BOSTON — This week we’re honoring the victims who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But they are not the only victims of 9/11: there are the service members that died in the ensuing conflicts, and the innocent Iraqis and Afghanis.
And then there are the victims of the senseless hate crimes that have flourished in the years since. According to the FBI, there were almost 500 attacks against Muslims in 2001. Three people were killed. There were dozens of arsons. And not every victim was Muslim — some just looked the part.
Saurabh Bhalerao survived his attack. He was a Hindu who came from India to the United States to study textile chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. On Sept. 2, 2001, he visited the World Trade Center as a tourist. It made quite an impression on him.
“It was huge, it was humongous. I mean it was seriously, it was one of the best human creations, I mean the biggest human creations I had ever seen,” Bhalerao said.
Nine days later, he watched on TV as the first tower was struck by an airplane. He says he knew right away that it was terrorism, since suicide attacks were already common in India. Bhalerao was head of the Indian Student Association at his school and when reports started surfacing of South Asians, especially Sikhs, being targeted and attacked in retaliation, he helped organize a meeting on hate crimes. But Bhalerao says he never really considered that he would become a victim.
Surviving A Brutal Attack
In the summer of 2003, Bhalerao had a job delivering pizza while he finished his master’s thesis. On June 22, around 10 p.m., he was delivering a pizza and a sub to a home in Dartmouth. The first thing that seemed odd was that the house was completely dark and no one answered when he knocked. Finally, a man came to the door, and as soon as Bhalerao handed over the food he was pushed from behind into the pitch black living room.
“And then they pushed me in and then probably they had plans to do a robbery and when they heard my accent and they might have observed that I have a slightly tan skin color compared to them they thought that I was a Muslim and then they started hitting me voraciously from all ends,” Bhalerao said. “And I think there were four or five people at that time.”
As the men beat him in the dark, they shouted at him to go back to Iraq. Bhalerao tried to explain that he wasn’t Iraqi — and wasn’t even Muslim.
“I was telling them that, you know, I am a student at UMass and I am a Hindu, I am from India and just working to make ends meet but I mean they were pretty drugged up, they all were quite drunk, and they would not listen.”
The attack escalated quickly. Bhalerao was in a dark house he’d never been to and seriously outnumbered.
“They burned me with cigarettes on the back and then tied my hands, put some dirty socks in my mouth, stuffed it inside my mouth and snatched my wallet, my money, my keys and everything, hog-tied me and also put some ropes around my mouth so that the socks wouldn’t fall off,” he said.
Then they took Bhalerao’s money and keys and put him in the trunk of his own car. Bhalerao could hear them making plans to drive to some cliffs over the ocean in the nearby town of Fairhaven.
“They were conversating with each other that they would throw this guy into water,” he said.
So does he think they were going to murder him?
“Yes, but since they did not have enough guts to do it themselves, they were planning to, you know, throw me into the water all tied up so I couldn’t even swim to safety and at that time already my jaw was broken in two or three places, so it was pretty bad,” Bhalerao said.
In the trunk, Bhalerao began to chant a prayer to the god Ram. He says that helped him regain composure.
“I wasn’t unconscious and I hadn’t lost faith. I wasn’t like, completely — I mean definitely I was traumatized — but I was still thinking properly that, what can I do to escape the situation, what can I do to make things better?”
He managed to untie himself and began to root around in the dark trunk for some sort of weapon. He found a small hammer.
“And as soon as he opened [the trunk], I swung that hammer right in his face,” he said, “and he did not expect that I would still retaliate after being beaten so much and he started running away.
“And just before starting to run away, he had a knife in his pocket, he had a hoodie, he had a hooded T-shirt on him, and he had a knife in his pocket so he stabbed me right in the liver and he started running away. And at that time the blood was oozing out very fast.
“I was still trying to get hold of him. I did give him a couple of punches and I was still trying to get hold of him and beat him down a little bit and put him in my car and take him to a police station, but he somehow escaped with the keys.”
Bhalerao got in his car and considered his options. He didn’t have keys to the car or a phone.
“I saw a car coming and I thought that they are back and they are going to kill me this time. But at the same time, I was losing blood very fast from my liver and from my jaws and I was getting to a point of kind of dizzy because of the loss of blood and I thought at the same time that, you know, if I do not call for help right now, I might not be able to call for help ever.”
Luckily, it was some college students who happened to be taking a drive along the coast. They called the police and Bhalerao was rushed to the hospital. It took him months to recover from his wounds.
‘We Have Never Been Taught To Hate Anyone’
But Bhalerao did not let the attack poison his mostly positive impression of the U.S. He remembers the fund that was set up by UMass Dartmouth to help him and the outpouring of sympathy.
“I got 500 get-well cards or something,” he said. “The bad thing happened that night; nothing else happened bad.”
Bhalerao’s attackers, most of them teenagers, were caught and tried on hate crime charges, along with charges of attempted murder and other crimes.
It was not an isolated incident. Six months before Bhalerao’s attack, in December 2002, three other Indian grad students at UMass Lowell were beaten in the university parking lot. In that case, the assailants invoked Osama bin Laden’s name during the attack. Attacks against Muslims increased by some 1,600 percent in 2001, and are still higher than they were before 9/11.
“I didn’t hate [my attackers], even after that,” Bhalerao said. I had a feeling of pity for their ignorance. I didn’t hate them because they tried to kill me. I didn’t hate them because we have never been taught to hate anyone. We are a very holistic culture, we have never been taught to hate anyone.”
Bhalerao says the attack, as traumatic as it was, did not haunt him afterward. He says the Hindu law of karma helped him learn to accept it and move on. Hindus believe that everything happens for a reason, due to some event or experience that happened in a past life.
“I mean that kind of shut down the question that, why it happened to me, why it happened? I mean, a lot of people do ask questions when they go through such traumas, like why me, why me, why me? But I never asked myself that question because there might have been some place or something that I might have done — not in this life but maybe some time earlier — which might have caused this to happen to me.
“And secondly, the second aspect of this Hindu spiritualism is that you should always have faith in God. So these two things: ‘OK, it’s not the end of the world, I can still bounce back,’ and, you know, ‘Do something good. Do something positive. Make something out of my life.’ It’s not that I died.”