January 29, 2007

Bombing in Varanasi:  Too Damned Close                             

I originally wrote this March 8, 2006 and it has sat on my laptop, unedited since March 9.  Upon writing this, I didn't really know the details/results of what happen that evening in Varanasi.  That was not the point in my writing; I was trying to capture my thoughts and feelings having experienced what I did.  

If you want to read some more details about the events I am talking about, it is covered in a post on Wikepedia.

It was strange.

I had my first encounter with terrorism last night, yet it took me until this morning, more than twelve hours later to find out what I had gone through. For being so close, it all seems so distant.

Last night I was ready to go from Varanasi to Agra. My train was to depart at 6:15 and I had arrived about 10 minutes early. Through the station I went, I found my train, secured my luggage and sat down. This being India, the train did not depart at 6:15, but sometime later. While sitting on the train, awaiting departure there was what I could only describe as a really loud bang. It sounded not unlike a car backfire, although you could tell at once that it was both much louder and also more distant (I realize that scientifically these two counter each other, but it was the instinct I have). The sound was enough to shake our train and it certainly caught the attention of everyone onboard and on the platform.

My first though was “Bomb!”, but I quickly put that thought behind me, actually scolding myself for being a paranoid foreigner. Looking back towards the platform, it seemed as though things were back to normal in an instant. No one was running, screaming or otherwise panicking; life was seemingly back to normal. I chalked things up to it being just another noisy event in what I have found to be a very noisy country. I couldn’t explain it, but if nobody else was stressed, why should I be? I settled back in, turned off my mobile phone and readied myself for another long and tedious train ride.

As expected, the train ride was long, tedious and pretty much without event. People started stirring about 7am, which was already about a half hour behind our scheduled arrival time. Word on the train was that we were about two hours behind schedule, but this seemed completely normal. I may have switched on my mobile and found no reception, to be honest I can’t remember if I did or not. Slowly, people began to awaken, the sleeping bunks were put back up so that we could sit again and everything was seemingly normal. Not long after this, and I can’t be certain of the exact order of things, some things did start to happen. First, the unmistakable chirp of cell phones which had received SMS messages were heard throughout the train. Also, at about the same time, we pulled into some unknown (to me) station, where some could get off, drink chai and even grab a newspaper. These two events seemed to happen within minutes of each other.

At this time though, things most certainly changed. The sound of the people on the train was suddenly quite a lot louder and with a different tone. People seemed to be moving about more on the train as well. I turned on my mobile phone again and instantly I was hit with six messages. This is hugely unusual, as there are less people than that who know the number I am using and of those who do, there are maybe two who would send a message. Six was really unique. Again, I am not totally sure of the sequence of events, but within moments, I heard from those on board that it had in fact been a bomb we had heard last night and that there were multiple deaths associated with it. The number of deaths varied and other details were sketchy, but it was no doubt a serious event that had happened not 150 meters from me. I immediately sent out a text to let those who were most worried know that I was ok, although this was after they had been worrying for more than 12 hours. Just after the text was sent, my phone rang again; a number I didn’t recognize. When I answered, it was a friend of a very good friend of mine, calling from Mumbai. I had met him a couple of times, but we were not in any real way close. There was clear relief in his voice when I answered, along with remnant fear: Apparently the group of them had been up much of the night trying to get through. Of course with my phone turned off, it was all to no avail.

The next while on the train was an interesting experience. Now, the foreigners on my car were suddenly talking to each other, trying to piece together what Spartan information was available. Those who spoke Hindi were doing the same and those conversant in both languages were often acting as third parties, or reading from the more current morning newspaper. The information from the Hindi language newspapers was more up to date, as all the English language paper had was a tiny paragraph about the bombing with no real details. On the front page of one of the Hindi papers was a sickening sight: A woman, sitting against the wall, both of them splattered in blood. I clearly recognized the area as the train station and a spot I had been in not 20 minutes before the blast. This one shot, more than anything else, is what clearly nailed down the impact of the act for me.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, I guess my safety was not really the closest of close calls: Yes, I had passed within a few meters of where the bomb went off and not too long before it did so. However, so had hundreds, if not thousands of others. I guess that since the authorities believe the devices were either set to go off on a timer, or remotely triggered, it is possible that I unknowingly walked right by the bomb, but that is nothing more than speculation.  Whether I was technically close or not, it was certainly close enough for me to think about things differently.

Anyways, there you have it: My first, and hopefully last, experience with terrorism.


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