Canadians caught up in Mumbai terror attacks


People duck as gunshots are fired from inside the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, Nov. 27, 2008. Indian commandos freed hostages from the Taj Mahal hotel on Thursday but battled on with gun-toting Islamist militants.PUNDIT PARANJPE / REUTERS – People duck as gunshots are fired from inside the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, Nov. 27, 2008. Indian commandos freed hostages from the Taj Mahal hotel on Thursday but battled on with gun-toting Islamist

A middle-aged Canadian couple on a spiritual pilgrimage to India were forced to barricade themselves in their smoke-filled Mumbai hotel room while terrorists outside rampaged through the city core, their daughter said from Kelowna, B.C., Thursday.

“They were on the 16th floor and had to smash out the window because there was lots of soot and smoke coming through the air conditioning,” Maya Koftinoff said of her parents, Larry, 56, and Bernie, 52. “I would imagine they’d be shaken up, but they were calming me down.”

According to Koftinoff, the couple could see machine gun-toting government soldiers from the windows who were giving comforting waves to the stranded guests.

The pair was in the Indian metropolis for a meditation retreat, but were expected to leave their room in the luxurious Oberoi Hotel at some point Thursday.

The violence that erupted in Mumbai on Wednesday has so far left more than 125 people dead and hundreds more injured. An unknown number of people, most of them believed to be westerners, are also said to have been taken hostage. A previously little-known organization calling itself the Deccan Mujahedeen has sent an e-mail to news organizations claiming responsibility for the attacks.

Koftinoff said about seven hours passed between finding out her parents’ hotel was under siege and when she first heard from them. Despite the turmoil, her parents were trying to remain calm, she said, adding they were at times trying to ease her mind.

“There was this feeling of wanting to be able to do something,” she said. “I was trying to figure out what to do and I started praying and lit a candle. It was a pretty hard time.

There was no word on when the couple, who own a specialty grocery store in Kelowna, could get back to Canada.

“All the airports are shut down and, last I heard, they weren’t even out of their hotel room.”

Two other Canadians travelling with the Koftinoffs’ group, U.S.-based Synchronicity Foundation, were shot during the melee, including Michael Rudder, a Montreal man who was struck by three bullets while in the restaurant area of the hotel, according to the organization’s vice-president.

“He’s had surgery and he’s doing well,” Bobbie Garvey said Thursday morning from her organization’s base in Faber, Va. “He’s stable — not enough to fly home yet — but he’s stable.”

Helen Connolly, a Toronto-based yoga instructor, was also grazed by a bullet in the attack, but Garvey said she was quickly released from hospital, is staying with a host family and is doing well.

“They went with our spiritual director on a pilgrimage to India, and wound up in the middle of this terrorist attack,” Garvey said.

The four Canadians were among 25 people involved in a meditation retreat in India. Garvey said the group, which arrived in India on Nov. 14 and was scheduled to return next Monday, is still missing two of its members — both American.

A former Winnipeg resident who recently moved back to Mumbai was afraid to leave his house for work after the terrorist attacks.

Mitesh Mehta moved back to his homeland last month after working in Winnipeg for a year as an IT specialist.

Mehta said some people were going into work late Thursday, while others refused to leave their homes out of fear.

“It was scary, definitely. It tends to have a chain reaction,” he said, noting that a terrorist attack in 2006 hit 18 different locations in Mumbai.

“People are upset. Bombay has a nightlife and it was totally interrupted,” Mehta said, using the city’s former name. “If you look around, very few cars are running on the roads right now. People are staying home.”

One family in Surrey, B.C., was dealing with news of the death of a 21-year-old niece. Satinder Bhui said Jasmine Bhurji was working at the Oberoi Hotel, training to be a manager when she was killed in the attack.

“We have lost something very dear to us,” Bhui said Thursday. “She was like a daughter to me … She grew up in my arms.”

Bhui described her niece as “full of life. A very happy-go-lucky kind of a person. She made us laugh.”

Bhui said her brother has now headed to India and will bring the young woman’s body to the family home in Chandigarh,” a city in northern India.

With files from the Winnipeg Free Press

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