More than 40 Indians are believed to be in the custody of the Islamic State in hot spots such as Iraq, Libya and Yemen, which continue to attract healthcare workers and missionaries like Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who was grabbed by gunmen during a raid on an old people’s home in Aden last week.
Despite the abduction of 40 men from Punjab in Iraq in June 2014, construction workers and nurses from India continued to travel to the Middle East, drawn by the lure of jobs with dollar salaries and driven by the lack of domestic opportunities.
Others, like 55-year-old Uzhunnalil were missionaries who wanted to care for people in countries such as Yemen where governance and healthcare has been hit hard by months of fighting.
Though it is almost two years since the men from Punjab were taken hostage by the IS in Iraq, their families in Amritsar, Kapurthala, Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur say they have no information on their whereabouts even after a series of meetings with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.
Davinder Singh, a resident of Murar village in Kapurthala whose brother Gobinder Singh is among the abducted men, said the only information he’d received from the government is that the “kidnapped Indians are safe”.
Usha Rani, a resident of Churwali village whose husband Surjit Menka is among the abducted men, said the government “should clear the air and tell us the whereabouts of our family members”. She added, “We are tired now with the fake assurances of the central government.”
“We have only received assurances from the government and nothing else ever since my brother Manjinder Singh went missing in Iraq two years back,” said Gurpinder Kaur, a resident of Amritsar.
“The last meeting we had with the external affairs minister was in February in New Delhi and she assured us the hostages were alive and the government was putting in its best efforts to secure their release. Now we do not want these assurances or any other help from the government. All we ask for is to bring back the hostages. We can only pray for their safety,” she added.
Most of the families in Punjab have also been disheartened by the revelations of Harjit Masih, who escaped from the terrorists in Iraq. After being brought back to India, Masih said all 40 hostages had been killed but his claim has been rejected by authorities.
“The assurances that the government gave after Masih’s claim has kept us going. A lot of time has already passed, now the government must bring back Manjinder and the others or come out with the truth,” said Gurpinder Kaur.
In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the families of Tiruveedula Gopikrishna, Chiluveru Balaram and Ramamurthy Kosanam – all abducted in Libya last year - are anxiously awaiting information about them.
Gopikrishna and Balaram, both teachers, were abducted in July, while Ramamurthy, a physician, was kidnapped in September – all from Sirte area of the strife-torn country. In all cases, the men were on their way home for an annual vacation when they were taken hostage.
Gopikrishna hails from Tekkali in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh and Balaram from Karimnagar in Telangana. Kosanam, from Eluru in Andhra Pradesh, had been working in Libya since 1999 but had made plans to return permanently.
In July last year, the government said it had secured the release of two other Indians – Lakshmikant and Vijay Kumar – who were abducted in the Sirte area.
“I am in touch with the external affairs ministry, which says they are safe and that efforts are on to bring them back. Their word is the only hope we have,” said Muralikrishna, the brother of Gopikrishna, a 39-year-old MTech who was teaching computer science at Hoon near Sirte since 2007.
“With this prolonged absence of my brother – the main economic source – the family is facing a tough time here.”
Like many others, Gopikrishna, who has two school-going children, went to Libya for the better pay. “But lately even the salaries were irregular due to the strife in Libya,” said Muralikrishna.
In a village in Kerala’s Kottayam district, the relatives of Father Uzhunnalil have been praying for his safe return since they received news of his abduction in the Yemeni port city of Aden on Friday. Suspected IS members killed 16 people, including an Indian nun, at a home run by the Missionaries of Charity before abducting the priest.
Sister Sally, another Keralite who survived the attack, said she saw the terrorists tying the hands and legs of the priest and throwing him into a truck before speeding away. She was the only person who saw the gunmen abducting the priest.
Uzhunnalil’s relatives said he went to Yemen five years ago after working at a charity home in Bangaluru. He travelled to Ramapuram village three months ago to participate in events marking his mother’s death anniversary.
“We are totally in the dark. We were told the chief minister’s office is in touch with the MEA to ensure his safe return,” a cousin said.
Chief minister Oommen Chandy has spoken to Sister Sally, who hails from Thodupuzha in Idukki district and is now in a hospital in Aden. Efforts are on to fly her back to India.
External affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said on Tuesday there was no let up in efforts to trace the abducted Indians. “The government continues to make all efforts to get the release of all Indians held captive abroad,” he told HT.
There are at least 200 priests and nuns from Kerala, who are known for their service worldwide, working in strife-torn areas of Iraq, Yemen and Syria.
“Sadly most of the killed were nursing inured and aged people. They can kill us but they cannot take away our spirits,” said a senior priest from Kottayam.
The Middle East has always attracted Indian workers, who made a beeline for oil and chemical projects, construction, banking and nursing. Indians also head IT departments of major corporations.
In 2012, remittances from Indians in Gulf countries amounted to more than $30 billion, nearly half the total remittances of $69 billion.
(With inputs from Ramesh Babu, Harkirat Singh, Jatinder Mahal, Prasad Nichenametla and Palakh Dutta)