On the night of June
11, 2014, Harjit Masih (24), of Kala Afghana village in Punjab was abducted
along with 39 other Indian workers from Mosul amid the Islamic State in Iraq
and Syria’s (ISIS) stunning assault on the Iraqi city. Four days later,
according to Masih, all 40 Indians were asked to kneel shoulder to shoulder by
militants dressed in black near a railway track encircled by a hill.
Moments later the assault rifles went off. One by one the men dropped dead.
Masih claims to be the sole survivor, someone whom a bullet just grazed. He lay with the dead until the shooters left, and then got up. Splattered with blood, and dazed, he managed to get back on to the road—assisted by a tribal leader with a generous heart and a getaway car along the way—that finally led him to an Iraqi army checkpoint in Erbil from where an asset of the Indian embassy picked him up.
Masih was sent back to India a couple of weeks later and kept in Gurgaon, Noida and Bengaluru by the security agencies for three months. He doesn’t know which agencies—and Fountain Ink couldn’t independently verify this—though external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj told Parliament on November 27, 2014 that Masih was in the “protective care of the government”. The men assigned to him, he says, told him that he should not speak about the killing of others, that he should say he didn’t know anything.
He stuck to his story: Yes, 40 Indian workers at University Lake Towers, Mosul, were abducted and 39 killed. This part has been reported by the media, and denied and dismissed by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj in Parliament. She has said the government has six sources—it is extraordinary for the government to specify the number of sources, a fact of operational detail that has little public importance—that claim otherwise in writing, and that Masih’s account can’t be believed.
The government, on the advice of one its third-party sources, at least once provided medicines to ISIS as a goodwill gesture to ascertain more information on the workers and obtain proof of life, Fountain Ink has confirmed from sources at the highest levels of government. It is learnt that talks on this specific matter came to a stop when no proof of life was provided by the third party in contact with ISIS, though there were more demands for medicine.
The ministry, through its spokespersons, has been more measured, and has said that it refuses to deny hope to the families of 39 Indians till it has more evidence. In all its statements, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has omitted to tell the public that the workers repeatedly called the Indian embassy in Baghdad for help over four days, and asked their families in India to do the same. The embassy is said to have told them to sit tight and wait for the fighting to stop.
Vikas Swarup, spokesperson, MEA, told Fountain Ink that the government has only third-party sources and that it has no direct knowledge of the situation. He also said that the government does not have “any concrete proof of life”.
Vikas Swarup, spokesperson, MEA, told Fountain Ink that the government has only third-party sources and that it has no direct knowledge of the situation. He also said that the government does not have “any concrete proof of life.”
Fountain Ink interviewed Masih over three days and investigated his account, and was able to verify large parts of his story. The site where he worked exists, the places where he was kept by the militants can be traced—including the place at which Masih claims the workers were executed—and most details he provides are vouched for by Indian and Iraqi sources associated with the workers. The locations have been traced on the basis of information provided by sources in Mosul, and Masih’s account.
All the Iraqi sources confirmed the abduction of 40 Indian workers from Mosul, and those remaining in Mosul were unanimous that they met Masih after his escape. They have neither seen nor heard from any of the others.
Whether the massacre took place could not be independently verified—there are no known witnesses. The battle of Mosul left hundreds dead and disappeared, and which group or unit of the ISIS was responsible for what incident can’t be ascertained.
This is Harjit Masih’s story.
Days after his 19th
birthday, Harjit Masih was at the passport office in Amritsar. His dreams had
already taken him to Dubai, a place where he thought a partially educated
Indian like him could make it. A few years later, in July 2013, he was seated
on the second last row of a flight to Dubai International Airport. Though Dubai
was merely a transit stop to Basra in Iraq, it was also a realisation of his
dreams. He took a selfie under a giant golden palm tree, he loitered about the
gold souk. It was only when he tried on designer aviators and stared at his
reflection that he felt like an impostor in this fairytale land far from home.
Home, the village of Kala Afghana in Gurdaspur district, its only market road as long as one of the travelators at Dubai International Airport, is a no-frills place. His house, an old mud construction, had more space for the two cows—their prized possessions—than the five family members crammed into a bedroom. Masih and the men he was travelling with knew each other from other villages in Gurdaspur. These were settlements tucked behind fields of wheat and rice, where the threat of drugs loomed high and opportunity remained low, a circumstance that provided the impetus to go to a place as uncertain and volatile as Iraq.
Not all Gulf countries are equal. Desperation decides the destination. Dubai is the most sought after, as is Doha, but for the downtrodden like Masih, Iraq was a better option. Wages in Dubai range from ₹15,000 a month, but those in Iraq start at ₹25,000 because of the dangers involved.
Masih took a loan against his house and paid his uncle, the agent, ₹1.5 lakh to work in Iraq. When the men landed in Basra, nobody waited for them at the airport, nor was there a job. They made nervous phone calls from a SIM card they had bought at the airport, led by Kamaljit Singh. Kamal, as he was called, was an old hand at the Gulf game, having spent 12 years in the Middle East. He negotiated with the agent in Gurdaspur who mentioned a factory in Baghdad and later, Kamal spoke in fluent Arabic to the taxi driver who dropped them at the factory where Indian labourers had previously worked.
Two weeks went by at the factory but there was no work. On the walls of the labour quarters, names and numbers of previous workers were scrawled in Hindi. The men started calling the numbers. A few misses later, they got lucky: work was available; people needed to build towers in Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. A couple of days of negotiations between the agent in Gurdaspur and the Iraqi owner led to a deal: the men from Punjab would build the University Lake Towers in the Jamia district of Mosul, within the University of Mosul area, at the end of July 2013.
The agent is now in Dubai but he did not reply to Fountain Ink’s calls.
Their place of work and residence abutted the College of Agriculture and Forestry within the University of Mosul. In the pictures they uploaded on Facebook, the green façade of the Agriculture Department is clearly visible. Working in Jamia was also considered safe in a city of sectarian tensions between Shia and Sunni because it was the base of the 2nd Division, an elite unit of the Iraqi army.
Despite the 2nd Division, car bombs and suicide bombers, coordinated explosions and a mounting death toll came to characterise life in Mosul during Masih’s first year in the city. He was ordered to never leave the construction site, and he says he never did.
Masih hadn’t been told life would be so precarious. All he wanted was to transform his small village home into a concrete bungalow like his neighbour who had built his through remittances sent from Muscat.
Life was good in
Mosul. Payments were regular and Masih wired ₹65,000 to his mother in his first
four months. He struck up a friendship with Hassan, one of the 52 Bangladeshi
workers working at University Lake Towers, and together they picked up bits of
Arabic. (Efforts to trace the Bangladeshi workers have been unsuccessful).
During the day, he spent hours working with steel and had learnt a great deal about construction despite being an electrician by trade. He was allotted the bottom bed of a bunker in an air-conditioned tent that housed about 20 workers. A dry ration of rice and rajma was delivered by Abu Kareem (name changed), a local employee of Tariq Noor al-Huda, the Baghdad-based construction firm that employed the workers. Over the months, Abu Kareem would become a father figure to the men—many of them in their early 20s—on site as well as provide recharge coupons for their mobiles.
Other mothers recall their sons as being content with their jobs. Simranjit Singh ran off without telling his mother and called her from Delhi airport in fits of hysteria.
“I am doing this for us,” he had told her.
She had lost a nephew to smack and had seen her brother spiral into a depression that culminated in suicide. “At least there he would have been safe,” she said on a hot sweltering day in her village of Babowal.
In the last few phone calls, he had promised to buy her an inverter because the power always ran out. He had WhatsApped images to his sisters of himself with an Acer laptop that he promised to pass on to his nieces and nephews.
Kamal, the Arabic speaker in the group who had transformed his village by putting up its first big concrete house through remittances from Dubai, regularly updated his Facebook profile. There were pictures of him and the other men monkeying around with wooly hats outside their tents where lines of laundry hung. Others posted selfies with local workers and Abu Kareem. Manjinder Singh posted pictures of himself with Hamad and Mohammed (names changed), the chief engineer and surveyor, and of the top bunk of the bed he occupied.
But Facebook isn’t real life and what the men withheld was this: the agent who had organised their travel and negotiated their employment had only managed to get them tourist visas.
But Facebook isn’t real life and what the men withheld was this: the agent who had organised their travel and negotiated their employment had only managed to get them tourist visas. He had left the task of securing work visas to the workers themselves, something they found impossible to accomplish. Their boss, the arbab, seldom if ever showed up and when they approached the manager, he would make excuses: “too busy this week, next week.”
By June 2014, the men had overstayed by eight months and would incur a stiff penalty upon departure. As is customary, the arbab had taken their passports upon arrival and locked them in a safe at the company’s offices.
Seven months after they started working, in February 2014, the salaries stopped. “Tomorrow. Next Week. Cash flow problems,” were some of the excuses. By the end of May last year, the men just had hope. “We believed we would be paid so we just worked and waited,” Masih said.
Stories about the upheaval in the region took centrestage as local workers talked about how the war in Syria had spilled over into Iraq. They wagered money on whether an al-Qaeda assault was imminent and once Fallujah—the city where US marines fought the bloodiest battle of the Iraq war in 2004—fell to an al-Qaeda affiliate, Masih recalls the local sentiment: “The questions wasn’t if the war would spread all over Iraq, but when.” However, work continued at University Lake Towers.
Hamad, the chief
engineer on the project, usually a composed man, was a ball of nerves. On the
morning of the June 6, 2014, he was scampering about, lifting papers, dumping
files into a big black plastic bag. In a conversation from the UAE, he told me
that he had told the workers, “Nothing to worry about. Keep working,” even as
he reversed out of the compound. Soon the other locals employed at University
Lake Towers packed their belongings.
“Not to worry. This is al-Qaeda style. They will make some noise and in two or three days it will be over,” said Mohammed, the surveyor. In a recent conversation from Mosul, he told me that in those days, the labourers were desperate to leave and had even offered to pay the Iraqis money to take them away, but nobody had thought it would get this bad. “You are from another country, they won’t touch you,” Masih had been told.
When the locals departed, they left an inactive construction site with cranes and trucks and three tents of Indian and Bangladeshi workers who had no money and no passports in the middle of the most daring assault ISIS had launched upon an adversary.
On the night of June
9, when ISIS made its final push for Mosul, Masih stood under a sky lit by the
reds of rocket launchers and oranges of explosions, even as a curfew and a
gradual shutdown of street lamps engulfed parts of the city in darkness.
University Lake Towers were a road away from the Iraqi army’s 2nd Division and
so the labourers had the finest seat in this theatre of war.
“When al-Qaeda was arriving near us, the night would be lit with red lights. Where there were tall buildings, there were bombs. The camps were in the centre of action because they were next to the army base, and when a rocket was launched we could see them take off. We didn’t know anything even though we were neighbours. We just heard the noises, doof, doof, all night. When we heard the noise, we couldn’t go to sleep,” Masih told me.
When the shelling became a near constant, the men broke into the prefabricated rooms that comprised the office. The English speaker of the group Harish Kumar—who had worked as secretary to Hamad, the chief engineer—had the keys to the safe. He took out all the passports, according to Masih. (By the accounts presented to me by Mohammed, the passports were delivered the following morning by a middle man.)
By then it was too late to leave. The city was under lockdown as ISIS chased out the 2nd Division, took Turkish personnel hostage, and massacred civilians and armymen in what is their greatest military victory so far.
The workers asked for help wherever they could. There were a series of pleas that got increasingly desperate, from phone calls to families, to the agent who sent them to Iraq, to the Indian embassy in Baghdad.
Calls to the embassy began in earnest from June 9, 2014. According to a few family members calls began even earlier on June 6.
On the morning of June 9, Harish and Kamal called the embassy and the initial response was that the problem would sort itself out in a few days as it had done in the past. “We were 700 kilometres away, how could we help them?” says a source in the MEA who has knowledge of the events in Iraq.
On the morning of June 9, Harish and Kamal called the embassy and the initial response was that the problem would sort itself out in a few days as it had done in the past. “We were 700 kilometres away, how could we help them?” says a source in the MEA who has knowledge of the events in Iraq.
There was no help. It is this lack of response during an active phase of war that pushed the workers to seek the assistance of the militant group which had conquered the city.
On the question of
phone calls to the embassy, Vikas Swarup, spokesperson, told Fountain
Ink that the information was “misplaced” and that there is no “log
sheet” of the calls. He said: “The embassy did get in touch with the company
each time a call came. They spoke to people at Tariq Noor al-Huda and the
embassy was informed that they (workers) were taken care of until June 16,
2014. It is the company’s duty to deliver them to us.”
He said that the company “did misinform” the government or that they “misread the gravity of the situation”.
On the morning of June 10, when the ISIS victory was all but guaranteed and the world woke up to the news, the workers hadn’t slept a wink. The need for chai led one out of the compound to the milkman across the street who shared tales about the Sunni militants bravado and laughed at the sight of elite army officers who threw away their uniforms and ran into the hills around Mosul. With no calls from their boss and a complete shutdown, Masih recalls the group feeling abandoned.
Then Abu Kareem came to the company.
Abu Kareem, the local
employee, looked upon the workers as his own children. An elderly man with a
large heart and a big stomach, he had been a father figure to the men. It was
he who brought chicken soup his wife cooked when one of the men felt unwell, it
was he who lent money when they didn’t have enough to buy phone credit, and it
was he who showed up the morning after the battle with a bag of rice and rajma.
“Stay indoors my boys,” he said with a look of desperation. “God will protect us all.”
“Help us leave,” the workers pleaded as they gathered around him. “Give us our money and take us out,” said others. Abu Kareem was almost reduced to tears. “Wallahi, I wish I could. Wallahi, I wish I could,” he kept repeating aloud. Abu Kareem confirmed to me that this conversation did take place.
Just as the discussion was about to get heated, two Bangladeshis slipped out to seek the counsel of the militants who had set up base at the headquarters of the 2nd Division, less than a couple of minutes’ walk away. (It is unclear whether this was a group decision or the Bangladeshis acted upon their own will. Masih says he was uninformed. Abu Kareem confirmed this to me.)
Moments later, two pick-up trucks with militants pulled into the compound of University Lake Towers. Armed with assault rifles, they pushed Abu Kareem. “Give them their salaries, give them what you owe them,” said a militant in his 50s. He wore a white kandoora with an agal and gatara, the head dress that indicates seniority. This wasn’t an ISIS fighter in the black uniform with the black ski mask but a tribal leader.
Soon the conversation between the workers and the militants turned to a rescue mission. The militants, to everyone’s surprise, said they would transport the men to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Soon the conversation between the workers and the militants turned to a rescue mission. The militants, to everyone’s surprise, said they would transport the men to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan where shopping malls were open and construction sites were erecting tall towers.
Day turned into night
and the men readied for dinner. Masih was in the kitchen when two sedans pulled
into the compound. About 10 men emerged. They wore black T-shirts and black
pants and their faces were covered with ski masks. Only the white of their eyes
“These were gunda-types (thugs),” Masih recalls.
They carried two plastic bags and ordered the group to send two men who would speak on their behalf. Kamal, the Arabic speaker, and Harish, the English speaker, were chosen. The militants gave them two plastic bags that contained lentils and salt. Then they ordered the group to sit on the floor.
After half an hour of discussions, the men were told to pack their bags. They would be moved to a safer spot in Erbil, they were told. The fighters asked for their passports. “They said ‘we will stamp an iqamah (visa) and you will be able to leave’,” Masih said.
But these men weren’t government, I asked Masih.
“There was no government. There was just al-Qaeda. They said they were in control now and would soon issue their own currency. Gold coins. We believed them. We trusted them because we had no one else we could rely on,” he said.
So the Indian and Bangladeshi labourers handed over their passports.
A truck pulled in and the men climbed on. They drove for about five kilometres in the dark to Al-Dawassa Road crossing the river Tigris. Al-Dawassa Road is in the heart of Mosul in the Jamhuriya Area, close to the municipality. The group was made to stand at the Al-Qudus Building where about 35 militants had gathered. It was around 10 p.m.
According to an Iraqi source intimately involved with this operation, the aim was to escort the men to a secure location and hold them at the Al-Qudus Building. The plan was foiled when a rocket hit the base of the building. People ran in different directions and minutes passed before the militants regained control.
“Hindia, (Indian) saf. Saf. Saf. Line. Line. Line,” said one militant in plainclothes.
Led by five men in black uniforms, the workers were escorted through dark streets. When someone put on a torch on their mobile to see the road ahead, the militants went berserk.
“No light! No light!” they yelled.
They walked for about 15 minutes until they arrived at a basement in a market place with shops on either side of the street. They were ordered to sit on the floor next to a mobile and apparel store. When one of the men called home, the militants ordered all mobiles switched off. Then they gave workers Coke and Sprite and Fanta with biscuits.
As morning dawned, someone in the group finally said what all of them knew: “I think we have been kidnapped.”
The morning of June 12
came with the sound of a garbage van, the only sign that civic bodies were
still functioning. There was no traffic light, there were hardly any cars, and
the workers were surprised when two men came to open the mobile and clothes
“What are you doing here? Get away,” said the mobile store man. The man had taken them for trespassers until he saw two men with black T-shirts and pants and automatic weapons. The shop-keepers said no more.
The captors were vigilant, allowing people to go to the washroom in twos and watching them from the street as they went. Not far from where they were held were two hotels and nearby was a mosque, though the minaret could not be seen. Just before the call to afternoon prayers, one of the shopkeepers gave the men some biscuits and another gave them some water. They also had cold drinks. Soon after, the shopkeepers closed their stores and didn’t return.
At about 4 p.m. a fighter in plainclothes returned with a plastic bag that he held up. “I have your passports, let’s go,” he ordered.
The Indians and Bangladeshis followed. They boarded a truck, crammed together, and travelled for about five kilometres to Al-Mansoor Industrial area. There were many warehouses and the truck stopped in front of a blue and white one. The militants ordered the workers inside and instructed them to “not venture out, not to make too much noise, not to come by the main door”.
Then the militants gave them samoun (unleavened bread) and honey with khubuz, small packets of juice, as well as detergent and soap. Despite being hostages, for a brief moment Masih recalled feeling like a guest.
Soon after the doors to the warehouse were bolted from the outside, the men called home with news of their kidnapping.
Simranjit, from Babowal, told his sister, “They are taking care of us, do not worry, we have not been harmed.”
Kamal, from Hoshiarpur, called his wife and first enquired about his 10-month old daughter and then calmly explained the situation. “Terrorists have picked us up. They are good people, they say they will take us to Erbil. I have been in touch with the embassy,” she recalls him saying.
Manjinder from Bhoewal, called his sister. “We have called the embassy. They say they cannot help us. See whom you can call,” he told her.
Gucharan Singh, from Jalal Usman, told his mother to call the agent “and to buy a ticket and get me out of here”. But she had no way of going into town and his father had been admitted into hospital, she told him.
The workers continued to make phone calls to their families during the course of the day. They told their families they were being kept in a factory that manufactured cottonwool and gauze. They said they were being kept with the Bangladeshis in a massive warehouse about 25 feet high. Confirming Masih’s account, they all stated that they weren’t allowed to go out.
Masih recalls shafts at the top of the warehouse that lit it up by letting light filter through. He had even seen the assembly line and shared the information with his cousin Robin Masih. Life in captivity was normal: they showered and washed their clothes, and at 2.30 p.m. and 8 p.m. they were served hot lunch and dinner. Someone even commented that they were better looked after here than they had been at their arbab’s company. The meals came in white trays and were always the same: rice and samoun and rajma for lunch and dinner. Though they were confined to one space, Masih doesn’t recall feeling threatened.
“We didn’t think they would kill us, we thought they were here to save us. Why would people who have been feeding us for three days kill us?” asked Masih.
On the second day in captivity, Kamal and Harish enquired about how long they would stay. “Until necessary,” replied a militant. On the morning of June 13, when the men ran out of phone credit, the militants brought them recharge cards. Finally, three phones remained operational and the men would “missed call” their families back home from one of the three numbers.
On June 13 and 14, Kamal and Harish called the Indian embassy in Baghdad several times on behalf of the workers, as did their families. They claim to have spoken to D. V. Singh at the Chancery while in captivity but there was no help.
On June 13 and 14, Kamal and Harish called the Indian embassy in Baghdad several times on behalf of the workers, as did their families. They claim to have spoken to D. V. Singh at the Chancery while in captivity but there was no help. Phone calls from Manjinder’s sister, Gurpinder Kaur, to the Iraqi embassy in Delhi yielded no results either. The men were told to have “faith in God” by officials at the Indian embassy in Baghdad. They were also informed about the “700 kilometre” distance between Mosul and Baghdad and how Mosul was under lockdown.
“It was a highly fluid period. Nobody thought Mosul would fall the way it did. The embassy could not have reacted in any other way. But yes, the embassy did miss the distress calls,” says an MEA official intimately involved in the operations in Iraq. Information that 40 Indian workers were being held hostage was known to officials from June 13, but the government went public on June 18.
Then MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin in a June 18 press briefing, cited the International Red Crescent and other sources, and said 40 Indian workers in Mosul had been “kidnapped”. He said the government hadn’t received any ransom demands, and that its main sources of information at that moment were humanitarian agencies.
The morning of June 15
was different. The men who brought breakfast had changed. There were more of
them outside, about 30-35 militants, and they spoke sternly. At lunch time they
brought two plates of food instead of one. They hadn’t done this over the past
couple of days. This was at about 12.30 p.m. in Mosul.
Twenty-nine out of the 40 families that I spoke to maintain that the last phone call they received from the workers was between 2-5 p.m. on June 15. Most said they were fine and were being looked after and fed.
The only account that was jolting was Kamal’s, the group’s only Arabic speaker.
“He sounded extremely panicky, which is unusual for him. He said, ‘If anyone comes looking for me, if any one wants my identity, don’t give it to them. Don’t give anybody any proof about who I am,’ and then hung up. I knew something was wrong immediately,” says his mother.
At about 4 p.m., the militants ordered the Indians and Bangladeshis to get into separate groups. “We have the Indian passports, the Bangladeshi passports will arrive later. The Indians must come with us,” they said.
Outside, a truck with a large container waited. When Masih boarded he saw a small blindfolded man with hands tied behind his back. Then the door to the container was closed. Seconds later, it was suffocating. They fanned their T-shirts. Someone passed around a water bottle. There was no air and the truck was swerving from left to right, going over uneven terrain, up and down small slopes.
“We aren’t going to Erbil,” someone said.
When the truck was
opened half an hour later, Masih was momentarily blinded by the light. “Get out,”
shouted one of the militants. The men scrambled out, one after the other, into
a barren landscape. They were in the desert that surrounded Mosul, with hills
in the backdrop. There were about 10 trucks with 30-40 militants outside. The
sun was lower in the sky; it must have been about 4.30 p.m. A slight breeze had
set in. At a distance stood a communications tower. On the far eastern side was
a rail track, Masih recalls.
According to a source in Mosul who was aware of the movement of the workers, the Indians were taken to the deserts of Badosh on the outskirts of Mosul.
“What have you come to do here in Iraq?” barked a man in an ISIS uniform. Nobody responded.
“Get in line,” he thundered.
It was this order that made Masih realise what was going on. “Ab to hamara kaam hone wala hai (This is the end for us),” he recalls thinking.
The men began to cry.
They joined their hands together and begged for freedom.
Nobody listened. They were ordered to kneel on the ground. They pleaded some more.
“Please let us go, please. We will become Muslims,” someone said.
They were again ordered to kneel.
Masih was in the middle of the line; to his left was Samal from West Bengal and to his right was the heaviest man in the group and one of the oldest, Balwant Rai Singh from Punjab. The fighters talked among themselves standing behind the kneeling Indians.
Two men stood in front: one was the man from the container whose blindfold had been removed, the other was an ISIS militant who was holding a camera.
Allah-o-Akbar. Dak. Dak. Dak.
As soon as the first shot was fired, Samal dropped to the ground, in spite of the firing starting from the right. Masih followed him. He buried his face in the gravelly sand and just lay there.
As soon as the first shot was fired, Samal dropped to the ground, in spite of the firing starting from the right. Masih followed him. He buried his face in the gravelly sand and just lay there. Seconds later, Balwant Rai Singh fell on him, pressing him deeper into the ground. Balwant’s leg landed on his back pinning him down. With the weight of a dead man on him, he was unable to move.
“One bullet grazed me. I didn’t breathe, didn’t move, didn’t look up. I just lay there,” Masih says.
He says the firing lasted for about a minute and a half and that he couldn’t hear a thing once it stopped. He lay on the ground for about 20 minutes, playing dead and unable to move because of the weight of Balwant Rai Singh’s body. He turned his head left, he turned his head right, and could see the others lying flat on the ground. There were no militants to be seen. When he stood up, he saw bodies strewn all over the place, facing different directions.
“I couldn’t recognise people’s faces,” he says. “I couldn’t make sense of a thing.” Not far from where he stood one man lay flat on the ground his eyes open looking up into the cloudless sky. He was alive but had bullet holes all over him. He was covered in blood.
“Can you walk?” asked Masih. He waved his hands, gesturing no.
“I joined my hands together and said, ‘Sorry, but I have to go’,” and just like that Masih turned his back on the massacre.
“I didn’t know
where I was going, all I knew was that I wanted to go,” he recalls. He walked
towards the sun because his factory faced east. But it was nearing sunset. Time
had lost all meaning; when he thought he was walking east, he was going west.
Nothing made sense. The desert seemed to stretch forever, the hills shadowed
him. There was no man in sight.
He came across two bodies that lay on a rail track. He skirted the hills, careful not to expose himself. Half a kilometre or so later, he came across another heap of bodies.
“I thought I’d come back to the same place but there was a stench here, the stench of decaying flesh,” Masih says. So he knew these weren’t his men.
He kept walking till he reached a highway. Dazed and thirsty, he waved frantically at passing cars. These were few and far between, and no one was stopping for him. A while later, a yellow taxi slowed down only to chuck out a bottle of water. Masih took small sips of the warm water and kept walking.
Forty-five minutes later, a white car slowed and the driver rolled his windows down. “Please take me with you, I am in danger. Khaif. Khaif. Scared. Scared,” he said in the only Arabic he could muster.
The driver opened the front door and Masih got in. He tugged at the red thread around his neck; only disbelievers would wear this, he thought to himself as he yanked it out. After a kilometre, the driver made a call and another car pulled up in front.
“Go with him,” the driver said.
“Please no,” Masih begged. A burly man dragged him out and shoved him in the backseat of the car. A weapon lay on the floor. They will kill me now, he thought.
Masih heard the driver speak on the phone. “Hindia, Hindia, Indian, Indian,” was the one word he could understand.
The car finally stopped at a checkpoint with the hills in the backdrop. It was manned by armed men in black who immediately handcuffed Masih.
“What is your name? Where is your passport? Who are you?” they asked. “My name is Ali, I’m a Bangladeshi and I don’t have my passport,” he said.
“What is your father’s name? What do you do here? Why have you come here?” they asked.
“Khaif. Khaif. Scared. Scared,” he said and pretended to not understand a word of what they were saying. He wanted to go back to his company he told them. An elderly man, about 60, in a white kandoora called Masih him over. He was the only one without a gun and he ordered the men to uncuff Masih. The fighters called him Abu, “father”, a term of respect for an elder or person in a position of seniority.
“He said, ‘don’t worry, I will make sure you are okay.’ He was the kindest man I met that night,” recalls Masih.
As night fell Abu gave Masih a plate of rice and rajma. Masih tried to eat but had no appetite left. About 10 p.m., Abu ordered Masih into the backseat of the car and drove him to a big house in the centre of Mosul.
It was a grand house with marble floors. Many unmasked militants sat in the front of the house and more sat on the floor inside having dinner. Abu ordered Masih upstairs, where the rooms served as small detention centres. One of them held 10-15 men in army uniform. In another, where Masih was held, two handcuffed and blindfolded men were sitting on the floor. There was a small window through which Masih could squeeze through and he was flirting with the idea of jumping out when a militant ordered him downstairs and into a car. He saw a gun on the backseat.
Masih bolted back into the house. “Abu, Abu, where are you sending me?” he asked.
“Wallahi (you have my word), son, nothing will happen to you,” Abu said. Masih was escorted back to the car. The ISIS fighter gave him 5,000 dinars—a present from Abu. He was told to pay the taxi fare with the money. The journey to the factory took about 20 minutes and when Masih put his hands in his pocket, the driver waved him off.
Abu had taken care of it.
Towers, that barbed wire confinement, had never seemed so free, so promising
before. He snuck underneath a gap in the barbed wire and moments later a group
of dogs came barking. Already jumpy, he dashed back out and ran to the milkman
in his first fit of tears. The milkman lit a torch that shone on his wet face.
“Put that out, it’s me, Harjit,” he said.
“Harjit, what has happened? Why are you crying? Where are the others?” he asked.
Masih was bawling, unable to construct a sentence. He took a sip of water. He cried some more and then he told him his entire story.
“They are all dead?” asked the milkman.
“Yes,” replied Masih.
Masih pleaded with the milkman to let him sleep there until morning but the milkman called Mansoor (name changed), one of the contractors at University Lake Towers. He recounted bits of the tale.
“Send him over at once,” Mansoor ordered and so Masih walked to Mansoor who stood in the dim light of a mobile phone, motioning him over in silence. Then Masih cried some more.
“We need to get you out of here,” Mansoor said. He was transporting the Bangladeshis to Erbil the following morning and Masih could hitch a ride on one condition: he wasn’t to speak a word, nor could he reveal his identity. Mansoor ordered him back in the tent with the Bangladeshis who rushed to Masih as he recounted the tale for the third time.
They had been given their passports back and were allowed to return with their belongings. An hour later he showered, crusted bits of blood running into the water. He changed into a pair of clothes a Bangladeshi gave him and tried to sleep but couldn’t.
Soon after daybreak, a
car pulled into the compound of University Lake Towers. Mansoor organised the
men into two groups and took Masih in his car. They came to a checkpoint manned
by ISIS. They were in complete control of the city by now. Mansoor got off and
spoke to the gunmen. About 10 minutes later they were allowed to journey onward
to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Further along was an Iraqi army checkpoint, the first sign that they had left the zone of terror. They questioned Mansoor for about 15 minutes and let them go further. At the border of Erbil, where people were arriving in droves, Mansoor and his group were made to stop at the edge of a checkpoint.
The army was trying to scrutinise the massive outflow of people but the scene was too chaotic. Mansoor dropped the boys off and turned back to Mosul while it seemed as though everybody else was trying to get out.
The checkpoint was a few metres before a bridge and the officers asked the Bangladeshis and Masih for their passports. Masih’s passport had never been returned by the militants. They told the men they couldn’t cross through until their senior gave clearance and ordered them to stay under the bridge. That night they gave them khubuz, onion, cucumber, tomato and water. Masih used a Bangladeshi labourer’s phone to call home. He spoke to Robin who had heard about the incident on TV.
Manjinder Singh’s sister, Gurpinder Kaur, exasperated with the lack of response from the embassy which she had been calling from June 6 onwards, panicked when her brother didn’t call on the evening of June 15. Terrified and fed up with the lack of official assistance of response, she called ANI news agency on June 16, breaking the news about the abduction.
As the mainstream media picked up the news, helpline numbers were being flashed on TV. Masih’s cousin Robin gave him the number and told him to call the helpline and say that one was alive. While Masih waited under the bridge for a second night, Robin called the embassy and informed them that his cousin was alive. The embassy passed on a number for Masih through Robin. It belonged to an Indian restaurant owner in Erbil used as a local asset. Given that the Indian mission has no presence in Erbil, he had assumed the duties of the mission.
“I said ‘I have
come this far, at least help me now,’” Masih recalled of his first phone call
to the man, on his third night under the bridge, June 18, when the government
first acknowledged the kidnapping. Many people who had been held were running
from the checkpoint by now. A few Bangladeshis were planning an escape. Masih
asked if he could run with them but they looked upon him as a liability. So
Masih ran alone until an army van rounded them all up. Afraid he would be
thrown into jail for not having valid documents, he made an excuse that he was
getting water and slipped out and went to a taxi. From there he called the
number again. The asset arrived about 20 minutes later.
He pulled up in a red car, a smart looking man with a receding hairline. He walked straight to the guards. After a brief conversation, he walked to Masih and escorted him to his car, and Masih recounted the entire story.
“Are you lying?” he asked. He asked that question several times.
“No,” replied Masih. “Why would I lie?”
That night, the asset took Masih for a meal at a restaurant and assured him that he was safe. Over the next couple of days, he took Masih to meet various officials in Erbil. He got constant phone calls from Baghdad and New Delhi enquiring about Masih.
Images were sent to the man’s phone for verification, to identify if Masih knew the people in the photos. The asset refused to be interviewed for this story.
Four days later, two Indian officials came to meet Masih. They kept asking if he was lying. To verify his story, they called the Bangladeshis who recounted the same tale. The asset bought him clothes and put him up at his house. After the fifth or sixth night, he went for dinner at about 10 p.m. He returned at around 11 p.m. and told Masih to wake up early and be ready.
He was going to India.
Less than a fortnight later, Masih travelled from Erbil to Doha and then New Delhi. In Doha’s shiny airport, with stores of perfumes and showcases of watches, he felt his Gulf dream slipping away. But he knew one thing for certain: if the opportunity to return to the Gulf came up, he would take it in less than a heartbeat.
“That’s where dreams are made,” he said.
Harjit Masih was taken from the airport to a safe house. The house was “surrounded by a jungle and enclosed by a wall”. He was under constant surveillance. For a couple of days he was interrogated by a man who identified himself as Ved Sharma. Masih’s guards told him it was dangerous outside. Sometimes they said ISIS was looking for him and other times that he was in danger from the 39 families. He was promised a job and even sent to Bengaluru for two months where he trained to become an electrician.
Then he was brought back to a detention centre in Greater Noida and kept for months because his “certificate from Bengaluru wasn’t ready”. Finally, he was allowed to go home for 10 days and told a job awaited him at Dharamsala.
He was told to tell the media: “I don’t know what happened, I ran, I don’t know if they are alive, according to me they are dead.” He agreed.
After 10 days he called back, asking for a job. There was no answer. It was then that he decided to go to the media. Suddenly, Ved Sharma called back. He told him to go to Dharamsala. So he went with Robin and a man came to collect them. He dropped them off at a hotel and promised to return but never did.
A few days later, Masih returned home. On the advice of a panchayat member, he decided to hold a press conference. The following day, he publicly said 39 Indians had been massacred in Mosul on June 15, 2014.
Harjit Masih is a reviled figure among Gurdaspur families who have made nine trips to New Delhi to meet Sushma Swaraj. Each time they are told the workers are alive and that a search is underway. But an MEA source said there was no proof of life though the government had requested it.
Further, the source said that short of digging around Mosul, there was no way to ascertain whether they were dead or alive. The claim that they were working as unpaid labourers to build a mosque or a stadium remains unverified.
(Names of people spoken to in Iraq have been changed to protect their identities. Mosul continues to be under the control of ISIS, and the sources interviewed for this story have reason to fear reprisals.)
(Update Aug. 3, 2015 12:30 a.m. : The paragraph beginning 'On the night of June 9, ...', part of the story first published on July 31, went missing due to a technical glitch on the website. It has been restored. Fountain Ink regrets the error.)