On his return flight to India, Rahul Kumar had only one thought on his mind — if the plane crashed, he would not meet his three young daughters, his fear and paranoia built up over the six months he had been away. Mr. Kumar, along with 16 other men from Haryana and Punjab, were on their way back from Libya on August 20, where they had been held captive for six months by an armed group, after they entered the country illegally. The men, who dreamt of getting jobs in Italy on work permits, were duped by Indian ‘agents’. There, they were assaulted, made to work at construction sites for no pay, forced to live in sub-human conditions, and were not given food and water for weeks.
Mr. Kumar, who owned a hair salon in Karnal, says, “My business was going well, I earned around ₹30,000-₹40,000 every month, however, I wanted to make a little more money by working as a driver outside India.” He wanted to buy a house and support his family better. He decided to look for jobs outside India. He considered moving to Canada or the U.K., but the plan fell through. A friend, Madan Lal, also a travel agent, agreed to send him to Italy on a work permit for ₹13 lakh. “I agreed, instantly,” he says.
In February, Mr. Kumar packed his bags. He bought 10 pairs of jeans and a few shoes. This week, he returned wearing a pair that he had been in for three weeks. His shoes were tattered and torn.
Crime and punishment
Rajat Gulia, deputy superintendent of police (Pehowa, in Kurukshetra district, Haryana) said Madan Lal and Rajat Gulia has been arrested in Pehowa under IPC section 370 (buying or disposing of any person as a slave), section 406 (criminal breach of trust), section 420 (cheating), and sections 10 and 24 of the Immigration Act, 1983. He says the men received visas and work permits through the same ‘travel agents’.
Aam Aadmi Party MP Vikramjit Singh Sahney had sought intervention by the Indian Embassy in Tunisia (since there is no Indian mission in Libya) and the United Nations on the matter. “Little did they know, they were cheated with forged documents and sold off to multiple mafia groups through multiple agents in different cities across their route,” he says, adding that the Punjab Police has formed a Special Investigation Team to hold a further probe into the matter.
Back in Pehowa, at his sister’s house, Mr. Kumar sits on a sofa, looking at his children, all below 10. His eyes have dark circles around. He has barely slept in the last six-and-a-half months. Even now, he fears being assaulted with his eyes covered with a black cloth. He avoids conversations and eats very little, as he throws everything up. He explains how many people like him, with a wish to work abroad were taken on forged visas and were forced to work as construction workers on no or meagre pay.
Over 30 people were crammed into tiny rooms Mr. Kumar says. There was lice everywhere. His passport and mobile phone was taken away. Many survived on what was left on the floor.
His brother-in-law, Balwan says, “These agents sell dreams of working abroad, the way it’s shown in movies. Many fall for it. Everybody wants to go to Canada or the US, for jobs like housekeeping or driving.”
An officer says, “young men are shown Bollywood dreams, it’s as if everybody can get a job as a driver, and find a living there, most men here don’t even agree to being sent illegally, some agents even operate from abroad.”
The group of men took the “donkey route” an illegal and dangerous way to reach countries.
Life in trauma
Paramjit Singh, 44, a cloth shop owner in Kurukshetra before he left for Libya, has panic attacks that appear every other hour. He struggles to speak to him family about his experience. He weighed 88 kg when he left; now he weighs 55 kg. Every night, he remembers how he was tortured.
“I am scared of being in the dark, I remember how I was thrown out in the sun where people would beat me up and throw water on me. Now I need my family to be around me at all times,” he says. He also remembers the months spent in Tripoli jail, where around 700 inmates were kept in one barrack with seven toilets.
Right now, none of the men know how to go back to their once normal lives.