For three hours, they would hear gunfire interspersed with occasional ‘thuds’. It was the sound of men falling to the ground, dead. As darkness fell, they would sit in silence, wide awake in their tents, waiting for the next round of firing. For a month, this was the only sound they heard in Kirkuk, Iraq.
When the 54 Indians disembarked from AI 160, a special flight for those rescued from the strife-torn country, their eyes seemed unable to adjust to the bright lights at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) since, for a month, they had known only darkness.
“We were kept holed up, three to four people in one tent without food or water. If we were thirsty, we would drink from the water in the bathroom since we were told there was danger outside,” said 42-year-old Jaspal Singh, a native of Amritsar.
“All we heard was bombs and gunfire. We could hear the cries of men but we were helpless and too scared to go out and see what was happening. We were told by our factory owners the army was taking care of things,” he said.
Jaspal, like the others, was a farmer who left behind his village nine months ago in search of a better future. The journey was facilitated through an agent who took a a considerable amount of money and promised him a decent job and stay in Iraq. But in the next seven months, Singh was reduced to a casual labourer working day and night at a factory — he would not disclose the name — without pay.
“We were promised a better life. But we lived like slaves,” said Singh.
Ishwar Bhai Patel from Gujarat had a similar story: “They would tell us we had to survive with what we had. They would give us no money, not even enough to buy food. The last month was the worst.”
On Saturday, 170 Indians rescued from Iraq returned home. The first stop was Mumbai, from where 46 Kerala nurses left for Kochi. Seventy got off at Hyderabad and 54 at Delhi’s IGIA. Of the 54, nine belong to UP, two to Bihar, 15 to Gujarat, two to West Bengal, 18 to Rajasthan and eight to Punjab.
Additional resident commissioner of Kerala Rachna Shah, who was part of the rescue mission, said, “This was a coordinated effort. The idea was to get all of them back safely. It was fulfilling to see the nurses still smiling and eager to come back home. The nurses and others showed exemplary courage throughout the ordeal, which helped us accomplish this mission.”
As he emerged out of the airport, it was for the first time in over seven months that Singh had stepped out of a building unafraid. He was home.