Kia Scherr is co-founder of One Life Alliance, a charity she set up in response to the 2008 Mumbai attacks that claimed 164 lives including those of her husband, Alan, and their 13-year-old daughter, Naomi. Alan and Naomi had been visiting India along with 23 others from their Virginia–based spiritual community, the Synchronicity Foundation, when the Islamic terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out 12 coordinated attacks across the city.
On the night of November 26th 2008 I was visiting my family in Florida and getting ready to watch Oprah when the manager of the Synchronicity Foundation called me to tell me that Mumbai was under attack. As I turned on CNN a reporter was describing how terrorists had entered the city, divided into pairs, and then gone off to their separate targets including the Oberoi hotel where Alan and Naomi were staying.
I watched in horror as the news unfolded. In the hours that followed I learnt that everyone in the Synchronicity group had been accounted for except for Alan and Naomi who were reported missing, last seen in the Oberoi’s restaurant. One of my two older sons then posted their photos on CNN with the words ‘father and daughter missing’.
As a result, prayers and messages of support started coming in from all over the world. These messages of love, sent from total strangers, somehow held me for the next two days until finally the call came which I had been so dreading. It was from the US consulate in Mumbai confirming that my husband and daughter had both been killed.
“Are you sure? Both of them?” I kept asking. I’d been desperately holding onto hope and just couldn’t believe that neither had survived. Later I learnt that two of the terrorists had stormed the restaurant. Everyone had dived for cover while the terrorists then proceeded to go from table to table shooting anyone in sight. Alan and Naomi did not survive that attack.
My family all gathered round me and we cried together. In total shock we just stared at the aftermath of the attack on TV trying to understand. That’s when I first saw the face of the loan surviving terrorist. He was a young man about the same age as my sons. Seeing him there the words of Christ just came to me. “Forgive them, they know not what they do”, I said. My family thought I’d gone mad but I explained, “No, I mean it. Since love is lacking here, compassion is what we need.”
CNN then called to ask if they could put out photos of Alan and Naomi. I agreed, and after that over a thousand emails came into the Synchronicity website, all sending more messages of love. From that moment on I made it my mission to discover what this outpouring of love meant.
My commitment became to be the opposite of a terrorist; to love like an extremist.
But I remained numb for a very long time. It was necessary. If I’d been able to feel right away it would have shattered me. Not until some years after the attack was I able to feel the deepest part of my tears. Anger was present too but what I experienced wasn’t finger-pointing or blame, which just leads to frustration and dead-ends, but rather a passion born out of a compelling need to create something of meaning. Out of this grew the One Life Alliance – an organisation dedicated to raising the World’s Peace Index through collaborations with businesses, governments and education bodies.
At this point I knew I was ready to leave the protection of the Synchronicity Foundation in Virginia and spend more time in India. In Mumbai I realized that my definition of spirituality had been limited. In my spiritual community we had been concentrating on the inner world, choosing to live a more simplified life. When all that got blasted away I realized there was no more inside/outside world. There was just one world.
A few years ago I wrote an open letter to the one surviving terrorist – in fact it was a letter written to the human being beneath the terrorist. When later I read in a Mumbai newspaper that, ‘a puppet’s life ends on a string’, I cried at news of his execution. Not because I thought he should be released from prison but because it was a lost opportunity. If he had been helped to turn his life around in prison then perhaps he could have prevented other young men going down the same destructive path.
To me the word ‘forgiving’ means life is for giving. By giving I mean being kind and respectful, honouring the dignity of our differences. In this sense I choose to forgive because forgiveness keeps the heart open. I refuse to be held hostage by the terrorists and let my heart become full of anger, hate and revenge. Through forgiveness I’ve learnt that love doesn’t die. No AK47 can ever kill the love I feel for my family. That love still burns deep within me.
Kia is co-founder of One Life Alliance, and author of Pocket book of Peace – a 30 Day Companion which outlines positive behaviours to increase both inner and outer peace.