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Indians killed in Iraq: Families say we feel betrayed, were kept in the dark

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj told Parliament that 39 Indians, abducted by Islamic State terrorists in Iraq’s Mosul town three years ago, are dead and their bodies have been recovered.

india Updated: Mar 20, 2018 20:05 IST
Jatinder Mahal and Surjit Singh
Jatinder Mahal and Surjit Singh
Hindustan Times, Jalandhar/Amritsar
Indians,Sushma Swaraj,external affairs minister
Seema (left), her sons Karan (centre) and Arjun and her mother in-law Jeeto (right) react following confirmation by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj that her husband Sonu had been killed in Iraq. The family lives in Chawinda Devi village, some 22 kilometres from Amritsar. (Sameer Sehgal/HT)

The grieving families of the 39 construction workers, whose bodies were found in Iraq after they were abducted by Islamic State terrorists in Iraq in 2014, said on Tuesday they were given false assurance for years by the Centre, which said that the men were alive.

Gurpinder Kaur, the sister of Punjab resident Manjinder Singh who was killed in Iraq, heard the news on television, and refused to believe that her brother was dead because she said external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj told her that her brother was alive.

“Our fate is like that of the victims of 1984 anti-Sikh violence who are still being deprived of justice,” Gurpinder, who galvanised the families of the missing men in the region, said.

She said it was unfair that they learned about the news from television channels and not the Union government. “The families kept trying to call the office of Sushma Swaraj, but no one picked up the phone,” she alleged.

This proves that the government was not sincere about rescuing the missing men, she said.

Gurpinder Kaur, sister of Manjinder Singh killed in Iraq, speaks to the media on Tuesday. (ANI twitter)

“I heard this on television. Until the MEA (ministry of external affairs) does not contact me, I will not believe this,” Gurpinder said. “We should have been contacted as soon as they received the information. Had that been done it would not have been such a huge blow. We feel betrayed from all sides.”

Gurpinder said Swaraj “cared only about her reputation”.

“Yes, she was supposed to announce this in Parliament first but he was part of our family,” she said. “She used to say they’re like her children, if that’s the case where’s her sorrow?”

The minister, Gurpinder added, had been saying all along that he was alive and they were tracing the location of the abducted workers.

Swaraj earlier said in the Rajya Sabha that their bodies were recovered from Badosh — a village in the northwest of Mosul — and their identities established through DNA testing although it was not immediately known when the Indians were killed.

The mortal remains, which were exhumed from a mass grave, will be brought back to India on a special plane and handed over to their relatives, Swaraj said.

A group of 40 Indian workers, mostly from Punjab, were taken hostage by the IS when it overran Iraq’s second largest city Mosul in 2014.

Of the 40 men, Harjit Masih from Gurdaspur managed to escape by faking his identity as a Muslim from Bangladesh and claimed to have witnessed the massacre of the others. But the government rejected Masih’s version.

The family members of Gobinder Singh of Murar village in Kapurthala were equally distraught when they first heard the news. Amarjeet Kaur, Gobinder’s wife, said her family now wants to see him one last time.

“We were kept in the dark ... The government should hand over the bodies to us as soon as possible,” an inconsolable Amarjeet said.

The sole breadwinner of the family, Gobinder went to work in a construction company in Iraq in 2013 to shore up his domestic finances after taking a loan of Rs1.5 lakh.

“I would have never let him go to Iraq had I known that he will never come back,” Amarjeet said.

Davinder Singh, Gobinder’s brother, said the government had been lying all along and that it failed to take the right action to bring his brother back safely. He said that even Masih claimed that the 39 men were gunned down on June 15, 2014, but the government kept lying.

Swaraj told the families of the workers last year that an Iraqi official, quoting intelligence sources, had told the minister of state for external affairs General (retd) VK Singh that the Indians were made to work at a hospital construction site and then shifted to a farm before they were put in a jail in Badosh.

Davinder said they learnt of Gobinder’s death from a Union government spokesperson, who called them on Tuesday morning. The spokesman promised to bring the body back to India very soon.

The last four years have been harsh on the family. Amarjeet said her elder son Amandeep Singh, 19, dropped out of school after Class 12 and started working in a factory and that she works a household help to make ends meet. Their younger daughter Karandeep (17) is studying in a government school.

The family has demanded a government job for Gobinder’s son.

Ranjit Kaur and Balkar Singh, parents of Jatinder Singh and residents of Sialka village in Amritsar, were overcome with grief when they heard the news.

“The government kept us in the dark,” Ranjit echoed Amarjeet’s sentiments as she wiped her tears.

Relatives of other men also blamed the Centre for not doing enough.

Seema Devi, the wife of Sonu from Chawinda Devi village, said that the government continued to make promises to them without doing anything concrete.

Swarn Singh, the brother of Nishan Singh of Sangowana village who was also among those killed in Iraq, fumed that if the government had taken concrete steps, the 39 Indians could have been saved.

“My husband went to Iraq in 2013. We are left with nothing now. I have nowhere to go with my kids. We have no male members anymore. My father, father-in-law and now my husband is dead,” Usha, the widow of Surjit Singh alias Sonu, said.

Usha claimed the family had borrowed money to send Sonu to Iraq. “We spent around Rs 2.5 lakh and even mortgaged our house,” she said.

The family has been getting a stipend of Rs 20,000 each month from the Punjab government every month, which it fears will stop now.

“We have nothing to ask from the government except that it brings back our people so that we can see them one last time,” cried Usha.

The Congress also criticised the government over “the delay” in announcing the deaths of the men and giving false hope to the families of the men.

“Why did the govt give false hope to the nation for three and a half years that the people were still alive? That was disappointing behaviour,” Congress legislator Shashi Tharoor said in a tweet.

Swaraj rejected the allegations by victims’ families that they were given false assurances by the Centre, saying “it wasn’t a falsehood, this was a tireless effort”.

She also said she was duty-bound to tell Parliament first about their death before informing their relatives.

“We had been saying that we neither have the evidence of them being alive nor the evidence of them being dead. We maintained this in 2014 and 2017,” she said.

“I can understand the anger of families, I see it as a natural reaction but I would like to say that I have never kept them in the dark,” she added.

(With agency inputs)

First Published: Mar 20, 2018 14:03 IST