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Iraq hostage dialled home: Sister
Talk of handover to ‘some other authority’

The mother of Manjinder Singh and the family members of Sonu, both feared to be trapped in Iraq’s Mosul, show their photographs in Amritsar on Wednesday. (PTI)

Chandigarh, June 18: Manjinder Singh had spoken to his sister Gurvinder last Sunday to tell her he had been abducted, but she has been unable to reach him on phone since and appealed to the Centre today to trace him and get him home.

The 24-year-old from an Amritsar village had gone to Iraq 11 months ago in search of work. He is among the 40 Indian construction workers taken hostage from Mosul, where they were working at a football stadium.

“Manjinder’s voice sounded scared when he called to inform that he and some of the others from Amritsar had been taken into custody by insurgents. He said his abductors wanted to hand everyone to some other authority to ensure they were not harmed,” Gurvinder said from her village Bhoewal, where she teaches in a primary school.

Her brother had gone to the war zone because “he was not getting a suitable job here”. He wanted to help the family, which owns a small plot and is in debt, with a regular income. Their father is ailing.

“He was scared. But he told me not to worry. He, however, lamented that the construction firm he was working for had fled the site and taken everyone’s documents with them,” Gurvinder said.

It was not clear how Manjinder had been able to telephone his family after being taken captive.

Television channel CNN-IBN quoted the relative of another kidnapped worker as saying he too had called. “He was crying on the phone when we spoke on Sunday. The kidnappers are giving food to the victims. They are keeping them in a cotton factory,” the channel quoted a cousin of Charanjit Singh as saying.

“We appeal to the government to trace everyone and bring them back,” said Gurvinder, who is in touch with families of several others kidnapped who are also from Amritsar district.

Most, if not all, of the 40 Indians kidnapped from Iraq’s second largest city are from Punjab, a state from where at least 20,000 youths migrate abroad every year, a large number of them illegally.

“There are no jobs available in Punjab and youths are willing to go anywhere in the world to work to earn money, no matter how dangerous. In Iraq, they mostly work for construction companies, many as labourers. Many board flights to unknown destinations and land in the hands of human sharks who trade them for profit. There is no government policy in Punjab that can give them jobs and make them stay back,” said historian Gurdial Singh Dhillon.

Delhi residents at a candle light demonstration at Jantan Mantar over the Iraq crisis. (PTI)

In 2004, three migrant workers from Punjab, Antaryami, Sukhdev and Tilak Raj, were abducted in Iraq. In 2011, 15 youths, duped by unscrupulous travel agents, returned from Baghdad to recount their chilling experience. But this has not deterred others pursuing the dream of a better future.

Most who go to Iraq work as masons, drivers and carpenters. The 40 abducted in Mosul, among them 15-16 from Amritsar district alone, are construction workers.

“To others, Punjab may sound to be prosperous state but the ground realities are different. Jobs even for skilled workers are dwindling and the youths have no other option but to fall prey to travel agents who take them to Dubai and push them into Iraq. Their travel documents, too, are snatched from them and many live in horrible conditions,” Dhillon said.

Many sell or mortgage ancestral land, pawn jewellery and force family members to take loans to be able to go abroad in search of a better life.

“What do we earn from labouring in the agricultural fields? At the most Rs 150 daily? Abroad, we can earn up to Rs 1 lakh a month. The youth are ready to pay any price for that,” said Harjeet Singh, who returned after three years working as a carpenter in Dubai.

Nurses stranded

Sixty-one nurses from Kerala are stuck in Iraq’s conflict zone, according to the state department for Non-resident Keralite Affairs (NORKA).

“We have information on 61 nurses from Kerala in some of Iraq’s disturbed areas — 42 in Tikrit and 19 in Diyala,” NORKA chief executive officer P. Sudeep said, adding that no one had the exact numbers so there could be more.

“The 61 referred to is based on the number of calls that we received at the 24x7 assistance centre that we opened for the distressed nurses and their families,” he explained. The Centre said there were 46 nurses stranded in Tikrit.

No nurse from Kerala was reported to have been hurt in the blast in the Bakuba hospital in Diyala, he said.

Sudeep said he had spoken to some of the nurses and learnt that they were mostly holed up in the hospitals. Red Crescent volunteers had reached the hospitals and distributed food and water. Their residential quarters are some distance away from the hospitals, but travel was not a safe option as of now.

Evacuation would be possible only when the road to the airport was negotiable, Sudeep said. Reports reaching here pointed to the presence of ISIS militants on the highways and it was impossible to evacuate the nurses while the militants stayed put, he said.

Chief minister Oommen Chandy has said his office was closely monitoring the situation. Replying to questions in the Assembly yesterday, minister for NORKA K.C. Joseph had said he had information on 44 nurses stranded in Tikrit.