Iraq abductees dialled home for help

With few options for employment back in Punjab, Manjinder went to Iraq despite the dangers in search of a better future. Four years later, he was found among 39 Indians abducted and killed by ISIS

Photo by Yunus Keles/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Photo by Yunus Keles/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Gajinder Singh

The call had come on June 15, 2014. It was not the number Manjinder used to call his sister Gurvinder from Mosul every Sunday to enquire about his mother and an ailing father back in Bhoewal near Amritsar.

Barely 11 months earlier, in August 2013, Manjinder had left for the war zone in Iraq because “he was not getting a suitable job here”. He wanted to help the family, which owns a small plot and was in debt, with a regular income.

“I was reluctant to pick up the phone initially as the number was not the one Manjinder used to usually call from. I only picked after my phone rang five times only to hear Manjinder crying and speaking in a low voice that all Indians attached to the construction firm he worked for, had been abducted by the IS and taken to a location they were not familiar with and wanted me to help them,” Gurvinder said.

That was the last time Gurvinder had heard from Manjinder. Since then she had been running from pillar to post trying to garner information about her brother’s fate along with 38 others working along with him in Iraq.

“He was scared. But he told me not to worry. He, however, asked me to inform the government but lamented that the construction firm he was working for had fled the site and taken everyone’s documents with them,” Gurvinder said.

It was not clear how Manjinder had been able to telephone his family after being taken captive. Most of the others hailing from Punjab too had called up their families on the same day.

From the local panchayat to the district administration, the chief minister of Punjab (then Parkash Singh Badal) and finally to the powers that be in New Delhi, Gurwinder, along with the family members of the others held captive with her brother, knocked on every door possible for information on their whereabouts.

“Each time we went we were told efforts are on to bring them back. Even when the blood samples were taken from family members for DNA testing last year we believed external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s words that all was fine,” Gurwinder said.

Last year, the central government had pooh-poohed the claims of Harjit Masih, who too had been abducted but managed to survive, by stating that the others were simple “missing” and efforts were being made to locate them.

Masih had claimed that 40 Indians had been taken to an unknown destination, made to sit on their knees and shot. He received a gunshot on his leg and passed away as bodies tumbled on him. When he regained consciousness he began walking till he reached a relief camp run by Bangladeshis and was hospitalised for his wound.

“All my friends were killed that day. Why does the government not believe me? The truth will come out one day”, Masih, who hails from Gurdaspur, had lamented.

It was not clear how Manjinder had been able to telephone his family after being taken captive. Most of the others hailing from Punjab too had called up their families on the same day

At least 20,000 youths migrate abroad every year from Punjab, a large number of them illegally.

“There are no jobs available in Punjab and youths are willing to go anywhere in the world to work to earn money, no matter how dangerous. In Iraq, they mostly work for construction companies, many as labourers. Many board flights to unknown destinations and land in the hands of human sharks who trade them for profit. There is no government policy in Punjab that can give them jobs and make them stay back,” said historian Gurdial Singh Dhillon.

In 2004, three migrant workers from Punjab, Antaryami, Sukhdev and Tilak Raj, were abducted in Iraq. In 2011, 15 youths, duped by unscrupulous travel agents, returned from Baghdad to recount their chilling experience. But this has not deterred others pursuing the dream of a better future.

Most who go to Iraq work as masons, drivers and carpenters. The 40 abducted in Mosul, among them 15-16 from Amritsar district alone, were construction workers.

“To others, Punjab may sound to be a prosperous state but the ground realities are different. Jobs even for skilled workers are dwindling and the youth have no other option but to fall prey to travel agents who take them to Dubai and push them into Iraq. Their travel documents, too, are snatched from them and many live in horrible conditions,” Dhillon said.

Many sell or mortgage ancestral land, pawn jewellery and force family members to take loans to be able to go abroad in search of a better life.

“What do we earn from labouring in the agricultural fields? At the most ₹150 daily? Abroad, we can earn up to ₹1 lakh a month. The youth are ready to pay any price for that,” said Harjeet Singh, who returned after three years working as a carpenter in Dubai.

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