hour rampage there.
Prabhu’s photos show two police officers in pressed khaki uniforms wearing formal, wing-tip style shoes. Their pistols are drawn and Prabhu says he saw one officer fire three rounds in the direction of the attackers. But they were up against terrorists with assault weapons, grenades and other explosives.
In the train station, D’souza captured some of the surreal aspects of the attacks. He recounted how despite the near constant sound of approaching gunfire, a shopkeeper at a small bookshop spent minutes trying to close his metal shutter instead of just running away. The attackers shot the merchant; one of D’souza’s pictures show the man slumped, dying in front of his shop. D’souza also tells of a woman in a sari who walked nonchalantly in front of the attackers but was spared. “They didn’t even look at her,” D’souza said.
A man, possibly homeless, D’souza guesses, watched the attacks with his arms folded as if he were admiring a street performance. It is still not clear why the attackers let some people live while others were killed on the spot.
“They were like angels of death,” D’souza said. “When they hit someone they didn’t even look back. They were so sure.”
International Herald Tribune