How a hostage situation unfolds or unravels

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To understand how diplomatically tricky it can be to effect a rescue of nationals during a foreign abduction, throw your mind back to 2004...

“What is unexplained is the extraordinary lengths the government seems to have gone to keep Harjit Masih, the lone survivor among the Indians by ISIS, out of sight.” | PTI

 

Maybe we got lucky in 2004. That was the first time Indians had been kidnapped, taken hostage and a ransom demand made in Iraq. India’s then ambassador to Iraq B.B. Tyagi was in Delhi for a break when he received a call from his embassy saying that three Indians had been kidnapped. Tilak Raj, Antaryami and Sukhdev had been part of a convoy of seven trucks, a pilot car and a car with a security detail bringing up the rear. They were working for Kuwait Gulf Links (KGL), a logistics and transportation company that moved material for Americans. The other truck drivers included three Kenyans and an Egyptian. Outside Fallujah — that was the scene of pitched battles between the Americans and Iraqis — their trucks had been surrounded. The armed escorts vanished. The seven drivers had been taken captive, and a ransom was demanded. The hostages were going to be killed, one after the other, every 72 hours, if the demands, which were mostly wildly impossible, were not met within three days. The initial condition was that the governments of the countries to which they belonged had to immediately withdraw their citizens from Iraq and the companies that they worked for should shut shop in Iraq forthwith. This was on July 21. The countdown had begun.

A tribal sheikh, Sheikh Duleimi, emerged on the scene and offered himself as the mediator and began talking with the Kuwait Gulf Links. The ransom demand went up to five million dollars. The KGL was prepared to pay nothing more than $500,000. It was the other demands that were breath-taking. Among other things, Duleimi had sought compensations for the families of the victims of the American bombings in Fallujah, numbering 250 at that time. Duleimi also sought, as a precondition, that all the Iraqi prisoners taken by Americans as well as those in Kuwaiti detention be freed. And here was the priceless one: that Duleimi be mandated the official mediator in regard to outstanding Kuwaiti-Iraq issues. The negotiations carried on like a very bad Hindi movie, with Duleimi changing his mind and the rules of engagement more than once. At one point he said if Asha Parekh and Amitabh Bachchan were to ask for the freedom of the hostages it would be done. Other than bringing to our attention to the hitherto unknown popularity of Asha Parekh in that part of the world (Mr. Bachchan’s popularity was a given), the kidnapping had acquired the characteristics of a farce, albeit with possibly very grim consequences. The more airplay and television play the kidnapping got in Iraq where it ran like a soap, the more it raised the market for kidnappings.

 

 

The occupation and the bombing had knocked the bottom out of employment and salaries and led to a serious funds crunch. The trucks that brought in trade from Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, dwindled from over a thousand a day to a handful. So, kidnapping became the major industry in Iraq. In the couple of months leading up to Antaryami’s kidnapping there had been as many as seventy kidnappings in Iraq. The figure for those killed at the end of it stood at nine. Some 42 were let off or managed to escape. It emerged that those who were killed were from countries whose governments were either directly or indirectly supporting the occupation. After a Pakistani diplomat, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, was named as the UN coordinator for Iraq, a couple of Pakistani hostages had been killed. Everyone was a potential target — Iraqis, foreigners. The small-time kidnappers sold the hostages further up the chain. It became next to impossible to separate the political motives from the mercenary ones. Market said that an Egyptian diplomat had been kidnapped and released later when $50,000 changed hands.

At this point, it further emerged that there were as many as 6,000 Indians working in Iraq in various capacities — cooks, cleaners, drivers, and other odd jobs, many of them for the American forces, jobs for which they had sold their meagre assets to send money back home. The Government of India was looking at a first-rate potential crisis. Meanwhile, as the media ratcheted up the coverage, residents from the villages surrounding Una, where two of the hostages hailed from, blocked the roads. Miles of cars, trucks, scooters, motorcycles, and buses were stopped for hours. It made for good television. Everybody was asking: What was the government doing about it?

First, New Delhi got the countries in the region to stop issuing entry permits to Indians to prevent them from entering Iraq. This angered the Americans, who sent a General to talk to our mission in Kuwait to urge a reconsideration, failing which they would have to think again about Indians and hire others from other countries. The General also tried the same tack with the Philippines, which pulled out their very token 51 troops from the ‘coalition of the willing’ after a Filipino hostage was killed. The previous NDA government had fobbed off an American attempt to have India send troops to Iraq for “stabilisation activities” which had held out the juicy carrot of ‘rebuilding Iraq contracts’. It was not clear that the Americans had managed to get over their unhappiness with that rejection either. Thereafter company after company that transported goods for the Americans threatened to bring all the Indian drivers, hundreds of them, and dump them in front of the embassy premises. It looked as though the air tickets for their journey back home would not be forthcoming either. Meanwhile, in front of the embassy in Kuwait as well as in Punjab, the protests began. The theme: they would prefer to die from bullets in Iraq rather than from hunger in India.

 

 

As the month ran out, the government, in order to be seen as doing something, promptly formed a team of three to send to Baghdad, but announced the names of only two of them — the then Ambassador in Oman, Talmiz Ahmad, a diplomat with vast experience in the region, and Zikrur Rahman, an Arabic speaker, who was to act as the interpreter. The third person in the team, whose presence was not revealed, was from the Intelligence Bureau. Their brief was to get to Baghdad where B.B. Tyagi was stationed, and sit on their hands. They were to do nothing, simply wait for the crisis to blow over. India did not negotiate with hostage-takers.

The Iraq where the team landed on August 1 showed no sign of the much tom-tommed civilisational influence that American occupation was supposed to bring. Instead, law and order had broken down completely. In addition to the kidnappings, there were bombings, shootings and random violence and counter-violence as well. Najaf and Sadr City were being carpet-bombed. Iraq had been cut up into little fiefdoms where each little territory had its own armed groups running amok. There was also an alarming lack of information, other than what came on Arabic television. There was no effective government to deal with. In any case, the Indians could be seen dealing with a group which was dubbed terrorist, not freedom-fighters. Other than the fact that Sheikh Duleimi had three wives and twelve children, nothing much was known about him. Soon after the team landed in Baghdad the talks between KGL and Duleimi broke down irretrievably. Thereafter the Sheikh disappeared from the scene. He was not heard from or of till the kidnap saga ended.

Have we learnt any lessons? All things considered, maybe we did get lucky that time around, and were able to bring our boys home. This time, things in Iraq have been unimaginably worse. It would not have been possible for the embassy in Baghdad to reach the stranded workers, who appeared to be in touch with the embassy. There would have been no way they could have got out of there short of a military airlift. But that doesn’t quite explain the extraordinary lengths the government has gone to discount, wholly, the story of the lone survivor, Harjit Masih.

 

 

Most aspects of his story seem to ring true. Though, if he did escape earlier, how would he know so many details about the massacre? There may be confusion over the exact date of the massacre of the 39 Indians but that can be nothing more a quibble. What is unexplained also is the extraordinary lengths the government seems to have gone to keep Masih out of sight by spiriting him into various safe houses apparently in Greater Noida, Bengaluru, Gurgaon for almost a year. The only possible explanation comes from the foreign minister’s throwing up her hands last July saying that New Delhi came to know the plight of the 39 barely days after her government took over.

Conceding the possibility of the massacre would have shown up the helplessness of the government so soon after coming into power. Not at all good for the image-makers. The sustained company of spooks would have softened the perspective of Harjit Masih somewhat, made him more forgetful, make him appear less reliable. The fact remains that back in 2004, Antaryami, Sukhdev, and Tilak Raj were kidnapped within weeks of Manmohan Singh becoming prime minister. It was his first foreign policy crisis as well. Maybe he got lucky. Certainly, with the 39 Indians, it was not the first time we have had a hostage situation in hostile territory. It will not be the last time we see one end badly either.

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