History-making cyclones had struck the eastern part of India in the region of Orissa, leaving over 10,000 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.In January 2001, massive earthquakes had also hit India’s western region of Gujarat. The quake registered an unbelievable 7.7 on the Richter scale and left over 30,000 people dead, over 165,000 injured, and almost one million people without homes or economic support.
When the earthquakes and the super cyclones hit India, Project C.U.R.E. became immediately involved. I had never viewed Project C.U.R.E. as a “disaster relief” organization because I had always felt that we could be of more value coming alongside an organization or institution and helping them on a long-term basis than we could by chasing disasters.
However, we were approached to help out in both the western Gujarat area as well as the eastern Orissa area. From our Project C.U.R.E. warehouse in Rochester, England, Project C.U.R.E. UK had sent emergency medical goods to the earthquake victims, and from our warehouse in Phoenix, Arizona, Project C.U.R.E. had sent goods to Orissa. But the real need would still prove to be in the long-term reconstruction of destroyed medical facilities in both venues. Requests for help began pouring into our Denver headquarters and the pressure was on us to get to the locations and perform the needs assessment studies so that we could begin to ship the much-needed containers of donated medical supplies and pieces of equipment into the crippled areas.
Additionally, we had been getting pressure to perform a needs assessment trip into Kathmandu, Nepal. Some wonderful people in Denver had earlier become involved in spearheading donations of cash and goods to the Patan Hospital in the old Patan section of Kathmandu City. I decided to see if we could combine both assessment assignments into one trip.
Tuesday, March 12
In India’s grievous history, there supposedly stood a Hindu temple on holy ground near a place called Ayodhya not far from the major western city of Ahmadabad in the state of Gujarat. Previous conflicts between the militant Muslims and the radical Hindu sects had resulted in the Muslims desecrating the holy site by destroying the Hindu shrine and building in its place, on the very spot, a Muslim mosque.
In 1992 the Hindu radicals attacked the mosque and tore it down piece by piece and burned it. Riots broke out across India where thousands of people were either killed or injured, and surrounding properties were burned or looted. The Hindus made declaration that they would rebuild their temple and reconsecrate the holy ground. They had declared that on March 15, 2002, they would march to the holy site with a sacred stone called a “shiladaan,” which would commemorate the official beginning of the temple construction. Earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled that the Hindu temple should not be rebuilt and the government purchased the surrounding property in order to block the building. But none of that was going to stop the Hindus from reclaiming the lost honor of their gods, who had suffered for such a long time under the Muslims.
Hindu pilgrims began taking the public trains to Ayodhya to support the move to rebuild the Hindu temple. On Wednesday, February 27, the Indian trains were packed with passengers headed to Ahmadabad. The Sabarmati Express had just pulled into the Godhra station. Muslims were at the station shouting anti-Hindu slogans. The train pulled out of the station only a short distance when someone pulled the emergency stop handle. Immediately, the train was attacked by rock-throwing hoodlums who began smashing out the windows of the railcars.
The frightened passengers in a second-class sleeping car pulled down the shades and locked the coach doors. Soon burning rags, Molotov cocktails, and bottles of acid landed inside the train car while the attackers doused the outside of the coach with gasoline and kerosene. Almost immediately sleeper car S-6 and the adjoining coaches were on fire. There was absolutely no escape for the passengers inside who were burned alive.
Of the 58 people who burned in S-6, 26 were women and 16 were children. An additional 50 or more were injured in the burning ambush. Then rumors quickly spread that in order to teach the Hindu pilgrims a lesson, the Muslims had also kidnapped and raped Hindu women.
Riots broke out all over India. People were killed and properties were torched in Bombay, Ahmadabad, and Hyderabad, and as far away as New Delhi and Calcutta. Everyone figured that the violence was only a precursor to what might happen on March 15 when the Hindus marched to Ayodhya with the shiladaan.
For me, it was an interesting situation. All through the mess I still felt that it was necessary that we go ahead with our plans to travel to India. I continued to monitor the situation closely on the Internet. On March 6, we received an e-mail from Havshida Bhatt, the wife of the former Rotary governor in Surat in the state of Gujarat. Her e-mail stated, “Not advise to do any travel in Gujarat. The worst riots are going on. There is a curfew in Surat, Baroda, Ahmadabad, and Rajkot. Advise him to postpone the trip.”
We prayed for direction and wisdom. There was still the calm insistence that we should continue on our plan to travel on the dates already arranged. Once we got to Bombay we could further assess the situation on March 14. Our Lufthansa flight took us to Frankfurt, then on to Bombay, India. We landed about 2:00 a.m.
Wednesday, March 14
I had made reservations to stay at the Centaur Hotel close to Bombay’s domestic airport and had told our people that Anna Marie and I would either catch a shuttle or a taxi to the Centaur Hotel. We would meet up with them in the morning. I had landed in India before in the middle of the night. I knew what to expect at the airport. But it was a first for Anna Marie. Bombay was hot, muggy, and stinky even in the middle of the night. We were suddenly surrounded by thousands of desperate people. They were everywhere, pushing, grubbing, begging, and others sleeping wherever they could find a space large enough to lie down.
I was walking ahead of Anna Marie pushing a path through all the bodies as we pulled our wheelie suitcases toward a taxi. “Oh, honey,” I heard Anna Marie gasp. “I just ran my suitcase over the feet of a sleeping beggar. I didn’t see his feet sticking out. What should I do?”
“Keep walking, baby,” I shouted back. “Don’t slow down here.” It was 3:30 a.m. when we got checked into the hotel.
Two Indian gentlemen met us at the Centaur Hotel later Thursday morning. Alphy Franks andGideon Peter had flown to Bombay just to meet us. We discussed at length the situation that was unfolding in India. The next day, March 15, the Hindus would march to the proposed temple site at Ayodhya. If violence was sparked, riots would instantly erupt all over India. The train burning had already heightened the emotions of religious radicals on both sides to a frightening frenzy.
I shared with Alphy and Gideon that our schedule for the Indian trip included going by train from Bombay up to Surat in Gujarat state to meet the Rotary people on March 15 and spend about three days with them viewing projects. Then, we were to fly from Bombay across the country to the Calcutta area and visit Orissa state to view Dr. Singh’s projects and the cyclone projects from March 18 to 21. On March 22 we would fly north to Kathmandu, Nepal, for the last needs assessment assignment for the trip.
Alphy and Gideon had traveled to meet us in Bombay to tell us of the acute danger of traveling in Gujarat over the days around March 15 and to urge us to reverse our India travel schedule. Their suggestion was for us to leave Bombay and fly further south away from the flash point of the trouble to Hyderabad. Then, travel from Hyderabad to Orissa State and meet with Dr. Singh and also view the cyclone projects near Cuttack and Bhubaneswar. By that time we would all know what was going to happen at Ayodhya and be able to determine whether or not it would be safe enough to return to Gujarat.
I told Alphy and Gideon at the end of our discussion that I believed God had sent to us words of wisdom through them. I asked them to help us with all the necessary scheduling changes including train tickets, airline tickets, and hotels. The changes would also make it necessary to contact the Rotary people and Dr. Singh and let them know of our thinking.
Next Week: Trying to stay out of harms way