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HindustanTimes Sun,21 Dec 2014

Stranded in Iraq, youths held ‘captive’ by their employers

Pawan Sharma, Hindustan Times  Chandigarh, June 20, 2014
First Published: 11:41 IST(20/6/2014) | Last Updated: 11:50 IST(20/6/2014)

Anxious about their safety and desperate to come home, hundreds of youths from Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh are now stuck in New Baghdad and Basra and are literally in the captivity of their employers. New Baghdad is one of the nine administrative districts of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

Hindustan Times contacted three Iraq- based youths — Tajinder Singh (009647817169069), Rakesh Kumar (009647813527133) and Gaurav (009647502815037). They told HT that more than 100 construction workers were currently working for a company building the Basra International Stadium in southern Iraq, while about 50-odd youths employed by AKG company, constructing a stadium in New Baghdad, were not being allowed to leave the strifetorn Iraq by their employers.

“We are tense, afraid… We want to come home, but our company is not permitting us, while no help is coming from the Indian embassy in Baghdad. Can you do something?” is how Gaurav, a native of Phagwara town in Punjab’s Kapurthala district, reacted in a choked voice, saying that he is one of the nearly 50 youths from Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh stranded in New Baghdad.

According to Gaurav, 21, AKG company, which is constructing the Paralympic Stadium and a hospital in New Baghdad, had hired him two years ago.

“But the company is not allowing all us Indians (about 50) to return to our country. We urge the Indian embassy in Baghdad to intervene. So far no one has come forward to evacuate us,” he rued.

Among those hired by AKG company, as per Gaurav, 12 workers are from Haryana, 10 from Himachal Pradesh and the rest from Punjab. The extremists, he said, are about 30km away from the construction sites of their company.

Equally grim is the plight of 100-odd Punjab origin construction workers — mostly youths working in Basra international stadium. Rakesh Kumar, who hails from Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district, said his company was neither releasing the salary of past six months nor allowing the workers to leave. He said despite reports of 40 Indians being abducted by the invading militia from Mosul, their employer was remorseless.

“Assi samundar de kol han, 10 km shahar ton bahar. Saadi koi sunwai nahin ho rahi. Maut samne najar aa rahi hai. Assi Chandigarh de Sector 41-D de agent di madad nal ithhe aaye han. Naa to sadde kol paise hege te naa company sanu saddi chhe mahine di tankha de rahi hai. Mere 4,000 dollar bakaya ne company kol... tussi kuchh madad karo (We are near the sea, around 10km from the twon. No one is listening to us. We can see death in front of us. We came here with the help of an agent from Sector 41D in Chandigarh. Neither dow have any money, nor is the company paying us seix months’ due salary. It owes me $400... you, please help me,” Kumar said, who went to Iraq in April 2013 as a construction worker.

Earning his bread and butter as a worker in a low-end restaurant in Basra for the past four years, another Punjabi youth, Tajinder Singh, and his co-workers Happy and Mandeep of Gurdaspur district were equally distraught. Semi-literate and alone, Tajinder on Thursday made distressed phone calls to his relatives in Punjab, asking them to book air tickets to help him return to India.

When HT reached him over the phone, Tajinder, 25, said, “Initially, I was gathering information from the internet about ‘maar-kaat’ (killings) happening in northern Iraq. Now even the internet is also not working.”

Tajinder said despite Basra having an international airport, flights had been disrupted due to violence and air tickets were not easily available: “I want to come home safe. Can you book my air ticket? I will return every penny to you. Please do something.”

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