As Amarnath Singh stepped out of Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) on Friday morning, he stopped briefly at the exit gate, taking in deep breaths. Familiar sights — families returning from summer vacations, rows of black-and-yellow taxis lined up on the driveway, signboards in Hindi — greeted him and over 200 other Indians who had just arrived on a special plane from Najaf in war-torn Iraq. A row of officials from various state governments stood nearby, ready to escort them home.
Making his way towards a steel bench, he sat next to a group of labourers from his home state, Bihar. “I cannot say if I am happy or sad. The relief of being alive has not yet sunk in. But tension of repaying my loan is already giving me sleepless nights. I borrowed Rs 1 lakh on interest to pay the agent who had arranged my job in Iraq. On the return journey, I kept thinking, ‘how will I return the money to the village sahukar’?” Amarnath said.
With aged parents, a wife and three school going children to look after, the 35-year-old had hoped his salary and overtime dues would suffice for a few months. But Singh, like hundreds of other Indians working in Iraq, was denied even his basic salary before he left Najaf. “The firm stopped responding to our calls. It was a choice between saving our lives or getting our hard-earned money,” he said.
Rahul Sharma (19), a resident of Ambala in Haryana, has a similar story to tell. The only difference was that he was duped into believing that he was being sent to an “army base” in South Africa. Showing the stamp of “Republic of South Africa” on his passport, Sharma said he was shocked when he arrived in Iraq.
“In Iraq, I was told I would work as a carpenter. When I called my agent, I was told that another plane would take me to South Africa soon. I had thought working in an army base would be convenient as they would have provisions for food. But in Iraq, they did not provide either adequate food and water or a proper living arrangement. There were 15 of us living in a cramped room. I got three chappatis a day with some rice and vegetables. We would not get our pay for months and demanding it led to beatings,” Sharma said.
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The only son of a landless farmer, with two older sisters, Sharma said his father had borrowed Rs 2 lakh from a zamindar for his trip to “go abroad”. Twelve other youngsters from Haryana, working in the same area, face similar dilemmas as they made their way to the Haryana Bhawan.
For Davinder Singh (24), reaching his home in Gurdaspur in Punjab was a distant dream until two weeks ago. On Friday, he walked out of the IGIA along with 120 others from Punjab.
“When the fighting in Karbala began, we did not pay much attention. But then the armed rebels started coming to Najaf and we were asked to lock ourselves inside our rooms near the (construction) sites. I thought we would die,” he said.
The relief, however, is short-lived. Singh had borrowed Rs 1.7 lakh from a money lender at 5 per cent interest. He had taken lessons in driving, hoping to drive “big cars” in the “foreign country”. But, he was asked to work as a painter instead. “It is not just food and water, we were denied medical facilities too. The youth who succumbed to illness recently was from my village. We worked round the clock; I felt like an animal,” Davinder said.