Where are the 39 Indians ISIL captured in Mosul?
There has been little progress since their abduction in 2014, prompting outrage from their families and global activists
Amarjeet Kaur remembers the exact date, time and duration of her last conversation with her husband. It was the morning of June 15, 2014.
She remembers what they discussed too. "He spoke about the fighting near him," she says.
Since then, her life has become one long wait.
Her husband Gobinder Singh, a construction labourer, was abducted along with 38 other Indian citizens working in Iraq in June 2014 when ISIL took control of Mosul city. She has heard nothing of his fate since.
Left to raise two children by herself, Ms Kaur, 43, who works as a tailor near Jalandar, Punjab, has continued to hope against hope.
“He told me they were taken on June 11 and were being held in a basement of a building while fighting went on nearby,” she told The National.
Forty Indian workers were abducted that day, but one escaped and several of those taken managed to sneak mobile phones with them and contacted their families.
In 2014, before they were completely cut off from the outside world, I managed to speak to two of the abductees - one of whom was Gobinder.
His brother Davinder Singh told me he believed Gobinder was trying to flee Mosul with a group of other Indian labourers when he was stopped by his employer. The construction company he worked for took away his passport forcing him to stay in Mosul which led to his eventual abduction, his brother said.
Back in 2014, not even the hostages knew for sure who their abductors were. ISIL had attacked Mosul on June 4 as they launched their lightning offensive across northern Iraq.
However, the abductors never issued any public demands. Nor did anyone claim to be holding the 39 Indians hostage.
ISIL never formally admitted to the crime, but it is widely believed the insurgents were responsible for it.
So what happened to the 39 Indian workers in Iraq?
Much of what is known about the case - and its investigation - hinges on the testimony of one man, who claims to be the only person who escaped.
Harjit Masih said the other Indians had “most likely” been executed by the insurgents.
Indian authorities detained Mr Masih in 2015 and interrogated him repeatedly, but he was unable to provide more details of his escape or the fate of his fellow labourers.
There has been little progress over the years to determine their whereabouts, prompting outrage from their families and global activists.
The recent victory over Mosul by the Iraqi army, however, has brought fresh hope for their families and the Indian government is revisiting the case.
Last month, India's minister of external affairs, Sushma Swaraj, revealed she had contacted the prime minster of Iraq on the day he declared Mosul liberated from ISIL. Ms Swaraj also said he instructed VK Singh, one of her department's ministers of state, to go to Iraq and conduct inquiries.
On July 26, after almost three years of silence, Ms Swaraj told parliament why her ministry has refused to declare the victims dead. "Declaring anyone dead without proof is a sin and I won't commit a sin," she said in response to a question from the opposition in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament.
She dismissed Mr Masih’s claim, arguing that if ISIL had indeed executed their Indian captives, there would have been evidence of their crime.
“Following Masih’s claims, in 2014, I had asked the Indian embassy in Iraq to investigate it and they have found nothing to indicate that 39 Indians were killed in Mosul. There were no bodies found or a pool of blood or any signs of a mass slaughter,” she said.
Ms Swaraj also reasoned that it was ISIL's habit to boast about their mass executions on social media. “There were no photos or videos or statements by ISIL regarding the murder of any Indians in Iraq. All this encouraged us to look for the missing Indians alive,” she said.
"Sources there [in Iraq] have told [minister of state] VK Singh that the missing Indians are most probably in a jail in Badush where fighting is still going on.”
While such assertions bolster the hopes of family members of the abductees, Ms Kaur is afraid of raising her hopes again.
Several times in the last three years, she said, the ministry has led her to believe her husband will soon be released.
“One of the minister’s personal assistants called us the other day and said that they had new information from reliable sources,” she said. Asked where the new information came from, she was told it came from “higher up”.
Ms Kaur said the ministry official who contacted her also assured her that her husband and other abducted Indians were in good condition.
“They keep telling us over and again that they are fine, but I don’t really understand what it means anymore,” she said.
However, Ms Swaraj conceded she could not confirm if the hostages were alive.
“I do not have actual proof that they were not killed as Masih says, but neither do I have any proof of their deaths and in good conscience I cannot give up if there is even the possibility that they may still be alive,” she told parliament.
Notwithstanding the minister's determination - and the reputation she has built as the relentless saviour of Indians in distress abroad - her counterparts in Iraq and Syria do not share her optimism.
The Syrian ambassador to India, Riad Kamel Abbas, said Syria has no information about the missing Indians.
Similarly, Iraq’s foreign minister, Ibrahim Al Jafari, who was in India on the day of Ms Swaraj’s parliamentary address, said his country was “not 100 per cent sure” that the abducted Indians were alive. “We don't know whether they are dead or alive. We are equally concerned,” he said.
For Ms Kaur and her children, it is the solidarity of the families of the other 38 captives that has enabled her to endure the uncertainty. Her 19-year-old son has been forced to work as a labourer while completing his college education to support the family and ensure his 14-year-old sister can stay in school.
“That is what my father wanted; for us to be get educated and make better lives for ourselves,” he said.
And despite the endless frustration of waiting, they have not given up hope.
“Could you carry a message for my husband in your paper?” Ms Kaur asks. “I want to tell him that wherever you are, please contact us as soon as you can and come back as soon as possible.”
She can only hope and pray that somehow, the message will reach him.
Updated: August 17, 2017 02:53 PM