Over a dozen meetings with the external affairs minister, the families were assured that their missing kin were alive. But now, Swaraj has declared them dead.
Chandigarh: After holding out hope for four years, union external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj Tuesday dealt out the cruellest blow to the families of 39 Indians who went missing in Mosul, Iraq, in 2014: she announced they were all dead.
The Indians had gone missing after Mosul was taken over by the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014.
Twenty-four of them belonged to Punjab, and there’s anger and resentment among the families about being given false hope.
The fateful night
The Indians went missing a night after Mosul was taken over on 10 June 2014. Most of the Punjabis worked for the Baghdad-based construction company Tariq Noor Al Huda.
The last time any of the families spoke to their loved ones was on 15 June 2014, after which there was no contact, not even a stray phone call or any information from the agents who helped these men get jobs in Iraq.
Over the years, the families of the victims met Swaraj at least a dozen times. Her constant motherly reassurance was the main reason most of these families had no faith in the story of Harjit Masih, a resident of Kala Afghana village in Gurdaspur, who claimed to be among the 40 kidnapped Indians, and the lone survivor of a cold-blooded shootout by the IS.
In May 2015, Masih appeared before the media and said 39 of the 40 Indians were queued up by masked men and shot dead on 15 June, four days after they were abducted. He claimed he was shot in the leg but managed to escape. He added that he was brought back to India within weeks of the shootout, but was “released” by the government months later. He said the government kept him underground, fearing an IS backlash.
Swaraj had categorically denied any truth in Masih’s statement.
However, in her statement before the Rajya Sabha Tuesday, Swaraj admitted that one of the 40 kidnapped men managed to flee from the IS.
‘What proof were they talking about then?’
Parvinder Singh, a resident of Hoshiarpur, whose brother and two brothers-in-law were among the missing, said the government took them for a ride all these years.
“They fooled us. We held almost 13 meetings with Swaraj, many times with (union minister) Harsimrat Kaur Badal accompanying us. Every time, she told us that our men are safe. They kept saying they had proof that the Indians were alive. Now they say their bodies have been found. So what proof were they talking about then?” an upset Parvinder told ThePrint from Abu Dhabi, where he works now.
Parvinder worked in Mosul for over a year before he called his brother and brothers-in-law there. In 2013, he came back due to a visa issue and planned to return, but before that, the IS takeover took place.
“What am I supposed to say to the families of my brother and brothers-in law? They have young children. Their wives still don’t know. The government just wanted to make us live in false hope till its time in power was about to get over,” he said.
Unable to come to terms
Anita, resident of village Jaitpur in Hoshiarpur, whose husband Gurdeep Singh (40) is among the victims, is yet to be told about Swaraj’s announcement. Her sister-in-law Reena, who has been crying since the news broke on television, says their world is shattered. “What was the point of assuring us all these years?” she asked.
Speaking to ThePrint in July last year, when minister of state for external affairs Gen. (retd) V.K. Singh had gone to Iraq to look for the missing Indians, Anita had said: “Any time now, I will be getting a phone call that my husband has been found.” Anita and Gurdeep have two children, aged seven and five.
Dimplejit, sister of the victim Dharminder Kumar of Batala in Gurdaspur, questioned: “Sushma Swaraj kept telling us that she too is a mother and understands our pain. Why were we kept in false hope before ending them today?”
Shinder Pal of Selkiana village in Ludhiana, whose younger brother Balbir Chand is among the victims, said life had dealt them with the severest blow possible. “Balbir has four children – three daughters and a son. Two of the daughters are of marriageable age. What will his wife do?” he said before bursting into tears.
In village Kamalpura in Amritsar, Jasbir Kaur, older sister of Ranjit Singh, is not able to come to terms with the news. “I don’t know what to believe now. I have heard the news but I demand that my brother’s body be brought here,” she said, crying inconsolably. Ranjit left for Mosul very young, leaving his two sisters and mother behind.
Money doesn’t matter
The Punjab government has been giving a pension of Rs 20,000 per month to each of the 24 families. There are worries that the pension might now be discontinued, but for most families, the money doesn’t matter.
“Let the government take back all the pension amount it has given us, but return our men to us,” said Parvinder.
Parvinder’s views echoed what victim Pritpal Sharma’s son Niraj had told ThePrint last year.
“We don’t want any money. Just my father back,” he had said, having left his studies and started working as a labourer in a sugar mill in Dhuri to help his younger sister study.