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Indians killed in Iraq: For four years, swinging between hope, despair

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in a statement in Parliament on Tuesday confirmed the deaths of 39 Indians abducted in Iraq in 2014.

Written by Navjeevan Gopal |
Updated: March 21, 2018 7:36:04 am
Sushma Swaraj confirms death of 39 Indians in Iraq Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj addresses a press conference on Tuesday in New Delhi. She confirmed the death of the 39 Indians in Mosul, Iraq. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)


Jun 11-16: Families hear from the men in Iraq, who say they are in the Islamic State’s custody. The sister of one of the 39 men writes to Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj for help.

Jun 18-19: The Ministry of External Affairs confirms that 40 Indians, a majority of them from Punjab, have been abducted in Mosul in northern Iraq. The families meet Sushma Swaraj, who assures them of every possible help. Around the same time, the lone survivor, Harjit Masih, gets in touch with Indian authorities from Erbil; tells them the others are dead.

Read | Indians killed in Iraq: Victims’ families call it ‘government’s biggest failure’

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Jun 20: Two relatives claim MEA Secretary (East) Anil Wadhwa has assured them that the men are safe, and the government is trying to bring them back.

Jul 23: Swaraj meets worried family members for the third time after they sit on dharna at Jantar Mantar. She tells them that India is pinning hopes on an “Eid gift” from IS at the end of Ramadan (July 28).

Aug 19: Families meet Swaraj for the fourth time; claim she told them the men were “safe and (were) being kept in a factory that manufactures garments in Mosul”, and would be released after a certain IS commander arrives.

Sushma Swaraj confirms death of 39 Indians in Iraq External minister Sushma Swaraj with MoS V K Singh. (Express Photo by Prem Nath Pandey)


Mar 31: Then Congress Deputy Leader in Lok Sabha Amarinder Singh seeks urgent action to save four of the 39 hostages who he says “have been traced alive in Iraq”.

READ: My stand vindicated, case against me should be withdrawn, says lone survivor

May 15: Harjit Masih surfaces in Chandigarh; at a press conference organised by Aam Aadmi Party, claims the IS had killed 39 men, and that he had been kept in Noida by the authorities after he escaped and returned to India. Over the following months, Swaraj tells the families Masih is lying, and that she has information from intelligence agencies of two foreign governments that the men are alive. “Do you believe him or do you believe me?” she asks.

Sushma Swaraj confirms death of 39 Indians in Iraq Sushma Swaraj during the press conference in New Delhi on Tuesday (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)


Mar 30: Masih is arrested for having acted with a Dubai-based agent to send the 39 men to work in Iraq.

Aug 9: Congress Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa announces he will move a privilege motion against Swaraj for “misleading” the nation and the families of the 39 missing persons.

Oct: The families are told again that the government is confident the men are alive. Officials say in the absence of “proof of death”, the men cannot be declared dead.


Jun 8: Swaraj, according to the families, says sources have told the government that a group of Indians were in a “church” in Mosul.

Jul 10: Minister of State for External Affairs General V K Singh (retd) leaves for Iraq to get information about the missing men.

Jul 16: Swaraj, according to the families, says the men may be in Badush jail in Iraq.

Jul 24: Iraqi Foreign Minister Dr Ibrahim Al-Eshaiker Al-Jafari tells reporters in Delhi that his government does not know whether the men are alive or dead.

Jul 26: Swaraj tells House, “I don’t have evidence to say they are alive, but I don’t have proof to say they are dead. So we are continuing with the search operation.”

Oct: MEA collects DNA from the families.

Dec: India has sent DNA samples to Iraq, Swaraj tells Lok Sabha.


Missions that were successful

Nurses in Iraq
July 2014
Place: Tikrit, Iraq

A group of 46 nurses was released from ISIS captivity after the Indian government managed to strike a deal through a set of intermediaries, who had access to the captors. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj reportedly made at least 18 phone calls to her counterparts and other players in the region to make “personal requests” on behalf of the government.

Sushma Swaraj confirms death of 39 Indians in Iraq Father Alexis Prem Kumar was abducted on June 4, 2014.

Father Alexis Prem Kumar
March 2015
Place: Sohadat, Afghanistan

The priest was abducted on June 4, 2014, from Sohadat village, 25 km from Herat. He was working with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), an educational charity, as its Afghanistan Director and had been in the country for over three years. The matter was brought to the notice of then Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani by NSA Ajit Doval, when the latter visited the country on October 22, 2014.

Operation RaAhat
April 2015
Place: Yemen

The crisis in Yemen following the 2015 military intervention by Saudi Arabia left thousands homeless and stranded. More than 5,400 people including over 900 foreign nationals were rescued by the Indian Armed Forces under the guidance of former Army Chief General (retd) V K Singh. A group of 11 Indians was also evacuated by a Pakistan navy ship along with 148 Pakistanis.

Sushma Swaraj confirms death of 39 Indians in Iraq Judith D’Souza meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi and EAM Sushma Swaraj after returning to India

Judith D’Souza
July 2016
Place: Kabul, Afghanistan

The Indian aid worker was abducted in Kabul by suspected militants and was in captivity for 45 days. She returned home on July 24, 2016. Her family had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in June that year seeking their intervention for her release.

Father Tom Uzhunnalil
September 2017
Place: Aden, Yemen

Uzhunnalil was abducted by ISIS forces following an attack on an old-age home run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in the southern Yemeni city of Aden. He was rescued after 17 months of captivity on September 12, 2017. The priest was reportedly freed following the intervention of Oman’s foreign ministry.


The Iraqi organisation that helped 

IN HER statement to Rajya Sabha Tuesday, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj expressed gratitude to the Iraqi organisation Martyrs’ Foundation for their help in carrying out DNA tests on bodies that had been exhumed from a mass grave under a dirt mound outside the village of Badush to the northwest of Mosul. Swaraj said Martyrs’ Foundation had kept the Indian government constantly updated on the progress of the DNA matching exercise — “yesterday, they told us they had matched the DNA of 38, and the DNA of the 39th had matched 70%, because that sample was not from the parents, but from relatives… but the process is still under way…”.

THE MINISTER also said “the head of Martyrs’ Foundation” would hold their own press conference on this matter. Subsequently on Tuesday, the AP reported from Baghdad that “Najiha Abdul-Amir al-Shimari, the head of Iraq’s Martyrs Establishment,” had told reporters that “the killing was a “heinous crime carried out by Daesh terrorist gangs”,” and “those killed were “citizens of the friendly Indian state”.”

THE AP REPORT described al-Shimari’s organisation as a “government body (that) documents those killed by IS”. The English language website of the organisation, the al-Shuhadaa Foundation, or Establishment of Martyrs, says it is the “only official establishment in Iraq which cares (for) the martyrs’ families (and) the victims of the extinct Baath”. A “Letter of Definition” on the website describes the organisation as an “establishment of martyrs”, which was set up under a law “issued by the national assembly in the year 2005 and ratified by the presidency in Iraq on 1/8/2006”, the website says.

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(With inputs from ENS)

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