Mosul’s echo in Punjab

Print edition : April 27, 2018

The family of Sonu in Chanvinda Devi village, Amritsar district, Punjab. Photo: Divya Trivedi

The family of Dawinder Singh, Rourka Kalan, Phagwara. Photo: Divya Trivedi

Family members of Harsimranjit in Babowal village, Amritsar district. Photo: Divya Trivedi

The family members of Kawaljit Singh in Rupowali village, Gurdaspur district. Photo: Divya Trivedi.

Harjit Masih in his dilapidated house in Kala Afghana village in Gurdaspur district. Photo: Divya Trivedi

The families of the men kidnapped in Mosul are sore at the government’s handling of the tragedy and the way they had been fed false hopes for close to four years.

The families of 38 Indian men abducted and believed to have been killed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Mosul were advised by the Indian authorities not to open the wooden coffins carrying their loved ones while performing their last rites. But some of them opened the caskets anyway, hoping for a last glimpse. Skeletal remains encased in cotton padding and wrapped in a white shroud, with a bag containing pieces of clothing and shoes, were all that was left of their sons, husbands and fathers. Years of uncertainty, when the families did not know whether their men on turbulent foreign soil were dead or alive and in what state, ended after the families received the mortal remains of the men and also their death certificates. But as the families settled in their homes in far-flung villages of Punjab to grieve, there was anger, hurt and bitterness all around.

Amid tears, one member of a family told Frontline: “ Madam ne hume dhoka diya hai” [Madam has betrayed us].

In more than a dozen meetings over three and a half years since June 2014, when the men disappeared, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj kept assuring their relatives that she had information about their whereabouts and safety. While most of them were from Punjab, some were from West Bengal, Bihar and Himachal Pradesh. Frontline travelled to five villages in Punjab to meet the families.

“In every meeting, she would disclose a new detail: once she said, they were locked inside a church; another time she said they were being made to work as construction labourers at a hospital site; and yet another time she said she had sent medicines for someone who was sick. When we asked her how she knew all this, she retorted that her sources were not ordinary people but Prime Ministers and Presidents who were highly reliable,” said Harbhajan Kaur, mother of Harsimranjit Singh, in Babowal village of Amritsar district. Harsimranjit, who was 23 years old in 2014, was the sole earning member in a family of five, including his bedridden father and two sisters. Without Harsimranjit, the family stares at an uncertain future.

Navjot Singh Sidhu, who is a Minister in the Punjab State government headed by Captain Amarinder Singh, announced on the government’s behalf that one member from each of the bereaved families would get a government job. Each family would also get a compensation of Rs.5 lakh. Even as Sushma Swaraj was facing criticism for her “mishandling”' of events, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, not to be outdone by a Congress State government, announced an ex gratia of Rs.10 lakh for each family. This was not the first time that Modi shone by the scapegoating of one of his Ministers. While the compensation was welcome, what was important for the family was the life of their son, said Harbhajan Kaur, sitting on a charpoy in the courtyard of her home. “What will I do with money? For me, I want my son back,” she said.

Meanwhile, Harsimranjit’s sister Jagdeep did not believe that what came in the coffin were her brother’s remains. One of the families that had opened the coffin told her that their son’s shoe size was 10, whereas the shoes in the coffin were of a smaller size. Another family said their coffin had a head with long hair while their son never grew his hair or wore a turban. “My brother is alive and he will return. The government knows nothing,” said Jagdeep.

When the ISIS entered the premises of the factory in Mosul where the men worked as labourers and drivers, the families received calls from the men informing them of what was happening. For the next week or so, they kept receiving the calls, after which the lines went dead. “Five days are enough for the government to act, but they did not budge. They rescued the nurses from the same town but did not move a finger to save our kids. The BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] government at the Centre and the then Akali Dal government of the State are responsible for our children’s death,” said Harpal Singh, brother-in-law of Kawaljit Singh, 30 years old in 2014. He was referring to the rescue of 46 Indian nurses in June 2014, around the same time as the men were abducted, from a hospital in Tikrit, Iraq, where they were confined by the ISIS.

Last year, Sushma Swaraj said that it was possible the men were kept in a jail in Badush, 31 kilometres from Mosul. It was only on March 20 this year that Sushma Swaraj confirmed in Parliament that the hostages had been killed. The government had used a deep penetration satellite to discover 39 bodies under a mound with distinctive features such as long hair, Sikh kadas (bangles), non-Iraqi shoes and IDs. The bodies were then flown to Baghdad where the DNA of 38 was found to be matching with those of the kidnapped men, while for one there was a match of 70 per cent.

The families were distraught that they had to learn of their relatives’ death through the media. Harbhajan Kaur said: “I was in Amritsar buying medicines for my father when I got a call from a reporter in Chandigarh. He said Sushma ji had made an announcement in Parliament about the discovery of the dead bodies of our men. I was extremely shocked but had to get back home somehow.”

Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh flew to Iraq on a special aircraft to bring the bodies back. As soon as he landed in Amritsar on April 2, he held a press conference to say that he had come especially to hand over the bodies to the bereaved families. Harpal Singh said: “He was lying through his teeth. He did not meet any of us.” The families were in fact extremely hurt by the Minister’s insensitive response when asked questions on compensation. “This is not a game of football.... Giving compensation is not like giving biscuits... jeb mein koi pitaara thodi rakha hua hai [I don’t have a magic box in my pockets],” V.K. Singh said. Harpal wondered whether the Minister would have made such remarks if his own son was killed by terrorists on foreign soil.

V.K. Singh told the press that the government had no record of the Indians captured by ISIS because the men had gone to Iraq through illegal travel agents. But the bereaved families questioned this position: “None of the men went through sea or a tunnel below the sea. They all flew after proper documentation, visa approvals and embassy verifications. If that is not enough to inform the government of one’s whereabouts, then what is? How can a Minister make such unfounded claims?”

Most of the men had travelled to Iraq with the assistance of Rajvir Masih, an agent, who took about Rs.1.5 lakh from each. For most of the families, belonging largely to lower and backward castes, the move was prompted by hopes for a better future. Sonu, 35, of Chanvinda Devi village in Amritsar district, was a Majhabi Sikh (Scheduled Caste). The second of four brothers, all daily wage labourers, Sonu did odd plumbing jobs until a relative introduced him to Rajvir. Ever since, he was determined to go “abroad” and build a bigger home for the family. He even took a loan, which was slowly being repaid through his earnings in Mosul.

Most of the families did not know about the war in Iraq and thought it was all peaceful since the United States Army had arrived. Most of the men who went to Mosul were school dropouts from impoverished families and lower castes trying to get a leg up in life. There were no jobs in their villages, and that prompted young people from working-class families to take risks and travel abroad. They went to places such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Malaysia and Baghdad, where they could find jobs.

In Punjab, in particular, people wanted to go abroad as they saw their neighbours prospering after a stint abroad. The lack of education, the absence of opportunities at a local level, and the shame attached to taking up wage labour in a place where one was known to people, made families send their men abroad to work, said Dawinder Singh’s uncle in Rourka Kalan, Phillaur, Jalandhar district, who had had a stint in Germany. Dawinder was 48 years old and worked as a foreman in Mosul. Rajput Mehra’s family proudly showed photographs of him in blue overalls, stressing his status at the steelworks factory in Mosul.

After the men were kidnapped, their wives started working to support their families. Dawinder’s wife, Gurmeet Kaur, worked at a private stitching centre to support her three children. Sonu’s wife, Seema, who has two children, worked as domestic help in nearby homes.

The story of Harjit Masih, who was part of the abducted group but managed to escape in 2014 itself, punctures the government’s narrative. Sitting on his bed in Kala Afghana village of Gurdaspur district, he was jittery. He said he could not be sure of who he was talking to and what story would be concocted out of the meeting.

According to him, when the ISIS entered the company where he worked along with 39 other Indian men, they were not ill-treated but given proper food and rest. Their passports were taken away and they were informed they would be returned home in due time. But suddenly one evening, they were packed in a closed van and taken to a deserted hillock. They were made to kneel in a line on the ground and the soldiers opened fire. “I went numb and collapsed. When I woke up, the men had left and everybody around me was dead. I called out a few names, hoping someone would be alive but no one replied. So I ran away from there,” he told Frontline.

He was caught again by the ISIS, and in order to save his life, he pretended to be a Bangladeshi Muslim, Ali, and escaped. Along with other Bangladeshi workers, he reached the Kurdistan border, from where he contacted the Indian Embassy. He must have been there for a week before two Indian government officials brought him back to India. But for the next one year, he was not allowed to meet his family. The officials kept a close watch on him and housed him in Greater Noida, Gurugram and Bengaluru and in Himachal Pradesh. After six months, he was allowed to speak to his family on the phone. “They only allowed me to say that I was fine and would be home soon and snatched the phone as soon as I had said that much,” he said.

Eventually, he was allowed to go home and was promised a job. When he called up the officials afterwards, they did not answer and seemed to have vanished. “ Agency wale the woh log [they belonged to the Intelligence Bureau],” he said. He got no help from the government, which also rubbished his story and said no one had been killed. He held a press conference in Chandigarh with the help of Bhagwant Mann, but nothing came of it. “All this while, I did what the government told me to. If I had not, they would have framed me in some case or the other,” he said. The government told him that his life was in danger from the families of the 38 missing men. The bereaved families said that they were told that Masih was “a relative of the agent who rescued him”.

Persuaded by the government to believe that Masih was lying, they believed he had something to do with the disappearance of their men along with the agent Rajvir. They registered a first information report against both of them, and Masih ended up spending six months behind bars. After being set free, he does odd jobs to get by. Rajvir, meanwhile, ran away to Dubai and filed a counter case against the families. Masih says he is not in touch with the agent and wants to have nothing to do with anybody.

“This is what I get for telling the truth. If only I had lied, I too could have got a job and compensation,” he said, pointing to his ramshackle house.

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