In the custody of Sunni militants since June 12, when the rebels took over their hospital in Tikrit, the Indian nurses did not dare to keep their hopes too high. Although the militants did not ill-treat them, their last few days in captivity were especially taxing, as they remained uncertain about their fate.
“They behaved cordially and treated us well. There was not even a single incident of indecent behavior… they addressed us as sisters,’’ recalled Santy John, one of the 46 nurses who reached India on Saturday. According to Santy, the militants even asked the nurses to continue to work in the hospital. “They wanted new contracts and offered salaries in dinars instead of US dollars. That was not acceptable to us,’’ she said.
Santy said the armed men with covered faces always told them “not to worry”. On Tuesday, they arranged buses and asked them to move to Mosul. The nurses resisted.
“The next day, they came with the same demand. We pleaded with them. They said if we remained in Tikrit, we would die. They said they were asking us to move out for our safety,” she said.
The ultimatum came on Thursday morning. “There was a tone of threat in their voice. They asked us to board two buses. But we said all 46 of us would travel in a single bus. Soon after we boarded the bus, even as some were loading their luggage on the other bus, there was a shooting incident at the hospital,’’ said Santy. Five nurses sustained minor injuries in the incident.
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Three dozen Bangladeshi workers at the hospital were also taken to Mosul in another bus. Two armed militants accompanied the nurses in the bus. “They asked us to hand over our cellphones. When we pleaded that we wanted to call up our parents, they allowed us to make short calls. But some of us had already surrendered our phones,” she said.
As their bus passed through the conflict-torn areas, the nurses saw Sunni militants in many places. “We saw the remains of buildings and vehicles destroyed in the bombings. However, our vehicle did not face any threat,’’ she said.
The bus finally reached Mosul in the evening. “We saw a board of ‘General Hospital’, but we were not taken there,’’ said Santy. After passing through narrow lanes, the bus stopped outside a building.
“When we were asked to enter the hall in batches of 10, we were really terrified. We did not know what their plan was. They brought air conditioners and food, and locked us in,’’ she recalled. “Although we were exhausted, both mentally and physically, we did not sleep that night. The guards kept the lights on throughout the night,’’ she said.
“Late at night, when a person entered the hall, we asked him whether we would be released. He promised to take us to the airport the next day. We did not believe him. However, the next morning, everyone was told to get ready, and vehicles came to take us,’’ said Santy.
At 8:30 am on Friday, the vehicles carrying the nurses and the Bangladeshi workers moved towards the Kurdistan border, where the Indian officials were waiting. From there, they were taken to the Erbil airport, escorted by Iraqi Army personnel.