Harjit Masih of Punjab , the only survivor among the 40 Indian men kidnapped in Mosul in Iraq by the Islamic State in 2014, says that after his return to India, he was told by “officials of government agencies” not to tell anyone about the death of the other hostages.
What happened on that fateful day after you were kidnapped in Iraq?
What I had been saying for the past three years has been proven true now. It was June 15, 2014, if I remember it correctly. Eight to 10 terrorists, dressed in black fired at all 40 of us ... we were kidnapped two days ago from the factory where we worked ... We were crammed into a large container of a truck. Almost half-an-hour later, the truck stopped and we all were asked to come out. The place was barren with hills making up the backdrop. It must have been around 4.30 p.m., as they asked us to kneel down in a line ... while everyone pleaded for life, they started firing at us. I was lucky enough to survive after the bullet just grazed me, and a body of a fellow worker covered me.
After I regained my senses and glanced at my surroundings, I could make out that all 39 of them [fellow workers] were dead. With no idea of where I was, I just started running till I reached a road where I was helped by a local man to reach my company. At my company, I found the group of workers from Bangladesh who had been abducted along with us [Indians] but were separated by the IS terrorists later. The Bangladeshi workers asked me to change my name to “Ali” for safety and with their help, I was able to reach an Iraqi Army checkpoint in Erbil from where I was able to make contact with the Indian Embassy. Later, embassy officials escorted me.
While you were abducted, did you or other workers tried to contact the Indian Embassy in Iraq?
Yes, we did try and were in fact able to speak to people at the embassy in Baghdad. Our manager Harish made phone calls to the embassy many times, apprising them that workers are stuck. At the time when we were kidnapped, to our surprise, the terrorists offered us help, saying they would help us go to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. We never felt threatened. But, then after two days, things changed. They asked us [Indians] and Bangladeshi labourers to hand over our passports. We [Indians] were then separated and loaded in the truck container.
On your return from Iraq to New Delhi, how were you treated by the government?
Soon after I returned to India, I was taken into custody by government agencies, though I don’t know the name of those “agencies”. I was told by officials not to tell anybody about the death of the Indian hostages. They made me believe that revealing that information could put me and my family at risk — as the family members of those “dead” workers could get enraged, many of whom hailed from the neighbouring districts of my home town, including Amritsar, Hoshiarpur, Kapurthala and Jalandhar. I don’t remember the names of any officials or the agencies though.
When in custody, were you tortured or pressured to make any statement?
No, I was never tortured or pressured by anyone to make a confession or give any other kind of statement regarding the Mosul incident. Only during the first few days when I was kept at some kind of guest house in Greater Noida, which was surrounded with “green cover”, I was advised by ‘officials’ to be quiet for my own good. I was not allowed to talk to my family during the first few months, but later they allowed me speak to my family but only to tell them that I was fine.
They took good care of me. I was free to do anything but security people used to keep an eye on me all the time.
After around three months, I was shifted to Bengaluru, where I was given a room to stay at some market place — the name of which I don’t remember. I was free to move anywhere and had no restriction whatsoever and wandered in the local markets during evenings. I use to get money for my daily expenses and I was told that they will train me as an electrician so that I could get a job. In Bengaluru, I stayed for close to three months and then was shifted to Gurugram. All this while, they kept telling me that soon a training session would be arranged for me. In 2015, I was sent to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, where I was assured that I would be given a job. Here, an official told me that I could go to my native place to visit my family. I was happy to come back to my village.
You have been charged with human trafficking. How do you react to the allegations?
I had been sticking to my statement from Day One and now I have been proved right about the death of my fellow workers. The allegations of human trafficking and cheating against me levelled by the family members of a few fellow workers are false and baseless. I have been falsely implicated. I have spent six months in jail after an FIR under Sections 370 and 420 of the India Penal Code was registered against me at Batala in 2016.
Now that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has said that the 39 abducted Indian workers were killed and their bodies have been recovered, I would urge the government to help me and get the case of human trafficking registered against me withdrawn.
I am out on bail now. My financial situation is bad. I work as a daily wager on farms and earn not more that ₹300 a day. There are days when I find no work. My mother cleans utensils. Three of my younger siblings work at neighbourhood houses to make ends meet. If the government could get me a job, it would be helpful.