The day they were scarred forever

Mumbai, Nov. 25 -- From testifying against Kasab in court, to having survived bullet injuries, to have lost their dear ones, these children have faced it all. Minors who witness terror can go into shock and recover gradually, while others may end up with severe psychosis, psychiatrists say.

'People taunt me, call me Kasab's friend'

Devika Rotawan, 13

Devika Rotwan was nine-years-old, youngest witness to identify Kasab in court, wants to be IPS officer "to take down terrorists".

She took a bullet on 26/11, spent three months in hospital and identified Ajmal Kasab in court. But for Devika Rotawan, now 13, Kasab isn't just a face she saw at CST that night, it's a name chanted to her everyday in her neighbourhood.

"People taunt me and call me Kasab," she said, sitting in her one-room home chawl in Subhash Nagar, Bandra east. "People don't want to play with me, they say terrorists will come, they say I am friends with Kasab."

Memories of the night are never too far, between the taunts and the television, but they are fading in some ways. Earlier there was the discomfort with crackers, now that has eased.

"I feel proud of my role in this and of what I did," she said. "My childhood was lousy and often troubled. But I want to tell my story... I am not afraid of death."

All of that has generated a clear career resolve - to become an IPS officer. "I am more than 100% sure I want to be an IPS officer," she said. "I want to take down terrorists."

Rotawan was nine at the time of the incident, and was to board a train for Pune with her brother and father when the terrorists opened fire at VT. One of the bullets hit her leg and she fell unconscious on the spot.

The bullet wounds meant she was on crutches for a long time, and was fearful that she wouldn't be able to walk. Her father lost his business, her brother picked up an infection when she was in hospital and has acquired a hunched back. She lost her mother when she was young.

She now combines equal measures of spunk and chirpiness as she does the confidence of one who has grown up in front of the cameras. Her childhood was marked by equal doses curiosity, animosity and celebrity-hood.

Classmates and neighbours still recoil from interacting with her, she said. Though she has some close friends, many tease her and friends in the neighbourhood are distant. "Some people are influenced by others. It doesn't matter," she said. "I don't pay attention to what other people say."

- Bhavya Dore

Dad's a martyr, and that's big

Nivedita Shinde, 18

Nivedita Shinde, was 14, is reticent and makes a card for her late father every year.

Nivedita fell asleep in the early hours of November 27 four years ago after learning that her father, Shashank Shinde, a railway police official, had died trying to save the lives of people at CST when terrorists struck. She slept barely an hour and left for school.

Now 18, a second year student at Ruia College, Shinde lives the legacy of that night. "I feel proud that my father did something, when people tell me we are safe because of your father," said Shinde, "He was a martyr and that it is bigger than the pain. Now, the intensity of the first two years is less, there is acceptance."

Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, she is sitting in the drawing room of her Wadala home, where one corner is stacked with photographs and trophies of her father. The last four years have made me stronger at a younger age," she said, "I didn't talk much earlier, I don't talk much now," she said.

The reticence has meant that only her closest circle of friends knows the personal dimension of 26/11. "If I tell others there might be a change in their attitude," she said. When she recently told a friend, it was the friend who ended up crying and Shinde had to comfort her.

Television, games, entrance exams: Shinde is living the regular rhythms of growing up. "My father always used to say enjoy life and live in the moment and that's what we try to do," said Aditi, Shinde's older sister. Earlier Shinde wanted to become a doctor but isn't sure now of what she wants to do. Her father comes in her dreams sometimes. She still makes a card on his birthday.

Losing a parent has entailed small, often imperceptible changes. Shinde shrinks from watching action films or those with violence. She shakes her head in exasperation when she sees non-functional metal detectors. She gets worried if a family member doesn't pick up the phone.

Every time there is a terror incident or the 26/11 anniversary comes around, the spotlight returns to the household. "It can get irritating," she said. Sometimes when the memories haunt, or the footage plays on television, she shuts it off. "We busy ourselves with other things, or talk to people or listen to music," she said.

- Bhavya Dore

'He goes quiet when he sees Kasab on tv'

Neeraj Waghela, 8

Over the last four years, Karuna Waghela does not remember seeing her son Neeraj, 8, sit in one place for more than a few minutes. While Waghela's problems may be common among many mothers, the Sion resident, who lost her husband in the 26/11-terror attack in 2008, is worried that her son's restlessness is a fallout of the gruesome episode.

Neeraj was four-and-half-years-old when he saw his father being shot dead by terrorist Ajmal Kasab. He had managed to hide in the bathroom during the killing and sneaked out to his grandmother's house after the terrorists left.

"What is odd is that though he was very young when the attack happened, he still recalls every detail about what he saw that day," says Karuna. "He still often tells me about how he propped his father's limp body before sneaking out," she says.

Neeraj is cheerful for the few minutes that he actually sits down to talk and eagerly speaks about his favourite cartoons and actors. "I watch Tom and Jerry and Chota Bheem every day," says the Class 3 student. He also promptly does a popular step from the movie Rowdy Rathore when asked who his favourite actor is. But he is soon restless and wants to go play with his friends. When his mother finally relents, he bolts out the main door.

Karuna worries when her son is outside. "He gets aggressive sometimes and has had so many fights with his friends. He once pushed one of his school mates, he is reckless and has had several accidents, he has had stitches on his head twice," she said.

However, she says Neeraj's boisterousness disappears when he sees Kasab's photographs on television. "He goes quiet when he sees Kasab on tv. In fact, he would often say that he would become a police officer and shoot Kasab. Only after we told him about Kasab's hanging did he let go of the thought," said Karuna.

About three weeks ago, Neeraj's teacher had sent a note to his mother mentioning his increasing aggressiveness and recommended counseling for Neeraj. Abhishek Nag, Neeraj's class teacher at Karmavir Bhaurao Patil School in Sion explains the note. "The main problem is that Neeraj does not have any seclusion from media focus and an environment where he is constantly reminded of the incident, which is why he tends to get angry and aggressive," he says.

Though Karuna had taken him to a few counseling sessions after the incident, she couldn't continue with it due to her health, and chose to enroll him in a dance class instead to tackle his hyperactivity. "He uses up his energy at dance class on the weekends and since he gets tired, he sleeps peacefully on those days," she says.

- Mugdha Variyar

'Spray of bullets came my way'

Sachin Singh, 10

Sachin Singh, doesn't remember much about the night of November 26, 2008, when he was at the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus along with his mother and relatives, except for a spray of bullets coming his way.

"I just remember that the firing had started, when I stood up to check, I got shot," says Sachin shyly in Hindi, and goes quiet. Sachin was injured in the stomach, leg and hand, while his mother received bullet injuries in the stomach and on her shoulder. He also had to get one of his testicles removed during operation.

He underwent four operations that year, and one more two years back. "He was so scared when he we took him to the hospital again that he hid in the bathroom and refused to come out for a long time," says his father, Santosh. A surgery left him with a metal rod in his left hand, making it impossible for him to hold or lift objects with it.

"I sometimes get a sudden pain in my stomach where the stitches are and even my hand hurts often because of the rod," says the ten-year-old. Sachin also wears long shorts so that the scar on his left leg is covered. "He thinks that his friends will point to it and laugh," says Santosh. But Sachin says that none of his friends taunt him for his scars.

Apart from his physical scars, Sachin is like children his age, stubborn and adamant as his parents claim. Sachin gets nervous every time his mother steps out of the house. "He tells me not to go out," says Poonam.

Sachin also often gets restless. "His tuition teachers often complain that he get ups to go and relieve himself every ten minutes," says his father. He panics when he is woken up to be taken to the bathroom at night and often sleepwalks.

"He has a tendency to move from the bedroom to the hall at night, which is why I have to lock the door properly so that he cannot open it," says Poonam. The six-member family lives in a small one-bedroom house in a slum in Vikhroli.

When Sachin is not playing or studying, he loves watching cartoon and cricket. "Virat Kohli is my favorite cricketer. And I like watching Shahrukh Khan," says the Class 4 student. And, he watches gun-ridden action movies unflinchingly.

- Mugdha Variyar

'The loss of my Father made me mature faster'

Sanjana Shah, 17

For a year after she lost her father in the 26/11 attacks at Oberoi, Sanjana Shah, then 13, would have nightmares about her mother's safety.

"I felt my mom was vulnerable," said Shah, 17, the younger daughter of businessman Pankaj Shah. "What if something happened to her?"

Shah, a Class 11 student of BD Somani School in Cuffe Parade is speaking for the first time to the media since that night four years ago. As a Class 8 student then, the impact hit her two days after she heard her father had died. The first year or so were very difficult.

"In the beginning it was difficult, I put on weight, I wouldn't listen; but by 2010 I became alright again," she said, sitting in her Worli apartment, surrounded by paintings. "There were points I was very upset, I would think it's unfair, it would frustrate me. But if it was meant to happen, it was meant to happen, you have to accept the fact," she added.

Shah, then a student of Cathedral School got support from family and friends as also the school counsellor she would speak to. The arc of recovery has now reached a point where she can look ahead, and dwell on the happy memories rather than the loss.

But the pace of growing up changed for her. "It was a crucial age and affected the way my personality developed," she said. "I was just a kid when it happened... My childhood was kind of cut short. My mum would feel worse if I cried. I had to give her support."

Shah is poised and with insight looks back at her evolutionary curve. "When I was 13 I was really spoilt," she said. "I took everything for granted. I didn't really know when to grow up. After dad (died), it was a point of time I knew I couldn't fool around. Experiencing a loss at a young age has made me mature faster."

Shah, who is studying humanities subjects, took a gap year before joining Class 11, when she tried out various internships. She isn't sure of a definite career path, but knows that she will be involved with the Tao Art Gallery, which her mother runs.

Losing a parent at 13 meant her father never saw her grow up. "It upsets me that I never got to have a conversation with him as an adult like my brother did," she said. "And for milestones like my graduation or marriage he won't be there."

When 26/11 comes around this time, "it will be like any other day" she said. They will do some charity work as they have for the past few years.

"Four years later I have picked myself up, put myself together and am taking things positively. I hope if dad was here he would have been proud of me," she said.

Mental health experts on how to deal with children who undergo trauma

Micky Bhatia, psychoanalyst and child psychotherapist, Psychoanalytic Therapy and Research Centre:

"Witnessing a terror attack affects everyone at some level and can have a big impact on children. However, how it affects a child depends on his DNA and his nature. Some children go into a shock but recover gradually while some suffer from severe psychosis.

Children who are under trauma from terror attacks often exhibit symptoms such as bedwetting, restlessness, aggressiveness, sleepwalking and sometimes even stealing and lying. In extreme cases, children also stop reacting or responding.

Dr Parul Tank, consulting psychiatrist, Fortis Hospital, Mulund:

Children who suffer grief of losing a parent or witnessed a horrific incident like a terror attack play out their trauma in different ways. Some display regressive behavior like bedwetting, sucking of thumb or forgetfulness. They could also become suddenly aggressive, or play out their trauma such as playing with a gun constantly.

Parents need to be reassuring to such children and be patient with them. If a child is asking lot of questions related to the incident or about death for instance, the parent needs to answer them and reassure the child. But if a child is displaying this kind of behavior for a long time, they should consider counselling as it can have long lasting effects.

Seema Hingorrany, clinical psychologist based in Bandra:

"Parents must take care that children affected by terror attacks are not exposed to repeated coverage of the episode and must monitor their television-viewing and Internet activities. It is also necessary to be supportive of the child's fears without undermining them. More importantly, parents and teachers should not let them feel different from their peers even if their behaviour differs from the rest."

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.