| Sukhdev Singh with his mother Jaspal Kaur after arriving at Makrauna Kalan village. (AFP)
Sept. 3: Lost to the world for 42 days, a tumultuous welcome greeted Sukhdev Singh as he alighted from a Punjab government vehicle to rush into the outstretched arms of his mother at his village, Makrauna Kalan.
As some of the onlookers cried at the emotional reunion, mother Jaspal remembered the Nepali hostages who were killed by their captors earlier this week in Iraq.
“It is a happy as well as a sad occasion for me. Happy because my son has come home unharmed. Sad because 12 Nepalis could not. They also had mothers. If it is joy here, there is sadness in their homes. We must not forget them. I can understand the pain their mothers are going through,” she said, wiping her eyes with her chunni.
Around the family, people were dancing to the beat of dhol. Jaspal, too, soon shed her inhibitions and joined in.
Sukhdev recalled how he and his fellow hostages, Antaryami and Tilak Raj, would regret not being able to take part in the Prakash Utsav on September 1 (the 400th anniversary of the installation of the Guru Granth Sahib) at the Golden Temple. “Though late, we will go to Harmandir Saheb to pray now as family members feel our release is a gift given by Guru Arjan Dev,” he said.
After a tiresome journey of about nine hours from Delhi, which they reached at 6.35 in the morning, Antaryami and Tilak Raj arrived at the Una district headquarters in the evening.
“We’ll not go out of country any more and will work here. We’ll request the government to give us a job,” Tilak Raj said.
The two reached their respective villages when night had fallen, travelling as a part of a procession in an open jeep. People lined the streets and stopped them at least a half a dozen times.
At Antaryami’s house at Dehlan, a big crowd had gathered to hear readings from the Guru Granth Sahib. Antaryami went to sleep soon after but the celebrations continued late into the night.
Echoing his friends of nearly a month and half’s captivity, Sukhdev said: “If I can, I will leave the profession and look for something to sustain me and my family members. There is one thing for sure. I will never go back to Iraq. I will also relate my experience to those who want to go abroad to work and tell them to remain here if they can,” he said.
The three truck drivers were abducted by an Iraqi militant group on July 21.
At the airport in Delhi, they were greeted by family members and minister of state for external affairs E. Ahmed.
Sukhdev’s father Sher Singh and brother Harbinder had left yesterday for Delhi to accompany him back to the village, but for the rest of the family members, the last hours of wait was an agony as the flight from Kuwait, too, was delayed.
Every now and then, sister-in-law Karamjit would ask someone in the crowd of hundreds: “When are they coming' Have they left Delhi'”
“Sab da mooh mittha hona chaida hai (everyone must be offered sweets),” she said.
Langar (community feast) had been organised in the house by villagers since yesterday in anticipation of the arrival of hundreds of people. Everyone, many complete strangers, was requested not to leave without eating.
Harbinder said Sukhdev had not had the time to discuss his experience with the family. “I have still not been able to speak to him properly. Maybe after my sister ties a rakhi or after we come back from the gurdwara. But it seems it could be days before the family can get together to live in peace,” he said.
Sukhdev said after being kept in a dark for all the 42 days, the first sight of sunlight had unnerved all the captives. “But we were never treated badly. We were also not told what was happening, with whom they were talking, when would we be released. We were simply told we were going home,” he said, watching the festivities around him with disbelief.
“This is looking like a dream,” he mumbled.
He expressed gratitude to the Indian government and his employer, a Kuwaiti transport company, for their efforts in securing their release. “I still have not been able to figure out how hard the government worked to get us back. But I am sure they strove hard.
A weeping Sher Singh thanked the villagers and all those who had helped the family tide through the crisis. “We can never forget those strangers who simply came to offer us anything we needed,” he said, weeping.
Once the celebrations are done and Sukhdev has sat down to narrate his days of captivity, the family’s thoughts would return to repay its debts which reportedly run into a few lakhs.
“It was Sukhdev who was repaying from the money he earned in Kuwait. We are worried what will happen now after his return,” a relative said.