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Monday, June 21, 2021

ONGC staffer released by ULFA: ‘Couldn’t tell night from day… spent agonising hours thinking about my son’s laugh, parents’

A month later, on Saturday morning, Saikia was released by the militants at Longwa, in Nagaland’s Mon district, near India-Myanmar border, and handed over to a team of Assam Police, Nagaland Police and the Assam Rifles.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: May 24, 2021 6:54:24 am
Retul Saikia, back home with his wife and son. (Express)

Like the countless night shifts he had worked since he joined the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC) as a production engineer, the night of April 20 started out no different. But by the end of it, 38-year-old Retul Saikia was led out of his workplace of five years in handcuffs, shoved into a vehicle and driven off into the night by armed militants of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) (ULFA-I).

A month later, on Saturday morning, Saikia was released by the militants at Longwa, in Nagaland’s Mon district, near India-Myanmar border, and handed over to a team of Assam Police, Nagaland Police and the Assam Rifles.

“I can only be grateful,” Saikia told The Indian Express from his home in Borholla, Jorhat, adding: “I never thought I would see them but I am finally back with my family…my old parents, my little son.”

Saikia said that April 20 had started out as a regular night at the rig, located in the Lakwa field of Sivasagar district. “My mind was on other…happier things; my son was born four months ago, my wife and I were planning his annaprasana. Plus, I had worked so many night shifts before. Nothing had gone wrong then.”

Saikia recalled that towards the end of the shift, masked men appeared and handcuffed him. “There were other employees too and we were all made to kneel down. The older workers who were close to retirement were let go. But they picked three of us, seeing we were younger and relatively healthier,” he said.

“It was terrifying. We had no idea what was happening, who they were, but later seeing their fatigues, we realised it could be the ULFA-I,” he said.

Along with Saikia, two other employees, Mohini Mohan Gogoi and Alakesh Saikia — also in the production department — were driven off in a company-owned ambulance, which was later found abandoned near the Nimonagarh jungles, close to the Assam-Nagaland border. On April 23, three days into the abduction, an encounter between the state security forces and the militants ensued, following which Mohini and Alakesh were rescued.

Saikia, however, remained captive. “There were bullets flying everywhere during the encounter and suddenly I felt someone pull me away. I had no idea I was the only one in captivity for so long,” said Saikia. “In the jungles, I could not tell night from day. I would spend agonising hours thinking about my son’s laugh, or worrying about my parents. I was completely cut off.”

He said that they kept moving around in “thick forests” staying in temporary tin shelters. His captors did not speak to him much but “treated him well, giving him food and medicines.” “One time, the chief Paresh Barua called and he told me that he had nothing personal against me, but only the company I worked for. He said that once they (ONGC) fulfilled the conditions, I would be freed.”

Ever since its inception, the ULFA has had a history of extorting money from extractive companies in Assam. In December 2020, the ULFA-I and Myanmar-faction of NSCN (K) had abducted two employees of the Quippo Oil and Gas Infrastructure Limited from Kumchaikha hydrocarbon drilling site near Innao in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh. They were released after three months in captivity.

Earlier this month, the ULFA-I had issued a set of demands to three public sector oil firms (OIL, ONGC and IOCL) asking for a 95 per cent quota in jobs for indigenous Assamese, and appointment of a qualified indigenous person to the post of managing director, among others things.

However, it was after Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s formal appeal to the ULFA-I chief that Saikia was released. CM Sarma has also been appealing to the outfit to return to the mainstream.

In 2011, the ULFA (which was formed in 1979) split into two factions — pro-talks and anti-talks. The latter, Barua’s faction, renamed itself ULFA (I) in 2013 and currently operates out of the jungles in Myanmar.

Saikia spent 15 years as a mechanical engineer in a firm in Pune before he got the ONGC job in 2016. “I have been away from Assam for very long. Of course, when we were younger, the ULFA was active, but in recent years, such incidents are rare…I never thought something like this could have happened to me,” he said.

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