Fifteen months ago, Sudesh Kumar and Balbir Singh, who are in their early 30s, had gone to work in Iraq's capital, Baghdad.
They never thought that conditions would turn as pathetic as they are now in strife-torn Iraq where Sunni militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant
(ISIS) have taken over large swathes of the country.
Sudesh and Balbir, like many other Indians in the country, work at construction sites. They were promised a lucrative job offer. But, the reality was in stark contrast.
They have allegedly been kept like slaves - underpaid and with no proper food. Constantly living under fear, they see no sign of returning home.
"Please do something. Save our lives. We want to come back to our families," Sudesh, a native of Phagwara (Punjab), told HT over phone.
"We are treated like bonded labourers… slaves. Our passports have been confiscated and we are not allowed to go out of the construction camps.
"Our phones are kept under surveillance and securitymen have instructions to shoot in case anyone tries to escape," said Balbir, a native of Hoshiarpur.
Sudesh and Balbir are from a group of Indians who work as masons in Najaf, about 300km from Baghdad.
Read: Sunni militants seize Iraq-Syria border point, kill 30 troops
Najaf, for now, remains with the Iraqi government. But since it is an important religious centre for both Sunni and Shia sects, it could emerge as a prime target for the extremists.
'Man from Andhra dead'
An Indian carpenter from Hoshiarpur, stranded at a construction site in Najaf, alleged that 2,000 Indians were being kept against their wishes by their Iraqi employers.
Refusing to be named, he said that an Indian worker from Andhra Pradesh died due to stress and depression a few days ago.
"I don't know what they did with his body. I don't know his name. But I can recognise him. We could not communicate because of language problems."
He said that all the Indian workers are employed by Fourth Dimension, a family-owned Iraqi firm that has interests in the infrastructure, health, finance and development.
HT had earlier contacted three others - Tajinder Singh, Rakesh Kumar and Gaurav, who too work in Iraq.
Read: 'Indian workers' passports not being returned in Iraq'
According to them, about 50-odd youths employed by a firm named 'AKG', which is constructing a stadium in New Baghdad, were not being allowed to leave.
"We want to come home, but our company is not permitting us… no help is coming from the Indian embassy," said 21-year-old Gaurav, a native of Phagwara in Punjab's Kapurthala district.
Employed by AKG two years ago, he is one of the nearly 50 youths from Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh stranded in New Baghdad.
The extremists, he said, are about 30km away from the construction sites of their company.
'Workers sold like property'
"We were working in Muscat (Oman), but were lured by travel agents to come to Iraq. But when we landed here, everything changed… we are paid much less," said Sudesh, stuck in Najaf.
A person working as a mason get around $350 (Rs 20,000) a month, but even that is pending for months.
Sudesh named "Parminder Singh from Janakpuri in Delhi" as the agent who convinced him along with others to come to Iraq.
"We have contacted the local agent who got us the contracts, and he puts the onus on the agents from India," said Balbir.
Read: 16 Indians moved out, Modi takes stock
He added that construction workers "are treated as property of the construction company and even sold to other companies".
"Initially we came to Iraq for a certain company but someone 'bought' us, and we don't exactly know who has our passports," Balbir said, his voice choking with tears.
'Some want to stay'
But, another worker from Punjab said, "There are some who want to stay back despite the danger. These workers are desperate for money as they are in deep debt. They think that if they escape from the fighting in Iraq, they will be killed by the moneylenders in their villages."
Full coverage: Iraq on the brink
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