POLITICS
28/03/2018 6:02 PM IST | Updated 28/03/2018 7:26 PM IST

'Take Me To Iraq': Why One Woman Won't Accept Her Brother Was Buried In A Mass Grave

Was the truth too uncomfortable for a government pre-occupied with managing public perception?

Courtesy: Sukhdeep Kaur

Sukhdeep Kaur, who lives in Amritsar, is apoplectic with grief. Not only was her brother murdered by extremists in war torn Iraq, some 3,000 kilometers from home, his body was dumped in a mass grave in the hilly terrain of a remote hamlet called Badush.

And now, the remains of Harsimranjeet Singh and those of 38 other Indians, who were abducted and gunned down by the Islamic State, are lying in a freezer in Baghdad.

The 36-year-old woman refuses to believe, refuses to accept that her brother is dead. She believes the Indian government has lied to the families of dead men for four years and is continuing to lie to them.

Sukhdeep told me, "Can you go to Iraq and investigate? I would if I could but we are too poor to travel abroad. Please go and see this mass grave that they are talking about," she said. "I'll go with you if you can take me."

On March 20, India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj announced that 39 of the 40 Indians, abducted by the Islamic State when it overran the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, were dead. "There is a mound in a distant village, where lots of people have been buried together in a mass grave," she said, speaking in the Rajya Sabha.

Some of the bodies had long hair, one was wearing a Sikh religious ornament called a Kada, some had ID cards.

There is no convincing Sukhdeep. "They have said so many things but it was all wrong. Why should we believe them now? Long hair? Why even the Kurdish fighters have long hair. A Kada? It could belong to anyone," she said.

The story of the 39 missing Indians has existed on the periphery of the news cycle, largely because the Indian government had insisted for years that the men were alive. The government stuck to its story even when the only man from the group of 40 construction workers, who made it back alive, claimed to have seen the men killed soon after they were captured.

The overarching question remains whether the Indian government deliberately misled the families of these men because the truth was too uncomfortable for a government pre-occupied with managing public perception rather than the imperatives of governance.

Was the truth too uncomfortable for a government pre-occupied with managing public perception?

Like Sukhdeep, there are others who refuse to believe the government because they were repeatedly told that their loved ones were alive. Swaraj had time and again referred to her "sources," which ranged from presidents to aid workers, who kept telling her that all the Indians were safe.

Gurpinder Kaur, whose brother Manjinder is among the dead, told me, "They (government) never said or did anything that made us doubt the men were alive. We were always given reasons to believe they were coming back."

We were always given reasons to believe they were coming back.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Sukhdeep Kaur (left) and Gurpinder Kaur (right) in Bhoewal village on March 21, 2018.

Hearing it from a television set

Last week, Gurpinder, who teaches Punjabi to second graders, fielded an anxious call. "Be brave, keep your courage and turn on the television," said the caller, a local journalist.

Not only did she learn that her brother was found in a mass grave, she heard the news from a television set. "After all this time, we learnt that our men are dead, that too from the television. I heard it on the news. I have no words to express how horrible it felt," she said.

Even while Swaraj was breaking the tragic news in a widely telecast speech, it seemed deeply insensitive for the external affairs minister to share the chilling details even before she had spoken with the families of the dead men.

The families did not hear from Swaraj or any other senior official for the five days that followed her address. For five days, they had been entirely dependent on news channels, watching in horror as television channels ran images of the mass grave outside Badush.

Three days after the families threatened to carry out a protest and stage a sit-in, the foreign minister met them in Delhi on Monday, promising government jobs, compensation and a speedy return of the mortal remains of their loved ones.

After all this time, we learnt that our men are dead, that too from the television. I heard it on the news. I have no words to express how horrible it felt.

What bothered Gurpinder even more than the lack of empathy was the lack of information. "There are still so many things that I don't know. When was my brother killed? One year ago, two years ago or three years ago? she said.

Gurpinder told me that she wants to know more about how her brother was recovered from the mass grave. "The government says it is bringing back the bodies. But how will I know these are mortal remains of my brother?"

"Our only source of information is the government. They tell us that that our men are alive, we have to believe them. They tell us that our men are dead, we have to believe them. Do we have a choice?" she asked.

They tell us that that our men are alive, we have to believe them. They tell us that our men are dead, we have to believe them. Do we have a choice?

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Joginder Kaur grieving the death of her son Gurcharan Singh on March 20, 2018 near Amritsar, India.

Missing men

It was early in June 2014, just a month after Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) won a landslide victory, that 40 Indian construction workers were kidnapped by ISIS in Iraq's second largest city.

These were mostly young men from poor families in Punjab. Some were desperate enough to knowingly go to a war-torn country like Iraq, while others were duped by their "agents" who extracted heavy commissions and told them they were going to work in Dubai.

Banuchandar Rajendran, a 29-year- old from Tamil Nadu, who has worked as a security guard in Afghanistan and a technician in Iraq, told me that "shame and guilt" overrides fear when one is compelled to work in dangerous locations in order to make money. "In my case, it was my ego. It comes from the shame. I didn't want to go back and hear from my relatives that I had failed," he said.

The 39 missing men posed the first major challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's fledgling administration. They, however, were not the only Indians to be kidnapped in Iraq that summer. The following month, in July, 2014, a group of Indian nurses were held by ISIS for 23 days before they were released.

The Modi government took immediate credit for securing the release of the nurses, claiming that it had been brought about by speedy negotiations with friends and interlocutors in the war-torn region, but it did not elaborate.

The following year, in 2015, India evacuated thousands of its citizens from Yemen, prompting an outpouring of celebratory media coverage, and even a Bollywood film starring Akshay Kumar.

But even as the Modi government congratulated itself on its successful rescue missions, and Swaraj carved out a Twitter persona as a friend for Indians stranded abroad, there was little information on the construction workers missing in Iraq.

Each time she was asked about the missing men, Swaraj insisted they were alive. She claimed to have eight sources, each confirming the men were safe, even though not one Indian had established contact for over three years, even after Mosul was liberated by Iraqi forces in June 2017.

In February 2016, Swaraj said that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had told her that the "Indians are alive and made to work," in war-torn Iraq as per his government intelligence information. In July, 2017, the families were told that the men were very likely in a jail in Badush. But it soon emerged that the Badush prison had been destroyed and abandoned several months earlier.

In fact, news of mass graves in Badush had started emerging as early as March, 2017.

Meanwhile, Swaraj's ministry worked hard to discredit the account given by the lone survivor of the massacre, Harjit Masih, who told officials and the media that the others were gunned down long ago in 2014, just a few days after they were captured.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Seema with son Karan and Arjun grieving the death of her husband Sonu at Chawinda Devi Village on March 20, 2018.

A survivor's tale

Masih, the only man who survived the massacre, is today 27-years-old and unemployed. He believes the stress which pervaded their lives caused his father's death, last year. "I am to blame for his death," he said.

When I spoke with him earlier this week, Masih repeated the story which he has told and retold for the past few years. According to Masih, he and his fellow construction workers were kidnapped from Mosul and taken further north to Badush, where they were held for four day.

On June 15, they were told to sit cross-legged and shot at from behind. Miraculously, Mashi claims, the bullets only grazed him, and he escaped. "I don't know why they wanted to kill us," he said. "They were behaving well with us, giving us three meals and tea, but suddenly it changed. I don't know what happened."

They were behaving well with us, giving us three meals and tea, but suddenly it changed. I don't know what happened.

Several families discounted Masih's version on the grounds that they had received phone calls from the captured men after June 15. Swaran, who lives in Amritsar, says that he received a call from his brother Nishaan as late as June 21. Not only were the men phoning home, but they were also trying to reach out to Indian officials posted in Baghdad, 400 kilometers away from Mosul.

The families of the slain men offer slightly different timelines for the phone calls, but all accounts suggest a brief window of hope, giving rise to speculation that the men could have been saved if the government had acted sooner.

Sukhdeep said she spoke to her brother on two occasions after he was captured. "He called us after he was captured by the terrorists. He said, 'Don't worry about me. These people are not going to hurt us. They (ISIS) are treating us okay, they are compromising with us," Sukhdeep said.

Harsimranjeet called for the last time on June 15.

"He said, 'Mother, I'm running out of money on my phone. You will have to get money put in your phone and call me back. Please do it soon," Sukhdeep said. "We tried calling him back but his number was switched off. We kept trying but his phone was always switched off."

We tried calling him back but his number was switched off. We kept trying but his phone was always switched off.

Sukhdeep believes that the authorities had somewhere between four to eight days in which the captured men were in captivity but still phoning their families and Indian officials in Iraq. "Eight hours is enough to save someone; they had eight days," she said.

Sukhdeep told me an Indian official told her brother to "believe in God and everything would be okay."

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj addresses a press conference on the issue of 39 Indians killed by ISIS.

Government denial

The Indian government dismissed Masih's account from the very beginning.

While Masih says he survived because a bullet grazed his leg rather than killing him outright, Swaraj has maintained that Masih survived because he had successfully passed himself off as a Bangladeshi Muslim.

In the Rajya Sabha last week, she sought to shift the blame on to Masih himself. By her account, Masih had managed to escape from Mosul, even before the rest of the Indians were taken to Badush. His escape, she said, prompted the ISIS militants to move the remaining Indians to Badush.

Swaraj said that Masih had been narrating a "cock and bull story."

"I have said the same thing for three years. I don't know why the government does not believe me," Masih said. "I have no reason to lie."

When Masih returned to India in 2015, he claims to have been held by a government agency in three separate locations – Noida, Gurgaon and Bangalore – for almost a year. "They asked me not to tell anyone my story. They told me that the other families might try to harm me if they found out," he said.

I have said the same thing for three years. I don't know why the government does not believe me.

Did the Indian government do enough?

Swaraj, addressing Rajya Sabha last week, defended her actions, telling lawmakers about the tireless work which she and her team had put in to find the men. "We faced many hurdles - such a big country, endless deserts, and ISIS terrorists," she said. "When the area was freed from ISIS-control, all that one found were mounds of bodies."

Experts are divided.

Gopalaswami Parthasarathy, who served as India's High Commissioner to Pakistan, said India had faced an "unprecedented and difficult" situation in Iraq especially after ISIS captured Mosul.

Others said the government had carried out the duties expected of the state, but with an absence of empathy rooted in the administration irrespective of the ruling party.

Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar, who now works as an analyst, found it appalling that the families had heard about tragedy from the news.

A "mass grave situation," Uday pointed out, required a high degree of empathy and communication. "Human life is very cheap in this country. There is more anguish in a cow getting killed than a human getting killed these days," he said. "Unless there is some political mileage, death is treated with disdain."

There is more anguish in a cow getting killed than a human getting killed these days.

Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the Institute of Conflict Management in Delhi, said that the same indifference existed whether it was the dead in Iraq or farmers committing suicides or the Indian soldiers who die almost every week in Kashmir.

"We elect people who don't respect human life," Sahni said. "They don't see a political imperative to respecting human life."

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Sardara Singh grieving the death of her son Gurcharan Singh on March 20, 2018 in Amritsar.

'His voice is always echoing in my ears'

For almost four years, the families of the construction workers have hoped for the return of their loved ones.

In her speech, Swaraj said that bringing back the mortal remains of the 39 Indians would bring "closure" to their families. "Not just their names and passport numbers, but full report of their DNA match confirming their identity will also be brought back with the coffins," she said.

The truth is that despite the lengthy investigation there are too many loose ends for them to move on.

In all our conversations, Sukhdeep referred to her brother in the present tense. "When I sleep in the night, I have so many questions but I get no answers," she said. "It is like I'm breathing but we really have no life."

In his final phone call, her brother had urged patience. "He said, 'wait till I come back then I will tell you everything.'"

Almost four years on, Sukhdeep can't forget. "His voice is always echoing in my ears," she said.

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