Reporter's Notebook: Heartbreak in India

It is tragic to say that explosions on mass transit are becoming so familiar, that there is something quite formulaic about covering them in the immediate aftermath: the death toll, the responsibility claim, the types of devices used by the bombers. Of course, when you get past the initial frantic focus on what happened, and into the stories of the victims and their families, each terror attack brings new heartrending tales of pain and loss that get under your skin, and stick with you for a lifetime.

But from the get-go, the Mumbai story was different from Madrid, London, and Jerusalem. India is different, with a million heartbreaking stories that have nothing to do with terror. And I fear they have become a mere sidebar in a world now dominated by headlines about terrorism.

We arrived in Mumbai the morning after the attacks on that city’s Western Line trains, and hurried to find a place to set up our videophone and begin doing live updates. Because of the logistics involved in getting a video signal, we decided to look for a place in the wide open with a view of the tracks.

The overpass with the best view of the railway tracks between two of the explosions, happened to also have a great view of what one local told us is the biggest slum in Asia. Whether or not that is the case, the squalid camp next to which we set up our videophone was a shaky, cramped maze of tin barriers that more people from the first world should get a chance to see.

Children from the slum came over to watch us do reports. Virtually each one’s clothes were filthy. I assume access to running water is not easy, and clearly, their clothes will never see a washing machine. The children stared boldly at us. Some were vulgar in their gestures. Others just sweet and smiling. But there were long periods of time between our live shots when they would just stand around and stare blankly at our equipment. It made me sad to think that they had nothing better to do, and that staring at cases of cables and extra batteries was such a treat for them. One boy had an open wound on his leg and was running about nonchalantly as if it weren’t there. It looked like it needed serious attention, and it wasn’t clear how long he had had it.

As we drove around, I realized that those tin-box homes were palatial residences compared to the other side of the tracks. There, a good number of people call sheets of plastic home. They had rigged up the plastic sheets (which were more or less like the plastic bags you use to line trash cans) and taped them to the wall of an underpass to come down and out at an angle to the ground to form a sort of tepee. It is now monsoon season. Need I say more?

Many of the small children were just half-clothed, their tiny feet padding along jagged street surfaces in this city of 16 million people. I find it hard to imagine any of them have had tetanus or hepatitis shots. The streets and scrubby trackside areas these precious little children were wandering are also what many residents of the shantytown use as their toilet. Meanwhile, others fished through mountains of rock and trash for a stone or stick to play with.

As twilight approached, I looked down from my overpass perch, on a three-lane highway. A small girl, maybe eight years old, in a pretty dress, was squatting in the middle of the first lane of the busy road, drawing something on the asphalt with a piece of white chalk. Cars swerved around to avoid her. She never looked up, so engrossed was she in her art. I struggled to see what she was drawing. It was a house.

The grinding poverty of India becomes the backdrop for the train bombing story, which becomes more poignant when you understand how tough life can be, even for those who do have jobs and roofs over their heads. For example, the commuter trains in Mumbai are filled to three times their capacity each day at rush hour, and each day people die falling off those overcrowded trains, since many of them literally hang outside the carriages. The stations, crowded and vulnerable as they are, do not have a closed-circuit TV system, as so many other cities now do. And even if they did have closed-circuit TV, would it be able to pick up images of all people who mob those stations each day? London learned an awful lot about — and ultimately nabbed — its failed 7/21 bombers, thanks to images retrieved from closed-circuit TV. Makes you wonder what India is relying on as it pieces together its massive investigation.

That said, the tales of people helping one another after the bombings were very moving. The homeless in the two stations where the bombs went off reportedly jumped quickly into action to help cart the wounded off the trains. And the people of Mumbai quickly answered calls for blood donations so that eventually hospitals turned donors away. In this city where Muslim-Hindu tensions have flared over the past in the form of attacks and riots, you had one helping the other on Tuesday, July 11th without a single question asked.

The scenes of carnage in Mumbai have been cleaned up more or less, but before the case of the 7/11 bombings is cracked, we’ve moved on to the adventures of Hezbollah. And of Israel. No doubt even that conflict, which sucks so much of the world’s energy, will be eclipsed by another Al Qaeda newsflash before too long. It makes you wish cooler heads could prevail everywhere, and that we could focus for a while on the abject poverty of the children from Mumbai to Mozambique. Last summer, G8 leaders were huddled on the issue of Africa, trying to come up with ways to alleviate suffering there, when the bloodthirsty 7/7 London crew decided their cause was more important. But let us remember more than just the obvious immediate victims of global terror.

Amy Kellogg

is an international correspondent based in FNC's London bureau.