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12/11/2009

Soft targets.... revisiting a favorite place where Mumbai carnage occurred


Rick Madonik, Staff Photographer

 Thursday I broke with one of my golden rules – stay clear of high value terrorist targets.

I’m keenly aware of soft targets. I have been for sometime, and I do my best to respect my own guidelines. Work sometimes takes me to trouble spots (10 weeks in conflict areas in 2006 alone) so when I travel on my own, I tend to stay away from those which are easy targets. That’s not always easy because often those very soft targets are the places I visit. With that regard, I go to great lengths to minimize exposure.

But Thursday, I said screw that, and deliberately visited Leopolds Café in the Colaba district of Mumbai. Leopolds – a staple of Mumbai’s scene since 1871 is known for the collection of people it attracts. Western expats are the most noteable, however it is also a gathering spot for businessmen and gangsters. Its an eatery/watering hole where you can rub elbows with elected officals, big time criminals, backpackers and working girls.

Leopold01 Patrons of Leopolds have breakfast Friday morning. This is the view from the sidewalk, as you enter.

Leopolds was hit last year during the attack on Mumbai. It was one of the first places attacked with an onslaught of automatic weapon fire and a grenade or two. Fatalities did occur there, but the attack was shortlived as the assailants moved north toward Victoria terminal train station. Others entered the Taj Hotel, just around the corner.

I wanted to revisit this well known, and well loved, meeting place. I first visited it two years ago as I began a 6 month sabbatical. I ate and drank in Leopolds most days I was in Mumbai. Last year, I was actually in southern India (Kerala) when the Mumbai attacks took place. For me, it was important to reclaim a spot desecrated by barbarism and fanatical views. 

Leopold02 A view from the back of the restaurant, the open doorway seen is where the attack came from.

Today, Leopolds, like much of Mumbai, is guarded. Two private security guards wielding hand wands (metal detectors) work the large doorways that open to the Colaba causeway. Unlike other private security guards whom you often find lounging in front of stores or ATMs (sometimes with single shot shotguns draped across their laps), these guards were attentive and vigilant. One of them craddles a side-by-side shotgun. They checked each and every bag entering the establishment. Their eyes constantly scanned the passersbys and they employed their whistles to move along any vehicle which became stationary on the street.

Inside, it was business as usual. The hustle and bustle – mostly of western foreigners – consumed their food and drink, met with friends and planned their trips. As I read The Times of India (and the latest news surrounding the charges levelled by the FBI of David Headly (aka Gilani) connection to the attacks of last year) I was seated beside four young Israelis who went about their daily fare conversing in Hebrew openly. The mood was not tempered, as I thought it might be.

So, once in a while it’s good to break a self imposed, somewhat paranoid, rule to stay clear of such obvious targets. Fully aware terrorists enjoy hitting places already assaulted, I felt it was important to reclaim Leopold’s.

On that note, I have not ventured into The Taj. Much of it is still under renovation. The main entrance which hosted one of the best lobby bathrooms on the planet, is still closed. The building is now surrounded by concrete/stone planter boxes as well as carts (laundry carts, perhaps) filled with cement. Surprisingly, the streets around the Taj remain open to traffic.

Taj03 The Taj hotel, in Colaba, which withstood a 3 day ordeal last year when terrorists attacked.

The mood in Mumbai was tense around the anniversary last month. Now, things seem calm, however, it is clearly more on guard. There are far more police visible, the army has placed itself at strategic locations, the soldiers literally within sandbag clusters with heavy light weaponry.

Taj04 Some of the fortification which surrounds the Taj hotel. Cement weighs down the wheeled trolleys.

Mumbai, and India, continue to creep along. It is a place fraught with differences and difficulties. But its important we don't seclude ourselves and stop visiting places for the fear that "something" might happen. That's not the way to live, and with just a little common sense, any trip can remain well within the realm of possibility.

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Great photos!

When there is an assignment involving a dangerous place (ie: Afghanistan, or somewhere where there is conflict) do you have say over what you get assigned to? If you were assigned to go to a conflict zone to take photos, are you able to say "no" to the assignment because you are worried about your safety? (Or would just rather not cover that kind of thing.)

Keep it up :)

Hey Matthew, Rick is away so perhaps I can answer. We do have a certain amount of leeway here when it comes to the dangerous stuff. The Star at different times has sent some of us away to week long 'combat training for journalists' course-much the same as one that many executives working in dangerous areas go through. The training includes first aid, use of body armour, what to do if kidnapped etc...
That being said, there is usually a list of people wanting to go off to these hot spots-it is more of a desire to being around a big story rather than a death wish of course.
Richard Lautens
staff photogrpapher
Toronto Star

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