Fifteen months ago, Sudesh Kumar and Balbir Singh, who are in their early thirties, chose to work in Iraq's capital Baghdad. There was an element of risk, but they never thought that conditions would be as pathetic as they are now in the strife-torn country.
Working at construction sites mostly after being lured into Iraq from other Gulf countries, they were promised higher pay and perks. Instead, they have allegedly been kept like slaves, severely underpaid, with no proper food. Constantly living under fear, they see no signs of returning home.
"Please do something. Save our lives. We want to come back to our families," Phagwara native Sudesh said to HT over the phone.
"We are treated like bonded labourers, slaves. Our passports have been confiscated, and we are not allowed to go out of 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.
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Sudesh and Balbir are two of a group of Indians work in Najaf, about 300km from Baghdad, as masons. Other groups are in Basra, Karbala and New Baghdad.
Najaf is around 160km from Baghdad and for now remains with the government. But since it is an important religious centre for both Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, it is a prime target for Sunni extremists who are taking over large parts of the country.
'Man from Andhra dead'
An Indian carpenter from Hoshiarpur, stranded at a construction site in Najaf, claimed that 2,000 Indians were being kept against their wishes by their Iraqi employers. Refusing to be named, he claimed 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. The Indian workers, another Indian worker said, are penned into a massive construction site that is around 4km from end to end.
HT had earlier contacted Tajinder Singh, Rakesh Kumar and Gaurav, who said more than 100 workers were currently working for a firm at the Basra International Stadium in southern Iraq, while about 50-odd youths employed by a firm named 'AKG', constructing a stadium in New Baghdad, were also not being allowed to leave. "We want to come home, but our company is not permitting us, while no help is coming from the Indian embassy," said Gaurav, a native of Phagwara in Punjab's Kapurthala district, one of nearly 50 youths from Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh stranded in New Baghdad. According to Gaurav, 21, AKG, which is constructing the stadium and a hospital in New Baghdad, had hired him two years ago.
The extremists, he said, are about 30km away from the construction sites of their company.
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'Workers sold like property'
"We were working in Muscat (Oman), but were lured by travel agents to go to Iraq. But when we landed here, the job promise was changed and we are paid much less," said Sudesh, stuck in Najaf.
The masons get around $350 (`20,000) a month, but even that is pending for months.
Sudesh named "Parminder Singh from Janakpuri in Delhi" as the agent who lured him along with others. "We have contacted the local agent who got us jobs, and he puts the onus on the agents from India," said Balbir, adding 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, choking with tears.
Sudesh said, given how the insurgents were closing in, a single bomb could kill hundreds at the site where they work.
'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."