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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

263 days as Aslam Khan

Father Alexis Prem Kumar was kidnapped by Taliban in Afghanistan last June. 8 months later, he was freed after govt intervened.

Written by Arun Janardhanan |
March 22, 2015 12:18:55 am
Alexis Prem Kumar, kidnap, Afghanistan, Tamil Nadu, JRS, Afghan government , school rebulding,  Loyola College,Father A M Jayapathy Francis Kumar says that the Taliban guards didn’t torture him, but kept him chained. (Source: PTI)

Father Alexis Prem Kumar was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan last June. Eight months later, he was freed after the govt intervened. Kumar speaks to Arun Janardhanan about his days in captivity

Father Alexis Prem Kumar arrived at the school in Herat, northeast Afghanistan, a little after lunch on June 2, 2014. A priest from Tamil Nadu, he was with the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), a Catholic organisation that worked with the Afghan government to rebuild schools in the war-torn country. He had had a busy morning — a meeting with the education director of Herat, followed by a school visit.

No sooner had he entered the school building than a Toyota car screeched to a halt outside. A group of men with Kalashnikovs barged in and pointed their guns at him. “Before I could react, I was blindfolded and my hands tied behind my back,” says Kumar, speaking about the 263 days he would go on to spend in Taliban captivity.

The Sunday Express caught up with Kumar at Priests’ House on the campus of the Jesuit-run Loyola College in Chennai, days after after he was released on February 18 following a high-level diplomatic intervention by the Indian government. Kumar was just back from a visit to his village in Sivaganga district and JRS was taking no chances with his security. Each one of Kumar’s visitors was strictly screened by Father A M Jayapathy Francis, rector of Loyola College.

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The son of a retired school teacher in Sivaganga, Kumar joined the Jesuit order in 2000 and worked for tribals and Sri Lankan refugees in Kodaikanal. In 2011, he went to Afghanistan as part of his international assignment.

Kumar shows little emotion as he speaks about that June afternoon a year ago. When they bundled him into the car, he was sure he would be killed, he says. “They forced me to lie down in the trunk and we crossed into the Afghan desert. It took us two days to reach the first location, a mountain side where I was kept in a building that had been bombed long ago.”

From there on, every other day his hostages would blindfold him, bundle him into a car and take him to another place. “They all looked the same… old bombed-out buildings with mountains all around,” he says.

Kumar devised a sign language to talk to his guards. “That’s when the meaninglessness of language struck me. I communicated effortlessly with my captors though there was no common language — none spoke English and I knew no Pashto,” he says. He stubble turned into a beard. “I wore their clothes. And I had a new name — Aslam Khan,” he adds.

“I was never tortured too badly though I was almost always in chains. They would open my chain when I indicated that I had to relieve myself. Most of the guards were kind enough to keep the chains loose so that I could move around a bit. Some of them would tell me I would not be killed. But there was one guard who was deeply suspicious of me. I later realised that he had suffered severe injuries in war and had dementia. So he would momentarily forget who I was and come and tighten the chains around me,” says Kumar.

His day began and ended with prayers. “I had long prayers and thankfully, they never prevented me from doing that,” he says. He also slept long hours as there was nothing else to do. He was once held hostage in a cave and that’s when it rained — twice. “That was the only time in those eight months that I saw rain. I slept in the water,” he says.

Kumar also got a small radio set from the Taliban guards which picked weak signals from China Radio International. “I would spend hours listening to Chinese programmes,” he says. After several futile attempts, he finally managed to tune into Vatican radio and BBC Tamil. “From then on, I spent all my time listening to the radio.”

And then, on the evening of February 17, he had a visitor. “Prem”, called out Aji Mama, the chief of the group of militants who held him captive. “He came in his vehicle with a convoy. He spoke to me in English. He told me that I was going to be released and that an Indian envoy would be coming to receive me,” he says.

The next morning, he was unchained and told to get into the vehicle. This time, he wasn’t stowed away behind the seats. Mama accompanied him. “I was given a royal treatment. I was given a seat, though I was still blindfolded,” says Kumar.

When the car came to a halt after what seemed like a three-hour drive, the guards took off his blindfold. For the next six-seven hours, their vehicle lumbered through the desert till it reached Helmand province, where he was to be released. “A guard opened the door and gave me a cellphone and directions to a spot a kilometre away where I was to spot the Indian official. It was around 3 pm,” he says.

“Before leaving,” he says, “Mama said, ‘Leave our land forever. You will be shot if you return’. I started running. I ran for almost half a kilometre through the desert, waving my handkerchief as I had been told. That was to be a signal to the officials’ convoy.”

The Indian convoy had three armoured vehicles, one of which had its windshield smashed from a Taliban attack while on its way to receive Kumar. Kumar got into one of those vehicles, without a blindfold and with his hands free. He was taken to Kandahar airport from where he flew to Kabul.

The next day, just before he could board the flight to Delhi, an embassy official gave him a phone. “Wanakkam (Greetings),” said the voice at the other end. It was Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Welcome home. God has saved you,” said Modi. “I said, ‘No sir, you have saved me’,” says Kumar.

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