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Coping with Calamity

EW YORK: Since the World Trade Center collapsed on Tuesday, Sreenath Sreenivasan has been connecting people, getting word out on who is missing and helping locate people in various New York hospitals. Sreenivasan teaches at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. The Internet expert at WABC-7, a New York City area TV station, and a freelance journalist, he co-founded the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA), a group of 800-odd South Asian journalists in New York and across the US and Canada. He spoke to Smeeta Mishra Pandey about how the South Asian community in the US is coping with the terrible tragedy. By Saturday afternoon, SAJA had received 37 death threats from within the US and from around the world; one Sikh has been killed in Arizona and others injured, obviously in what was a clear case of mistaken identity:

Where were you during the attacks on Tuesday?

My wife, Roopa, and I, we were in Bermuda last weekend. We were stuck there because of Hurricane Erin - we came back on one of the last flights into JFK Tuesday morning. We flew into New York City around 8.10 a.m. on an American Airlines flight.

As we came close to the city, I saw the familiar skyline from my window seat. The World Trade Center towers were clearly visible against the blue sky - we were about two miles away. We even talked about how nice it all looked - the Citibank building and the WTC were the two most visible landmarks. We landed, got into a cab and were near the Triboro Bridge, driving towards Manhattan, when we saw dark smoke billowing from one of the WTC towers. At that point, we started listening to the radio and watched as emergency crews drove past us. And the rest, you know.

Does SAJA have information on the exact number of Indians killed in the WTC collapse?

As of now, nobody has the exact number of Indians killed in the terrorist attacks. There's no way one can determine it right away. Moreover, I think it is insensitive for people to come up with figures before people are officially declared dead. There may be many people lying in hospitals, seriously injured and without a name tag. All I can say to the families in India who have loved ones staying in the US is that I hope you've heard from your family. Community organisations here are doing their best. Let's help one another cope.

How is SAJA helping the South Asian community cope?

We just concluded a SAJA meeting on ``Covering the WTC Attacks and the Aftermath''. A group of senior journalists discussed the coverage of the attacks and the backlash. Apart from South Asians, east Asians and white Americans also attended the meeting. A presentation by experts who have been tracking the bias crimes preceded the discussion. South Asians who have been the subject of anti-South Asian harassment and threats also spoke their hearts out.

It was the first large-scale community gathering after the terrorist attacks and it became a cathartic experience to see other brown faces. There was a lot of emotion. People spoke about what they've been going through in the past few days. Those who still haven't managed to trace their loved ones after the terrorist attacks, talked about them, asking others if anyone had any information about their family members and friends.

As we finished with the meeting, we saw a Sikh man being interviewed by a television crew. As he spoke, a white American who was passing by shouted, ``You Islamic mosquitoes should be killed''. THIS is what we are facing. A friend of mine, who is a senior journalist here and who doesn't want to be identified, faced a similar situation on the night of the terrorist attack. He was at the bar when two men in army clothes asked him if he was Middle-Eastern. They posed several uncomfortable questions and it got nasty. Several similar cases have happened to people I know. So community organisations are not only coordinating rescue operations, prayers and condolence meetings after the terrorist attacks, they're trying their best to make their community members feel safe.

Have you, personally, experienced any kind of discrimination in the US?

Not recently. But nearly 17 years ago when I was in the seventh grade, I was taunted by a few boys who gathered around me. They kept pointing at me, shouting, ``Gan-dee, Gan-dee'', ``Hindu schmuck'', ``cow lover'' - all because the previous night at the Oscars, the film Gandhi won eight Academy awards. Their favourite films, ET and Tootsie were lagging behind. This was in 1983. But at that time, being pushed around and laughed at, got me real nervous and scared.

How is SAJA helping South Asian journalists covering the tragedy?

SAJA has brought out media guides to cover the aftermath of the disaster. Our website has reporting tips for journalists and others covering the incident. In addition to reporting on the tragedy, news organisations have begun to cover the reprisal attacks against South Asians in the US. Our website contains backgrounders on the South Asian regions involved, a list of experts and sources from different communities who may be available for comment. We are updating this information as often as possible. While the press has done a good job of covering the dangers posed to Arab Americans and Arabs living in the United States by media stereotyping, we feel there still is not enough awareness of the bias crimes against South Asians and how they are coping with it.

Can the United States use force to ensure security?

The terrorists on the hijacked plane did not use cutting-edge armaments. They used box-cutters, something that anyone could buy from a hardware store. Random carpet bombing over other countries is not the answer. War will not solve any problems. For instance, in 1998, the US used force in Afghanistan, but that did not put an end to Osama bin Laden's terrorist activities. It did not guarantee security for the United States. I am not a security expert. But I think what the US needs is better intelligence on the ground. The US and the Americans have been looking inward. They should look beyond the shorelines of the United States. They need to know what's going on in the rest of the world. The terrorists have hit at the heart of the United States. In the aftermath of the disaster, attitudes in the media are also changing. For instance, I was speaking to an editor in New York today, and he said they would now deploy more journalists in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Do you think India wants to use Washington against Pakistan?

I don't want to comment on that. All I know is that no matter what the subcontinental politics, South Asians need to stay united here. It's absolutely important.

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Coping with Calamity

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