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Second coming for Kargil prisoners

Wagah border, Aug. 9: For Lance Naik Jagsir Singh and Sapper Mohammed Arif, it was like an unprophesied second coming.

Five years after they “disappeared” during a demining mission in Drass after the Kargil war and were given up for “deserters”, Islamabad today handed the two soldiers back to India in exchange for four Pakistanis.

The two — belonging to the 108 Engineers regiment — had been captured by the Pakistan Army after they unwittingly strayed across the Line of Control in Mushkoh sector in the middle of September 1999. They were then branded prisoners of war and dumped behind bars.

“I don’t know how we were captured. I can’t remember anything. Bas pakde gaye. Ab dobara zinda ho gaya hoon. Kabhi lagta tha ki wapas nahin pahunchenge,” a choking Arif said, breaking into tears after crossing back into his homeland.

The soldiers, garlanded and given a hero’s welcome by the army, BSF and police, clutched on to the boxes of sweets gifted to them by the Pakistani Rangers and sobbed and cried unashamedly as family members hugged them again and again, all the while counting their blessings.

“I still cannot believe that I am back in my country. Bahut khushi hai,” an overwhelmed Jagsir said, as he cuddled his five-year-old daughter Kuldeep who was born two months after he went missing.

“We were not treated badly in Pakistan. We also did not find any Indian prisoners in our jail.”

Although the two languished in jail for over four years and their names were struck off the army rolls, things took a new turn last December. Thanks to the ongoing peace initiatives, the Pakistan director-general of military operations informed Indian counterpart Lt Gen. Amrik Singh Bahia that the two were biding time in Adiala jail in Rawalpindi.

Army spokesperson Brigadier V.K. Chauna said the handover had come about through the initiatives of the foreign, home and defence ministries “and consistent efforts and regular interaction between the two DGMOs”.

“Ever since the confirmation of the soldiers’ presence in Pakistani custody, the army has maintained regular contact with their families and relatives and also regularly conveyed their well-being.

“Immediate financial assistance was also provided. All service benefits were restored to the soldiers and their families. Their balance of pay amounting to over Rs 2 lakh each has been credited to their accounts. Rules will be followed for any extra compensation,” he said.

Singh and Arif were today taken for medical tests and driven to an undisclosed destination for questioning. If all is well, they will be sent back to their regiment and will have to be granted leave before they can return home. If they are found guilty of deliberately crossing the LoC, they stand to lose their jobs.

Jasgir, who kept hugging his parents, wife and child, repeatedly said: “It’s too good to be true.” He would remain a soldier and continue to do his duty to the army and his family, he said, as Kuldeep mumbled “Papa aa gaye.”

Arif, whose wife married again after he went missing, said he would devote quality time to his brother and sister-in-law. “They suffered a lot during my absence. I can understand the ignominy they must have gone through,” he said.

The three civilians who were handed back to Pakistan are Mohammed Ibrar Khan, Rashid Mahig and Nawabuddin. The fourth was a soldier, Sepoy Salim Ali Shah of the Northern Light Infantry, who was captured after he strayed into Indian territory at Khalra in November 2002.

“I would like both governments to release all prisoners on both sides as a human gesture. Dosti badhani chahiye, ghatani nahin,” Shah said at the immigration centre.

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