39 Indians missing in Iraq: ‘We can wait 10 yrs for our children if we could talk to them once, ask if they’re fine’

The Indian Express travels to villages in Punjab, Bihar and Himachal Pradesh to meet families of men missing from Iraq for two years.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba , Navjeevan Gopal , Santosh Singh , KAMALDEEP SINGH BRAR , Ashwani Sharma | Updated: June 17, 2016 6:18:33 am
indian hostages, indians abducted, sushma swaraj, family members of indians abducted, indians abducted in iraq, islamic state, isis militants, indians kidnapped, iraq, india iraq, punjabis iraq, punjab iraq, indians iraq, isis, islamic state india, india islamic state, islamic state hostages, iraq, india news, indian express In February, when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj reiterated her assurance that the missing men were safe. “I told Sushma ji, nobody is bothered about the families of the four persons from Himachal Pradesh.”

One son back, she longs for the other

Inderjeet, 25
Worked as machine operator

FAMILY: Father Pardesi Ram, mother Sulochana Devi, two elder brothers at Kadreti in Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh

LAST CONVERSATION: “He called on June 15, 2014, and said the Indian hostages had been segregated,” Pardesi Ram said, “He said they were blindfolded and taken somewhere, yet he sounded hopeful of returning as the abductors had apparently assured them of arrangements to send them back after they had taken their passports.”

READ | Indians missing in Iraq: ‘Let them get at least one of the boys to call any of us, so we can keep hoping’

LAST CONTACT WITH GOVERNMENT: In February, when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj reiterated her assurance that the missing men were safe. “I told Sushma ji, nobody is bothered about the families of the four persons from Himachal Pradesh,” said Pardesi Ram, who has also met Kangra MP Shanta Kumar and made representations to Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and MP Anurag Thakur. The family wants the Himachal government to provide monthly relief like Punjab has been doing.

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Inderjeet’s brother Subhash too had got stranded in the Middle East — in South Arabia, where he had been working for six years. “The company became defunct and the owners fled without clearing our dues,” said Subhash. “Several Indians were left jobless and practically starving for months until the Indian embassy came to our rescue.” By the time he returned in December 2015, the family was worrying about its youngest son.

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‘Even grounds where we are cremated will wait for him’

Gurdeep Singh, 39
Mechanic who worked on air conditioners in a construction company

FAMILY: Wife Anita Rani, 30, children Ankita and Arashdeep, 6 and 3, Gurdeep’s parents Surinder Kaur and Mukhtyar Singh, 60 and 64, at Jaitpur village in Hoshiarpur, Punjab

LAST CONVERSATION: June 15, 2014. “He told us, ‘Wait for me, I will come back’,” Anita said. “Even the grounds where we are cremated will wait for him,” Surinder Kaur said.

LAST CONTACT WITH GOVERNMENT: In February, Surinder Kaur met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj for the ninth time. “Each time, we are asked to have faith in the government as all the youth are safe.”

“We do trust the government but would like the government not to betray our trust either,” Anita Rani said, while her children played around the house, the son having been born after Gurdeep had gone to Iraq.

READ | 39 Indians missing in Iraq: ‘Don’t keep us in the dark any longer… tell us the truth, whatever it is’

Mukhtyar Singh didn’t share his wife and daughter-in-law’s optimism: “The government is lying and the lie will be exposed soon.” This agitated Surinder and Anita, who said the government couldn’t have been lying for such a long time. About Harjit Masih, the one Indian who returned home and said the other 39 have probably been killed, Anita said, “He is a big liar.”

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Gobinder Singh, 43
Worked on construction site in Iraq

FAMILY: Wife Amarjit Kaur, 40, teen children Amandeep Singh and Karandeep Kaur at Murar village in Kapurthala, Punjab.

LAST CONVERSATION: June 15, 2014. He told his wife he had been taken hostage with many others and asked her to take care of herself and the children.

LAST CONTACT WITH GOVERNMENT: In February. “We told Sushma Swaraj that my husband’s phone still rings, and the location of the phones can be tracked. It is up to the government how it moves,” said Amarjit Kaur. “I also urged the minister to take care of my children’s education.”

It was for the education of the children that Gobinder had gone to Iraq. At home, Gobinder was earning Rs 6,000 to 7,000 from a distillery. “We felt it was not enough for a proper education, so he took a loan of Rs 1.60 lakh and went to Iraq. He sent home around Rs 85,000 in eight months before he got abducted,” Amarjit Kaur said.

Now their son Amandeep, who scored 60 per cent in class 12, has dropped his ambitions of pursuing B Tech and opted instead for BA as a private candidate. “From where can I get lakhs for a B Tech course?” his mother said. “I thought of taking my daughter Karandeep Kaur (in class X) too out of school but my brother said he would support her education expenses.”

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Nand Lal 45; Sandeep Kumar, 32
Carpenters in Iraq

FAMILY: Sandeep’s parents Sumitra and Tarsem, 50 & 55, four younger sisters (two married) and brother Balraj, 25; at Aliwal village in Jalandhar, Punjab. Nand Lal (Sumitra’s brother) has no family surviving at Talwan village in same district.

LAST CONVERSATION: With Nand Lal on June 11 and with Sandeep on June 13, 2014. “Nand Lal told me they had been abducted in Mosul but asked us not to worry; they would be released in a day or two,” Sumitra said. “Two days later, we got the last call from Sandeep who told us he would return to India in a day or two…”

LAST CONTACT WITH GOVERNMENT: In February. “We asked Sushma Swaraj, if her sources said the men are fine, then why isn’t any one of them being able to speak to his family?” Sandeep’s father said.

The uncle had gone earlier and encouraged the nephew, eldest of six siblings, to join him in Iraq. “My brother Nand Lal called Sandeep to Iraq as he was working in the same company,” Sumitra said. Nand Lal, divorced, has no children.

Like most others, Sandeep Kumar took a loan: Rs 1.60 lakh. He sent home Rs 58,000 before he was kidnapped. Sandeep had also worked in Doha for a year and a half.

Today the family has just one earning member, younger son Pradeep Kumar who works on construction sites, besides getting Rs 20,000 as monthly aid from the Punjab government.

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Vidya Bhushan Tiwari, 30
Worked on construction site in Mosul

FAMILY: Wife Poonam, mother Lakho Devi, sister Neelam, seven-year-old daughter and four-year-old son at Sahsaraon in Siwan, Bihar; father died of a heart attack

LAST CONVERSATION: On June 13, 2014, with Poonam and Neelam. “He would call almost daily and ask about his children. He was excited about returning in August.” On June 16, Sahsaraon’s Pappu informed the family that he had got a call that his brother Santosh, Vidya and others had been abducted.

LAST CONTACT WITH GOVERNMENT: In February, Santosh’s uncle Purushottam Tiwari met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. She repeated her assurance of bringing home all abducted people, the family said. There has been no communication from the state government; the family has met Siwan’s DM and SP, and the chief secretary.

Madhusudan Tiwari died of a heart attack last year, waiting for his only son to come back home. Four-year-old Tanish, born months after Vidya left, is still waiting, having been told by his mother that his father has gone out to work far away and will be back soon with a lot of toys. His seven-year-old sister, who had sent a wish-list to her father, has since sensed something is wrong.

Over 25 per cent of the village’s youths migrate for jobs and at least 20 villagers are working abroad. No one, however, has gone to the Middle East since Vidya and Santosh went missing.

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Sonu Masih, 32
Worked on construction site

FAMILY: Wife Seema Devi, 30, diagnosed with TB, sons Arjun and Karun, 10 and 8, Sonu’s mother Jitto and two married brothers at Chawindadeavi village in Amritsar

LAST CONVERSATION: June 15, 2014; “he told me they were being taken somewhere”.

LAST CONTACT WITH GOVERNMENT: “We met Sushma Swaraj in February and she told us they have been in contact with my husband and others,” Seema said. She placed her hand on the heads of my children and swore that my husband is alive. Sushma madam told us a government source managed to reach near the factory where Sonu and others have been kept in captivity, but the source doesn’t know Hindi and couldn’t ask the names of the men working there.”

Though cautioned by doctors, Seema Devi has started working as a domestic help and also as a construction worker after her husband went missing. She said she has not got the government’s Rs 20,000 aid for the last few months. Electricity has been disconnected for bills unpaid. “I have to work. The children ask for many things and I cannot kept them waiting like I do.”

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Rakesh, 25
Believed to have operated a JCB

FAMILY: Mother Bhinder and father Madan Lal at Qadian town, Gurdaspur

LAST CONVERSATION: On June 13, 2014. His mother said, “He said some men had put them in a van and were taking them to another place, perhaps to work with another company. He said, ‘I will call you in a little while’. We never heard from him again.”

LAST CONTACT WITH GOVERNMENT: “Sometime last year, we went to meet Sushma Swaraj. I don’t remember going in February,” his mother said. “If the government is saying my son is all right, he would have called at least once. At least one of the 39 would have called. Only God knows the real answer. Right now, we have no choice but to believe the minister.”

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Surjeet Menka, 37
Worked as a carpenter

FAMILY: Wife Usha Rani, 30, five-year-old son, mother Harbhajan Kaur, 60 at Chuharwali in Jalandhar, Punjab; a married sister, two brothers working in Middle East

LAST CONVERSATION: On June 15, 2014, when he said bombs were going off in a battle between the government and ISIS. “He said they had been kidnapped but were safe and would return soon. He told me to wait for him,” Usha Rani said. “He told me he would not be able to call us any more as their phones were being snatched.”

LAST CONTACT WITH GOVERNMENT: In February. “I asked Sushma Swaraj why she was not bringing my son back,” said Harbhajan.

“The minister always says their sources have told them that the men were safe,” said Usha Rani. “If they are, why is the government not bringing them back?”

Harbhajan said, “She should either bring the men home or get us to talk to them on the phone. We can wait even for 10 years for our children if we could talk to them just once and ask if they are well.”

If tomorrow the government says the men are not alive, what will Usha Rani do? Her eyes moistened and she fell silent for a while before saying, “I will wait for him all my life, my heart says he is alive.” She added, “Sometimes we feel like going to Iraq and searching for them. We shared this idea with the minister, who told us it would be risky, the government wouldn’t be responsible.”

Of Harbhajan’s two other sons, one is working in Saudi Arabia and the other in Dubai. Harbhajan, Usha and the wife of another son live in the house now. Usha earns a little by stitching clothes.

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Dharminder Kumar, 25
Plumber who specialised in submersible bores and pipes

FAMILY: Mother Kanwaljeet. father Rajkumar (daily wager), a brother (daily wager) and a sister at Talwandi Jheoran village in Batala, Punjab

LAST CONVERSATION: “He called home last on June 14, 2014,” his mother said. “He told me, ‘I am fine, I will call you again on Monday. My phone is running out of balance’. We never heard from him again… On June 12, he had said the men who had taken them captive look like terrorists. He said they had fired shots and dropped bombs on some places.”

LAST CONTACT WITH GOVERNMENT: “In February, we all went to meet Sushma Swaraj,” Kanwaljeet said. “She told us our boys are okay. But it looks like she is not telling the truth. Either she has to personally go there and meet them through these sources who are giving her the information that they are alive, or give their exact location. We’ve been to meet her eight or nine times, I have lost count. Once she even said. ‘We can’t say they are alive, and we can’t say they are dead’… Even if one of the 39 calls, we can believe they are well. We spend money every time to go and meet her, but other than what she has said before, there’s nothing much we have got from her.”

The family had borrowed to send Dharminder abroad. “We paid the money to Harjit Masih and Rajbir, Rs 1.5 lakh, then Rs 30,000, and the last instalment was Rs 20,000,” his mother said. “We are fortunate that relatives are not pushing us to return the money. My sister’s son-in-law has in fact offered to settle the debts.”

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Jasbir Singh, 25
Construction worker in Iraq

FAMILY: Parents Surjit Kaur and Bakhshish Singh, 55 and 60, five elder siblings — Rani, Devi, Surinder (the first three married), Bhupinder and Kulwinder at Mehandpur village in Nawanshahr, Punjab

LAST CONVERSATION: On June 15, 2014. “He was crying on the phone and said he wanted to come back,” his mother said.

LAST CONTACT WITH GOVERNMENT: In February, met Sushma Swaraj. “We appealed that we get to talk to at least one of the kidnapped men.”

On a wall hangs a photo of Jasbir with rakhis tied around it. Since Jasbir went away, his two sisters have been tying rakhis there every year, never giving up hope that he will return, their mother explained.

Jasbir had followed two of his elder brothers to the Middle East, one having worked in Lebanon and another in Bahrain before both returned.

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